Hiner has successfully drawn participants from local schools and churches, which recognize the vital importance of kids having structure, responsibility and the chance to be exposed to the world outside their own neighborhoods. “These are kids from the neighborhoods that surround the stables, mostly north and west Philadelphia, which are by far the most dangerous,” Hiner says. “Most of the kids in the neighborhoods don’t leave the six blocks around their homes.” While outreach is an important part of getting kids involved in the program, pure serendipity is also helpful. That was the case with Rosser, whose older brothers stumbled across the stables on bike rides through the park. Even after an inauspicious start, Rosser’s brothers became devotees of the program. “The first day my brother came home from the barn, he was bit by a horse on the cheek,” he says. “You would think that anyone who got bit by a horse the first time wouldn’t want to go back.”
But he did go back, and Rosser soon followed in his brother’s footsteps. In a way, there is a self-selection involved with those who stick with the program, which helps explain why so many of the kids who go through Work to Ride end up going to college. (Hiner can’t provide exact statistics for the program as a whole but says that four of the last five children to go through are now in college.) “They are here every Saturday without fail,” Hiner says. “Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, they need to understand horses need to be taken care of and you have to be here. Nobody is going to be here for you.”
Hiner reciprocates the long-term commitment it requires for kids to stick with the program. “My own personal philosophy is that you can’t make an impact overnight; people don’t change, kids don’t change, and you can’t throw everything at somebody at once and expect them to understand and incorporate what you’re trying to do,” Hiner says. “Our theory and the way we have always worked is against the grain because most programs deal with high numbers and a high volume of kids, whereas we focus on a small number of kids but have long hours and quality programming.” There are about 20 kids enrolled in the program at once. The idea is for kids to start around age 10 and stay through high school graduation, although some do drop out. There is an application process, and students must come from a low-income family, live in Philadelphia and be enrolled in school.
A big part of programming has nothing at all to do with horses and everything to do with education, especially an emphasis on higher education. “All we do is promote college,” Hiner says. That not only means that kids involved with Work to Ride have to maintain a C average in order to participate in polo and other fun activities — though Hiner is quick to emphasize that those who are struggling academically aren’t kicked out; rather, they’re given more help — it also means that Hiner brings in people to talk to parents and children about college grants, loans and other resources. For most of the families, this is a novel concept to contemplate. “All they’re worried about is just getting by,” she says. “What we do is we expect a lot more out of the kids than they would expect from themselves.”