Shariah Harris, shown riding Late Starter in the Field Hunter division of the Thoroughbred Makeover last fall, embraced the hard work and high standards required by the Work to Ride program and was rewarded with a full scholarship to Cornell. Credit: Lezlie Hiner
Nestled far back amongst the trees on a dead-end road, a stone’s throw away from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, sits Chamounix Equestrian Center, the home of the indomitable Work to Ride program in Philadelphia, PA. Established over twenty years ago, Work to Ride is a non-profit community-based prevention program that benefits disadvantaged urban youth though constructive, educational activities centered around horsemanship and equine sports. Not only do these eight-to-eighteen-year-old students learn to ride horses and muck stalls, but they also go head to head against other interscholastic polo teams and challengers to prove their mettle on the competition field.
Executive Director Lezlie Hiner is a no-nonsense, frank woman with a hearty, throaty laugh. She describes the program and its approximately twenty members with admiration, stating that the reality is rigorous work that often requires long, forty-hour-week participation for the highly involved members. “To make it in this program, the kids have to be pretty determined. It is not for the weak of heart or for a child that thinks ‘oh, this is going to be fun, I’m going to ride horses’,” said Hiner.
Work to Ride accepts applications on a biannual basis and requires participants to fall within certain guidelines, such as residing within Philadelphia and maintaining a high level of commitment. In the fall of 2015, Hiner noted, the program only accepted eight new applicants out of the thirty who applied, and as of publication, only four remain. “They just don’t realize how intensive it really is,” said Hiner. “They were just not cut out to do the work.”
After the first year, the members generally spend five days a week at the stables—sometimes from dawn to dusk— grooming and exercising their mounts, maintaining the facilities, and participating in events such as polo matches, pony racing, jumper shows, gymkhanas, and much more.
“There’s rarely a weekend where we aren’t doing something,” chuckled Hiner. If by chance the students aren’t traveling that weekend, there’s a strong possibility they are weeding and mulching the garden, cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning tack, or cobwebbing the barn rafters. “It’s funny, but they would rather clean the bathroom or muck a stall rather than pull weeds,” Hiner revealed. “I’m serious!”
In many ways, Work to Ride is really about personal growth. Not only does the program support equestrian, educational, social, and cultural opportunities inner-city children may not have been able to experience otherwise, but it also fosters necessary life skills like empathy for humans and animals, responsibility, discipline, and task completion. Students rotate the role of ‘barn manager,’ an effective point-person who completes more work than anyone else as he or she delegates duties, oversees the welfare of the thirty-plus horses in the barn, administers equine medication, and accepts responsibility for how the day runs its course.
The youth build relationships and develop problem-solving skills through spirited teamwork and cooperation. Activities at the stables as well as during competitions and trips allow participants to interact with diverse people and to be exposed to a variety of new experiences.
Work to Ride stresses the necessity of academic achievement and involved volunteers provide after-school tutoring to help students maintain the passing grades required for program participation. “The high school graduation rate in this area of Philadelphia is around forty-five percent, maybe a little higher for the girls,” stated Hiner matter-of-factly. “The main goal of Work to Ride is for the kids to stay in school, do well, graduate, and learn an equine sport. Getting into college is the icing on the cake.”
But that’s exactly what Shariah Harris did. Harris, of Lansdale, PA, joined Work to Ride in 2007 at nine-years-old, after her mother made a wrong turn down the dead-end lane of Chamounix. She is now accepting, nearly a decade after that fateful day, a full scholarship to Cornell University to major in large animal veterinary science as well as a mallet to call her own on Cornell’s women’s polo team.
“I was always a bit of a tomboy; I like the rush of sports and used to play football with my friends,” said Harris. “I like polo because it’s about how good you are at the sport,” she paused. “It’s a level-playing field.”
Harris has certainly made the most out of her time with Work to Ride, participating mainly in polo and traveling both around and outside of the country to collect accolades. “From day one, Shariah was extremely responsible and took a lot of joy in working with horses,” said Hiner with pride. “She was heavily recruited by a bunch of different schools and I am thrilled to death that all of these people had an interest in her and she’s getting the attention she rightly deserves.”
Besides traveling to Nigeria to play (and win!) in the UNICEF Cup at the 5th Chukker Polo Club in Kaduna—her first time out of the country— Harris isolates a fond memory competing in the 2015 Thoroughbred Makeover, a branch of the Retired Racehorse Project, at the Kentucky Horse Park last fall. “I was a senior, so Lezlie and I decided to do all we can do since it was my last year in Work to Ride,” said Harris. “It meant working with a new mare for six hours a day to get ready in five months.”
Harris competed in two events—polo on the mare she trained herself, and field hunter on a friend’s mount. “We came in third out of eight in polo, and won a bit of money. I thought she was going to be nervous and hyped up, but I am very proud of her. We ended up selling her to the man who won second place!” Harris continued. “The field hunter didn’t go as well. We ran out a few times, but we still had fun!
“The horse park was huge,” explained Harris. “We didn’t leave the park the whole five days we were there; it was like its own city, its own community. Everything was in there.”
“She was the only face of color on the whole freaking property,” Hiner added. “She was the only kid of color, the only youth entered in polo, and the only youth entered in the field hunter division. She won five hundred dollars and the man who ended up buying the mare just loves her to death. The Retired Racehorse Project really is a fabulous organization, just top-notch.”
Harris accredits much of her success to the Work to Ride program and her family. “To be in the program and play on the polo team, you have to be passing all classes, can only miss a certain number of days, and have to turn in your report card every marking period. My mom doesn’t play with not doing well in school, so I had my mom on one side and Lezlie on the other making sure I was working hard.
“I think every day ‘how in the world did I ever get so lucky?’” wonders Harris. “It’s like a second family—we love each other, fight each other, stick up for each other, and push each other to do better. I would tell new members to be dedicated, work your way up, and put forth all of your effort. It’s worth it.”
For more information or to inquire about Work to Ride sponsorships, visit online at www.worktoride.net. See Lezlie Hiner in a bonus track from an HBO Real Sports segment that aired May 24 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZvQH8kA1DA