July 26–August 2, 2001

cover story

Blazing Saddles

Blzck teens from Philly are setting the polo world on fire.

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Busy Bee: Jabarr “Bee” Rosser, 10, sits tall in the saddle.

photo: Eddy Palumbo

That’s right: polo. Sport long-associated of wealth and privilege, a symbol of well-bred ladies and gentlemen of leisure for generations. These kids not only play polo, they excel at polo.

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Bee bonds with his mount before the match

photo: Eddy Palumbo

Supervising the preparations for this afternoon’s match is Lezlie Hiner, founder of the Work to Ride program, a nonprofit she started on her small farm in Harleysville, PA, in 1992. A longtime horse trainer and rider now in her early 40s, Hiner is deeply tanned with hands that look like they’ve seen hard outdoor work.

“I used to have kids who came to the farm and wanted riding lessons, so I thought it would be nice to also teach them how to care for horses in exchange for the lessons. Then we got this place in ’94,” Hiner says.

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The game’s afoot: (Left) A Bucks County Polo Club player prepares to shoot against the home team;

photo: Eddy Palumbo

“This place,” officially the Chamounix Equestrian Center, is owned by the Fairmount Park Commission and
until the early 1970s was used as a barn for the mounted police unit. The place fell into disrepair after the police unit left until Hiner proposed to use it as Work to Ride’s new headquarters and took on the repair work, upkeep and maintenance herself. With the help of volunteers, a few grants from foundations and corporations, and revenue they get from boarding horses at the barn, Work To Ride takes 10 to 12 kids per year into its urban riding program and 150 kids during the summer in a city-sponsored camp. Hiner works closely with the parents of the kids in her charge, and the kids have to maintain at least a C average to participate in the urban riding program and have a shot at playing polo, a sport she introduced to the group about seven years ago.

Hiner’s influence over the kids and her partnerships with the parents manifests itself rather quickly. One of the teens refuses to prepare for this afternoon’s match, since Hiner told him he wouldn’t be playing today as punishment for missing practice. Even though he won’t be playing, she explains, he has to go along to help with the horses and support his teammates. “If I’m not playing, I’m not going,” the surly teen sulks, flopping down on a chair and folding his arms. After a short talk with the boy, she phones his mother, explains the situation to her and hands him the receiver. Moments later, he decides to attend the match after all.

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Umpires confirm goals, assess penalties and stop action when necessary

photo: Eddy Palumbo

“He’s really a good kid,” Hiner says, smiling. “But he’s a teenager, and like all teenagers, needs a kick in the butt sometimes. But I’m really proud of them and what they’re doing for themselves.” One of the kids she’s proudest of is Richard Prather from Germantown, a 21-year-old graduate of the urban riding program who now works at Chamounix full time, serving as barn manager and assistant program director.

“When I was 14, I was having trouble in English and got a tutor,” Prather says. “We talked about my love for animals and horses especially, and she brought me up here one day. I’ve pretty much been here ever since.”

Prather has been playing polo since Hiner introduced the game to the Work to Ride kids in ’96 and has traveled as far away as Florida to play and learn. Working at Chamounix six days a week, he’s built a water garden out back, complete with bamboo grass and a goldfish pond. There’s also a small chicken coop which he says was home to more than 30 chickens until they disappeared five and six at a time several months ago, apparent victims of wild dogs and foxes that roam the park. As the kids make final preparations to go to Cowtown for the match, he brings out his latest pet, a tarantula that he allows to crawl up his arm, to the delighted squeals of the smaller children.

After the equipment is secured and nine horses loaded on the trailer, the group heads for the Cowtown Polo Club in southern New Jersey and a match with the Bucks County Polo Club. Hiner drives the lead truck carrying the horses, with most of the team following in a Jeep driven by Work to Ride volunteer Amy Vaniver of Doylestown. Vaniver, an experienced horse groom and polo player with four horses of her own, met Lezlie playing polo seven years ago and now not only helps out with the kids, but also plays on the team, gives lessons and provides transportation. Two of her horses, Niña and Picassa, will be ridden in the match today.

Bee races downfield on a breakaway at full throttle.

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photo: Eddy Palumbo

The caravan travels south on I-95 to the Commodore Barry Bridge, then over to Jersey and south on Route 295, then east on 48 through farms and corporate parks to the site of the Cowtown Rodeo, also home base for the Cowtown Polo Club. The polo field itself is 160 yards by 300 yards, three times the size of a football field, with similar goal posts at each end. Braving the minefield of horse manure, the team sets the horses up outside the trailer and begins saddling up while Hiner goes over the lineup and game plan with Cowtown player and coach Don Aikens of Elmer, NJ.

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Two polo ponies nuzzling.

photo: Eddy Palumbo

Aikens is another veteran polo player tapped by Lezlie Hiner to help turn the kids into a viable team. It was Cowtown Polo Club member Aikens who got the group into the club as home team members, and today he supervises the twice weekly practice sessions, and teaches the finer points of the game.

“I love working with the kids,” Aikens says. “They’re not only learning the game, but responsibility and teamwork. And at matches like this, the kids are wonderful ambassadors for the sport. They charm the pants off the crowd and sometimes even the opposition. They’re absolute gentlemen, and it’s really a joy to be around them. Their enthusiasm is infectious.”

Aikens says the kids are often underestimated by their opponents, who sometimes look at them at best as an easy win, or at worst, a joke.

“That usually doesn’t last very long,” Aikens says. “Once you see these kids play, you know they’re no joke. And the one kid Bee, well, he’s a genuine phenom.”

The game officials, the crowd and even the opposing team know about Bee. “Watch the little one, keep an eye on that kid,” one member of the Bucks County team says to another. Bee is fast becoming a rising star, despite that a year ago he’d never even heard of polo.

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Bee braids the tail of his polo pony. Braiding the tail is an important step in preparing the pony for a match.

photo: Eddy Palumbo

Bee is
Jabarr Rosser, a 10-year-old third-grader from West Philly. Four-foot-nothing and maybe 60 pounds soaking wet, he barely comes up to the horses belly and must be lifted into the saddle. Even then, his feet don’t quite reach the stirrups. A quiet boy, Bee seems unaware of the buzz he generates.

“I just like polo,” the boy grins, wiping his dirty hands on his even dirtier T-shirt as he fills a bucket to water the horses. “I wish I could play every day.” Today, Bee gets to play in the first period, or chukker. There are four players per side on the field, with six seven-minute chukkers per match. The polo ball, usually made of wood or hard plastic, is rolled by an umpire onto the playing field to start the match, similar to a hockey face-off.

Seconds into the match, Bee takes control of the ball and races downfield on a breakaway, smacking the ball ahead of his speeding horse. The crowd gasps, then cheers as the diminutive boy expertly guides the horse at full gallop, then seemingly shifts into overdrive, leaving both teammates and opponent in the dust. He doesn’t score on this particular play, but he’s immediately won the hearts of the spectators and the respect of his opponents.

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photo: Eddy Palumbo

Most of the spectators are friends and family of Andrea Young, of Marlton, NJ, who decided she wanted to have her 50th birthday party here at the polo match. She’s a big fan of polo, and a brand-new fan of young Bee.

“Oh my goodness, look at him,” Young squeals. “Have you ever seen anything like that? He’s so small.”

“He’s absolutely fearless,” crows Cowtown player Mark Stevens, one of the original Dovells, whose big hit was “Bristol Stomp” in 1961 but are more famous lately for their commercials for Robbins 8th & Walnut jewelers. “The kid’s just amazing. He’s a natural, like he was born on a horse. And if he can do this at 10, imagine what he’ll be playing like in a few years. All he needs is training and practice, and you’re looking at the Tiger Woods of polo.”

Bee handles himself well during the match, chalking up a few lightning quick assists, but not scoring himself. He’s genuinely disappointed when he doesn’t score, apparently unaware that he’s already better than some players who started before he was born. He quickly gets over his disappointment, though, and cheers loudly for his teammates in the next chukker, which sees the debut of Richard Prather as an umpire, albeit a less than partial one. The two umpires in a polo match are also mounted, and its their job to declare goals and stop play for fouls. Lezlie Hiner also serves as umpire for a bit, but can’t keep herself from coaching her younger players during the match.

“I know it’s not exactly ethical to do that,” she later says sheepishly, “but they [the kids] really need coaching and encouragement during the match too. An umpire is supposed to be impartial, but I can’t help but root for my kids. Not root for them to win necessarily, but for them to really get down the finer points of the game and play good polo.”

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photo: Eddy Palumbo

On this Saturday afternoon, the Cowtown Polo Club loses to the Bucks County Polo Club by a score of 6-5. But even losses add to the growing reputation of the kids from Work To Ride, and they accept defeat graciously, with handshakes and words of encouragement to the victors.

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Horsework (and play): Richard Prather and Raymond Munson wrap the legs of their ponies in elastic bandages to prevent injuries

photo: Eddy Palumbo

Good sportsmanship is stressed at Work To Ride, and posturing, showboating or trash talking is an excellent way to get yourself out of a match and on the sidelines. After the match, the team packs up the gear and horses for the ride back to Philly.

The kids from Work to Ride care for the 17 horses in the program, as well as the 15 privately owned horses boarded at Chamounix. According to Hiner, they’ve learned the signs and symptoms of common illnesses and injuries, help the vet with medical problems and know each horse by name and disposition. And while the private boarding and grants help pay for the program, Hiner says she need all the help she can get.

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photo: Eddy Palumbo

“We got a $10,000 grant from the New Tutor Foundation in 1998, and that paid for our equipment and membership to the polo club, but we could really use all the donations we can get,” Hiner says. “As a non-profit organization, we usually have to stretch the budget as far as possible, but sometimes that’s not far enough.”

Asked if she’s open to the prospect of private donations of money or volunteer time, Hiner smiles.

“Open to it? We’re waaaaay open to it! If people just get to see what we’re doing here, and what these kids are accomplishing, I think they’d see what a fabulous program it is, and how these kids are worth every second of the time and every dollar of the money they could give.”

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Back in the saddle: Raymond Munson, 15, of West Philly cleans and checks a saddle in preparation for today’s match. All equipment is thoroughly inspected before and after each use. Polo gear isn’t cheap, and maintenance is a high priority for Work To Ride.

photo: Eddy Palumbo

Next spring, Hiner plans to take the kids back to Virginia to play in the regional tournament of the U.S. Polo Association. They went in March, but lost both matches. Lezlie Hiner says things will be different next year.

“The kids are gaining experience every day, and the team is better now than they were even a few months ago. Plus, next year Bee will be ready to play,” she says with a grin. “We’re going to go down there and really show them something.”

To find out more about the Work To Ride program, make a tax-deductible donation or volunteer your time, contact Lezlie Hiner or Richard Prather at Chamounix, 215-877-4419. You can also visit their website, www.worktoride.net.