by Marcella Peyre-Ferry
Four Philadelphia students from the Work to Ride program, based at the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Fairmount Park, represented their city and their country when they traveled to Nigeria to take part in the UNICEF Cup polo tournament.
"It's all about people you meet along the way," director Lezlie Hiner explained how the students were invited to participate in the tournament. "A gal named Terri Brennan, up in New York, saw an article about us in Sidelines Magazine some time ago, and donated her old polo equipment."
Since then, Brennan moved to Nigeria, where she still plays polo. "She knew they were doing this UNICEF Cup and approached the founder," Hiner said, explaining that the sponsors of the tournament made it possible for four riders and three chaperones to make the trip to Nigeria to take part in the event.
Work to Ride is a non-profit organization created by Hiner in 1994 to provide disadvantaged urban youth, ages 7 to 19, with constructive activities - all centered around horsemanship, equine sports, and education.
While most Work to Ride participants are trained in several sports, polo is the most popular. In 1999, the Work to Ride polo team became the first African American polo team in the nation, and in 2005 the team won the Eastern Regional Interscholastic Polo tournament.
The four young riders taking part in the trip to Nigeria were Tasha Harris, age 18, who just graduated from the Work to Ride program and will be attending college in the fall; 15 year old Kareem Rosser, 17 year old Kevin Jones and 12 year old Brandon Rease.
"Most of the kids don't have any riding experience when they come here," Hiner said. Among the team, Kareem, who started with the program in 2001, has the most riding experience. Brandon has been in the program about two and a half years, and Kevin started in March of 2006. "I like to get them as young as possible," Hiner said.
Work To Ride members take part in competitions all across the northeast, and farther. With students of all ages and experience levels, selecting the team for the African trip came down to a combination of skill on horseback and success in school. "The kids are at various stages of riding, and selection was also based on their academic performance. They can hold their own (against other teams)," Hiner said.
The trip began May 29 with a flight to London. During a twelve-hour layover there, the group went sightseeing, visiting Big Ben and Buckingham palace for the changing of the guard.
The second leg of the trip brought them to Nabuja, Nigeria. "We got to see Africa just as the sun was coming up," Hiner said. "We went to a guest house of one of the patrons (of the polo club) for breakfast, and then to the polo grounds."
Once at the polo grounds a selection of about twenty horses were brought out for the students to try. Most were Argentine, but there were also Sudanese horses, which impressed Hiner. "They look like miniature Thoroughbreds. They're gorgeous animals, very fast and handy."
The team had two days for stick and ball practice, and to become familiar with their mounts. While the American riders were ready and willing to pitch in with the care of the horses, they were advised not to. Brennan explained that if they do the work, they are taking a job away from a local person who needs it.
When it came time for their tournament, the Work to Ride students won their first game 5 to 1 against the America's Team, which included Brennan along with women from Brazil and Argentina. In their second game the student lost to a South African women's team, placing them second overall in the tournament.
Although Tasha had a fall in the first game, and Kareem came off his horse in the finals match, they played well as a team. "We took a Philadelphia flag with us, and it was in the ceremonies," Hiner recalled.
Four teams participated in the UNICEF Cup. Work to Ride was the only junior team. There were also a number of other tournaments going on at the polo club during the same week. That gave the Philadelphia youngsters a chance to watch and enjoy the action. "We got to watch 20 goal games every day," Hiner said.
One of the local customs Hiner found interesting when the group toured another polo club was the practice of tethering or hobbling horses for sale outside the grounds where potential buyers can look at them.
In addition to playing polo, the students met with the American ambassador to Nigeria, who had a staff member that happened to be from Philadelphia, as was a principal at one of the private schools the group visited. The students also had a chance to tour public and private schools and interact with other young people
Their big tour day in Africa included a three and a half hour drive to Katsina to meet the Emir. "We got to see his trophy room. His grandfather was the Emir who brought polo to Nigeria," Hiner said.
"I think one of the biggest things they got out of the trip, was they got to see a totally different culture," Hiner said. "They got to experience at the public school how much help they need on an educational level and a nutritional level. They were trying to impress upon us that it's a nice place, but they still need help."
The trip sponsors provided airfare, hotel and meals for the Work to Ride team. If the group has the opportunity to take part in this event again, Hiner is anxious to repeat the success. "If they invited us, we'd go back in a heartbeat," she said. "The riders were excellent ambassadors for us. They did America and Philadelphia proud."