For three days every week, a group of boys and girls leave the city life behind without ever actually leaving the city. They’re given a chance to ride and care for horses.
All it takes is a short trip to Chamounix Equestrian Center in Philadelphia for a nonprofit program that was launched in 1994. Work to Ride gives under-resourced children the opportunity to experience a world that was once out of reach.
There are 15 students between the ages of 7 and 18 in the program today. Most were novices when they started. They’d never even touched a horse. Many will become expert riders. Some have been transformed into polo champions.
“The Work to Ride barn has been a home away from home for young people from nearby dense urban communities for nearly 30 years,” said Lezlie Hiner, the program’s founder and executive director. “These young men and women are an inspiration every day.”
The barn houses 36 horses. They’re donated and given a new purpose through the program.
Work to Ride’s facilities are about to receive a major upgrade. It has begun the public phase of its capital campaign to raise money for renovations to the equestrian center. About $6.2 million was raised through private donations. Another $1.8 million is needed to reach the $8 million goal.
The hope is to begin construction later this year and have it completed in 2023. The outdoor riding ring will be improved and an indoor ring will be built. Those changes will help transform what the program can offer.
“It’s been a long time since it’s been renovated,” said Molly Johnson, an administrative assistant with Work to Ride. “The paddocks are kind of muddy and torn up. Once we get this new arena and the renovations inside the barn, it’s going to look beautiful. It’s going to bring in a lot more traffic.”
The upgraded venue will allow for an expanded lesson program and more community events. People will be able to ride year-round without taking a break because of cold weather.
Students who join Work to Ride usually make a long-term commitment. They’ll become part of the program in elementary school and stay through high school graduation.
Once they pass through the entry-level Sunday activities to gain experience, they’ll start coming to Chamounix three days a week. They’ll ride. They’ll muck stalls. They’ll manage the barn while discovering whatever equestrian sport suits them best.
Participants usually live within a short commute of the barn. The program is free. One must go through an application process and have a family income below the poverty level.
Work to Ride has become an unexpected source of great polo players. That’s often the sport of choice. The first all-Black team to win the national interscholastic polo championship in 2011 was composed entirely of Work to Ride students.
Kareem Rosser, the captain of that team, is one of Work to Ride’s many success stories. Rosser is now a financial analyst and member of the program’s board. He wrote a memoir about his experiences, “Crossing the Line: A Fearless Team of Brothers and the Sport That Changed Their Lives Forever.”
“This program is absolutely life-changing.” Rosser said. “Students who participate not only grow as athletes but develop life skills and learn life lessons that follow them into adulthood.”
The influence of Work to Ride could increase exponentially because of the upcoming improvements. People can make a donation through the program’s website, worktoride.net.
From humble beginnings, the program continues to grow.
“Back in the day, the kids were coming over with sneakers on,” Johnson said. “They didn’t have any type of proper horse equipment. They never touched a horse or anything. Over the years we’ve accumulated a lot of stuff through donations.”
Those kids can become experts in a field they otherwise never would have known.