Sydney Rutledge did not grow up dreaming of having a horse she could call her own. She had more pressing matters to face -- like gang violence, teen pregnancy and a raging drug epidemic in her neighborhood, one of the poorest in Philadelphia.
But when a friend told her about a program in which she could spend her afternoons caring for purebred horses while learning to ride them -- for free -- she was intrigued. She followed her friend to the barn to see what it was all about. It was not love at first sight. The horses were big. Intimidating.
"It took me a while to get used to riding," Rutledge said. "It was different than anything I had done before."
That was four years ago. Today, Rutledge, 15, spends six days a week riding and caring for the horses at Philadelphia's Chamounix Stables, along with about 20 other teenagers from similar backgrounds. The program, Work to Ride, is the brainchild of Lezlie Hiner, a former competitive rider who now devotes her time to helping inner-city kids find purpose, structure and self-esteem through riding horses. In addition to the basic equestrian and grooming skills they learn, Hiner developed a polo program for the teens, launching the country's first all-black team in 1999. Hiner delights in giving polo -- usually considered a sport for wealthy, white Europeans -- a new look. Her team is no joke: In March, they won their second consecutive United State Polo Association National Interscholastic Championship.
"The program has been a great success," Hiner acknowledged.
A real commitment
Though Work to Ride is free for teens like Rutledge, joining requires an investment of other sorts.
"It's mandatory that these kids stay in school for the duration that they are with us," Hiner said. "You will be kicked out of the polo program if you stop attending classes."
In a community where the high school graduation rate is already low, it's not surprising that some kids don't make it. Hiner estimates that about 65 percent of those who sign up for Work to Ride will graduate from the program.
"The hardest part of my job is keeping these kids on track," she said. "Knowing what's going on in their lives away from the barn -- with their family and friends -- is important, but some things are out of your control."
Hiner takes pride in the Work to Ride dropouts who still come around the barn to check in with her, advising the students still enrolled in the program not to mess up like they did.
The distractions of inner-city life can be hard to resist, Rutledge said: "My mom always says riding will keep me out of trouble. All I know is it's good for me."
Rutledge in many ways typifies the teens Hiner sees in her program.
"She was really fearful when she first came here," Hiner recalled. "She was from an extremely high-risk neighborhood, and it took time for her to be comfortable here." How high-risk? On the way home from polo practice one day last year, Sydney watched as a man was shot on the sidewalk in front of her.
"The things these kids are dealing with on a day-to-day basis are huge," Hiner said. "But on the field with the horses, they gain a sense of empowerment."
Though the teens come to play polo, the skills they learn have broader application. Each student is assigned a "care horse" -- an animal they are responsible for feeding, grooming and examining for signs of injury. Watching them develop a relationship with their horse is rewarding, said Hiner. The closer their bond with the animal, the more their fearfulness turns into confidence.
"Sydney went from being very tentative and unsure of herself to having this amazing assertiveness on the field playing polo," said Hiner. "Seeing her and all these kids evolve is the best reward I could ever get."
As for Rutledge, if she harbored fears of her horse, they are long gone.
"My favorite part of riding is going fast," she said. "I love the feeling when we are just running down the field together."
Feedback from Work to Ride participants has been so overwhelmingly positive that the program is expanding to New York City soon. Ever the realist, Hiner's goals are moderate.
"You can't solve the world's problems by playing polo," she said. "But you can show these kids that there are other ways of doing things than they are accustomed to. You can help them see solutions to their situation that they may not have considered."