Spearheaded by the USPA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, in partnership with the Detroit Polo Club (Howell, Michigan), USPA Global Licensing, Michigan State University and University of Michigan, a pilot event with Detroit Horse Power introduced 10 local high school students to the sport of polo. The perception of polo as being inaccessible is one of the main topics the DEI Committee hopes to tackle. “We want children, young people and adults throughout the country to know, no matter where they come from, whether that be urban or rural, that polo is an option,” said Dale Johnson, DEI Committee member.
To facilitate this, the Committee began brainstorming ways to increase access to horses in areas across the country. Johnson’s enthusiasm for the initiative led him to reconnect with Detroit Horse Power and founder David Silver. Partnering with the USPA and an established USPA Member Club with infrastructure in place proved to be a successful way to host community events introducing the sport of polo.
Students practiced their mallet skills on the ground with DEI Committee Member Dale Johnson, who flew in for the event from his home in San Francisco, California.
The USPA DEI Committee, led by Chairman Agapito Morgan, aim to replicate the success of this pilot event with Detroit Horse Power at other locations across the country. Johnson believes looking to other sports associations like the NFL, MLB and NBA will help the sport of polo understand where to best position itself for the uniqueness of the sport and the community. “We want to be part of the larger conversation and change the perception of polo,” Johnson said. “Playing sports equips young people with the tools to come out of more challenging environments. Polo allows people to work with a team and build a lot of different leadership skills.” The short format introductory curriculum created by Anu Joshi and Detroit Polo Club’s Emmalyn Wheaton was designed to be easily replicated and adapted to best fit the needs of the students and the facilities of a local club.
The USPA’s close relationship with Detroit Polo Club and recent work with Dale Johnson helped foster the connection with Detroit Horse Power and develop this introductory event.
Following several meetings outlining the goals of the USPA DEI Committee, Johnson, saw an opportunity to expand the Detroit Horse Power students’ exposure to another equestrian discipline and connect with the local polo community. Detroit Horse Power students are regularly exposed to dressage, equitation and hunter jumper activities in partnership with local barns, but the program had not yet established a close relationship with a polo organization.
Students learned how to tack up their horses, including tying tails.
The USPA’s close relationship with Detroit Polo Club and recent work with Johnson helped foster the connection with Detroit Horse Power and develop this introductory event. Detroit Polo Club’s Director, Emmalyn Wheaton, worked closely with Joshi and Nicole Bird to create a curriculum that would provide a lasting impression on the students both on and off a horse. Since many of the participants do not have access to a horse on a daily basis, USPA Global Licensing provided foot mallets for them to take home. “We are going to show a bunch of the [program] volunteers how to use foot mallets so they can do little foot mallet games at home,” Wheaton explained. “They can go to a park in Detroit and cruise around with the foot mallets, even though they won’t have a horse to jump on.”
Detroit Polo Club’s Director, Emmalyn Wheaton, worked closely with Detroit Horse Power administrators to create a curriculum that would provide a lasting impression on the students both on and off a horse.
The interactive curriculum for the day included three stations: hitting cage, foot mallets and a mounted portion which allowed students to hit a ball off a horse. Several University of Michigan and Michigan State Polo team members put their youthful energy to use, manning the foot mallet and hitting cage stations. Intercollegiate/Interscholastic Program Manager Emily Dewey was also on-site to help guide the students through the activities. Students who felt comfortable riding were assigned a pilot and a horse to help get the feel of hitting the ball while mounted. After getting hands on experience, the students were able to watch the first game of the USPA’s Midstates Circuit Arena Master’s Cup while participating in a Q&A.
The interactive curriculum for the day included three stations, including the hitting cage.
For student Elijah Anderson, the event was his first exposure to the sport of polo. His initial impression that he would not enjoy it was quickly reversed from the moment he picked up a mallet. “I had so much fun and definitely want to do it again!” Anderson exclaimed. When comparing polo to other equestrian disciplines, he proudly described it as “a hundred out of ten!” Anderson’s overwhelmingly positive experience is reflective of Detroit Horse Power’s hope for introducing students to a game they may not have considered otherwise. “It’s good to try something new,” Anderson said reflecting on the experience. “You know that new thing can turn out to be one of the best things you [have] ever done. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
The impact Detroit Horse Power has on local youth is evident. Kaira Clayton, another Detroit Horse Power student and event participant acknowledged the positive impact the program has had on her life. “I’ve met so many amazing people [through DHP],” Clayton detailed. “They have helped me with a lot of things in life. I don’t know what I would do without them in my life.” The work of Detroit Horse Power and its Executive Director, David Silver, are making consistent strides in the community.
For student Elijah Anderson, the event was his first exposure to the sport of polo. His initial impression that he would not enjoy it was quickly reversed from the moment he picked up a mallet.
“…a hundred out of ten!” – Elijah Anderson, when comparing polo to other equestrian disciplines.
Beginning in the developmental Teach for America program, Silver’s lifelong mission to expand opportunities for underprivileged youth began to take shape as he taught fourth and fifth grade students. As he built his skills as a budding teacher, Silver’s conversations with his students led him to question where he had acquired life skills such as perseverance, confidence and empathy. He found himself consistently referencing experiences from his childhood around horses. Growing up in an equestrian family, Silver competed in hunter jumpers, three-day eventing and worked for Olympian Boyd Martin. “It felt very mismatched for me,” Silver explained, “my Detroit students largely had never seen a horse. The kind of life changing effects and bonds that you form with a horse and the ways that they can equip you with skills to overcome adversity were not something [my students] could access.” This realization led Silver to found Detroit Horse Power in 2015 as an outlet for instilling the positive skill development he had access to growing up as a result of horses.
Detroit Horse Power aims to teach the “PERCS” framework through teachable experiences at partner barns throughout Detroit and surrounding areas. Perseverance, empathy, responsible risk-taking, confidence and self-control are all skills demonstrated by the equine community on a daily basis but may not be specifically articulated. Silver emphasized the program’s intention to provide this demographic of youth with access to horses to build their internal tool kit in powerful ways.
After learning the basics themselves, participants were able to see how it all came together in the arena.
Next on the agenda for Detroit Horse Power is the construction of a permanent home within city limits. As a post-industrial city with a changing cityscape, whole blocks and neighborhoods have been leveled and cleared. Detroit Horse Power secured a large piece of vacant land, formerly home to a school campus. Through a partnership with the public school district, Detroit Horse Power has an agreement to reactivate the land for use as an urban equestrian center in the coming years. When the project is completed, Silver acknowledged that it will be a landmark on a national scale, 14 acres dedicated to an equestrian center in the heart of Detroit. Detroit Horse Power is currently working on a site plan and fundraising for their capital campaign with a goal of opening in 2023.
Having a location within city limits would remove some of the geographic and time limitations often faced by the program when traveling to barns outside the city. Wheaton noted that it would be a great opportunity for Detroit Polo Club to partner with the program. Horses could be brought into the city for a few hours and provide the students with easier access closer to school and home.
Together the organizations hope to capitalize on the momentum created by the event and replicate in other locations, spreading the love and awareness of polo across the country.
Reflecting back on the PERCS framework, Silver pointed out the many ways the new facility and the potential for partnerships through polo could further the student’s progress. “There are very few interpersonal team sports with horses,” Silver commented. “Polo creates the opportunity for students to collaborate, have empathy for both their horse and teammates and to have empathy for an opposing team. This is just the beginning, but I’m really excited about the life lessons and opportunities that polo could unlock for our students.” Together the organizations hope to capitalize on the momentum created by the event and replicate in other locations, spreading the love and awareness of polo across the country.
All photos courtesy of ©John Turney.