Horse riding program teaches sport of kings to at-risk youth

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Carmen Sharpe doesn't let her children play outside their home in a dangerous, gritty section of Philadelphia she refers to as ''The Badlands.''

So her 9-year-old daughter Marisol Jimenez cherishes the periodic escapes she gets through Work to Ride, a nonprofit program that helps at-risk children become equestrians.

''You don't see a lot of kids from the 'hood that have the opportunity to be able to work with horses,'' Sharpe said.

Marisol and 19 other kids clean stalls, brush horses, shovel hay and droppings, and keep things running at the city's Chamounix Equestrian Center. In exchange, they receive horseback riding lessons and a chance to be on the center's renowned polo team, which became the first African-American squad to win a national interscholastic championship in 2011.

Executive director Lezlie Hiner started Work to Ride in 1994 and funds it through donations and fees from other equestrian initiatives. Instructors work with children year-round, aiming to teach them responsibility and respect.

''It's not a ... short-term program,'' Hiner said. ''This is through the life of the child, from when they enter the program until we can get them through high school. Our goal is to have them not be one of the Philadelphia statistics as a high school dropout.''

Sixty-five percent of city students graduate high school in four years, according to a district report released in January. More than 75 percent of the children in Work to Ride complete high school.

The program, located on 3.5 acres in the city's Fairmount Park and surrounded by woodland and open space, offers a stark contrast to the violent areas where many of the children live.

Marisol's West Kensington neighborhood falls under the 25th police district, which had the highest number of homicides in the city last year, according to police statistics.

''I really don't let my kids out around here,'' said Sharpe, a mother of five. ''It's a lot of drugs, a lot of killings.''

So for the past two years, Marisol has worked to ride. She's now a junior polo player, but when she first started, Marisol was terrible - she got stepped on, and fussed and complained all the time.

''Now poop doesn't bother me, I'm better with the horses, I hardly get stepped on,'' Marisol said.

The stables aren't the only escape for the children. Those who compete with the polo teams travel up and down the East Coast, and play at colleges like Harvard, Cornell and the University of Virginia.

''Going to Yale University or Cornell, I would feel like I didn't fit in because it was such a prestigious school, and everybody around me felt on a different level than me,'' said Tasha Harris, 25, an alumnus of the program. ''But after a while I got really used to it, and took a step back and thought, we're all on the same level.''

Working with horses has changed Marisol from a shy little girl to an outspoken young lady, said Sharpe, who says her daughter now talks about becoming a veterinarian or even a professional polo player.

''Being here, I could be a little more free than usual,'' Marisol said, ''and I could do much more here than anywhere else.''

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