For many reasons, it’s appropriate that it took more than a decade for the Work to Ride polo team — which actually is called Cowtown Work to Ride because of its affiliation with a New Jersey polo club called Cowtown — to win a national championship. Indeed, nothing about the program or the sport itself is geared around instant gratification; the focus is on sacrifice, patience and grind-it-out hard work. And this underlying ethos has everything to do with the program’s founder, Lezlie Hiner.
As a child growing up in Lynnwood, Calif., Hiner, following a well-worn cliché, would bug her parents to take her on pony rides. Her family’s modest means meant those rides were few and far between, so Hiner found ways to fuel her burgeoning passion for all things equestrian. “I was a self-starter, even in high school, and as a teenager I worked full time after school and got my first horse sophomore year,” she recalls. Nor was Hiner’s love of horses the sort of fleeting thing that passes with the years; quite the opposite, actually. When Hiner graduated from high school, instead of going directly to college, she opted to work at racetracks, where she was fully immersed in the duties — grooming, feeding or medical care — that went into ensuring equine athletes could perform at their best. “That is a pretty big responsibility when you are taking care of horses worth that kind of money,” she says. “You have to learn to do the right things.”
Even after she went to college at the University of South Carolina and earned her degree in psychology, Hiner realized that she simply couldn’t leave the equestrian world altogether. “I found myself coming back to not necessarily wanting to work in the field for which I got my degree,” she says. “I wanted to be with the horses.” After a postcollege stint of working at tracks everywhere from Arkansas to New Hampshire to Michigan to England, Hiner was burned out and trying to figure out what to do next. The idea for Work to Ride literally came to her when she was at the stable where she boarded her horse at Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Often, she would notice how African-American kids would hang around the stables, fascinated with the horses. “There were always kids around,” she says. “They were willing to do quite a bit to ride the horses.”
That insight combined with the not-insignificant fact that Fairmount Park was home to several stables no longer needed by the city’s mounted-police units — which meant they were available to deserving nonprofits — prompted Hiner to draw up a business plan, which led to the birth of Work to Ride in 1994. As its name indicates, the program is based on a very simple concept: Kids who are willing to put in the not-inconsiderable amount of time it takes to properly feed, groom and care for a stable of about 30 horses earn the right not only to learn to ride horses but to do such things as participate in pony races and, of course, play polo nationally and internationally — players from Work to Ride have competed in China, Nigeria, Spain and all around the United States. “The mission of the program is to take kids out of the inner city, give them a role and responsibility, and teach them to build character through having the opportunity to manage a barn of horses,” says Kareem Rosser, who was involved with Work to Ride for almost a decade and was both a member of last year’s national championship team and recently represented the United States at a tournament in China. “Most 8- or 10- or 12-year-olds don’t have responsibility for caring for a horse.”