EYE: Ralph Lauren Polo Spotlights West Philadelphia Work to Ride Young Black Equestrians

The new Ralph Lauren Polo ad campaign has put a group of young people from West Philadelphia on the style and culture map.

The kids are part of Fairmount Park’s Work to Ride program, launched in 1994 and based out of the Chamounix Equestrian Center. The program gives underprivileged youth the opportunity to experience horsemanship, introducing communities of color to a predominantly whie, very privileged sport. Think our beloved Prince Harry and his friends.

"I'm still kind of bowled over that they actually took the plunge," Work to Ride Executive Director Lezlie Hiner said about the fashion giant's decision to run an ad campaign featuring her program.

On any given year, Work to Ride serves around 60 youths between the ages of 7 and 19, Hiner said. Ralph Lauren's campaign is a reflection of the program's mission. In reality Hiner is very modest, because her Work to Ride project is racking up an incomparable list of accomplishments by its young riders.

These achievements have put the West Philadelphia equestrian program on the international polo map. Forget fashion and style. This is a home-grown project about to spread some very big wings. Mark my words: young riders of color in impoverished American communities will be training at Work to Ride in the future.

The future of polo is about to get a new face, and you’re looking at it here and now. These young people play to win and have brought home gold.

"Before I got introduced to Work to Ride, I was just another black kid hanging out and going to school and just getting by," Daymar Rosser, Work to Ride alum and campaign model, said.

Rosser was introduced to Work to Ride at just 5 years old when his three older brothers stumbled upon the Chamounix stables while walking around Fairmount Park, he said. Hiner offered to teach them to ride if they'd work there, and horseback riding soon became a family affair.

"Work to Ride has brought many opportunities for myself and my family, and we're so grateful for it," Rosser said. 

Work to Ride places an emphasis not only on horseback riding, but also on discipline and scholastic achievement. To participate, youths must be enrolled in school and submit their report cards.

To that end, Ralph Lauren donated $100,000 to Work to Ride. Half of that money will go to the program's college scholarship fund and the other half to helping build an indoor riding ring, Hiner said.

Damar Rosser

Damar Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

Damar Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

At Work to Ride, Rosser became a two-time national interscholastic champion (once with his older brother Kareem) before getting invited by a former Work to Ride teammate to help start the Roger Williams University polo team in Bristol, Rhode Island. “We were trying to get the athletic department to believe us that we play polo,” he says with a laugh. “Because, obviously, they think, ‘These black kids playing polo? That’s not going to happen.’”

It happened in a big way: Rosser captained the team to the 2017 National Intercollegiate Championship in just the program’s second year. “I’m still feeling that feeling that we had that year,” says Rosser, who now splits time between an internship at a marketing agency in Philadelphia, getting invited to pro tournaments like the 20 Goal East Coast Open at Greenwich Polo Club, in Connecticut, and working as the barn manager at Work to Ride. “Because we started from nothing and no one believed in us, and we were motivated as a team to win and put our school on the map, each and every game we were just ready to play polo.”

He hopes that seeing people of color as the faces for such a prestigious brand, while simultaneously representing a predominantly white sport, will inspire young kids of color.

"I want then to believe they can achieve anything they want if they put their minds to it," Rosser said.

Shariah Harris

Shariah Harris by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

Shariah Harris by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo, Work to Ride West Philadelphia.

Shariah Harris was only age five, when her mom took a wrong wurn and ended up at the Work to Ride program’s West Philadelphia horse stable. Harris quickly tok to the horses, feeling fearless when she began playing polo.

It was no surprise then that after Postage Stamp Farm team owner Annabelle Garrett suffered a back injury before the prestigious Silver Cup tournament at the Greenwich Polo Club in 2017, she tapped Harris to take her spot on the team, making Harris the first-ever African American woman to play at the highest tier of US polo. “I just can’t stop thinking about it,” recounts Harris, who had been introduced to Garrett at a tournament in Argentina, but was still surprised when the call came in. “It was a big moment for me to be playing with and against the professionals that I’ve looked up to just coming into the sport,” she says. “I’ve always watched their games, but to be on the field playing with them was just mind-boggling for me.”

Now 21 and a junior at Cornell University, Harris is busy studying animal sciences and leading the women’s polo team to the National Intercollegiate semifinals, while also mentoring kids in the Work to Ride program. As for her big advice to young polo players? “Trust yourself and trust the horses,” she says. “It’s what I believe makes you a better player and rider—that fearless factor.”

Next year, her goal is to help the Cornell team win the biggest prizes. After graduation, Shariah plans to apply to the US Polo Association’s highly competitive Team USPA program, which mentors and trains young players and acts as a feeder program to professional polo. “Whenever I’m angry or frustrated, horses give me that extra comfort, ” she says. “I always feel at home when I’m playing.”

Kareem Rosser

Kareem Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

Kareem Rosser by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

Kareem Rosser is a highly decorated figure in intercollegiate polo. In 2011, when he captained the Work to Ride team (the first-ever Black/African American polo team) to the National Interscholastic Championship, he was named the Polo Training Foundation’s Polo Player of the Year. When he led Colorado State University to the National Intercollegiate Championship in 2015, he was also named the Intercollegiate Player of the Year. He was once even invited to play on Nacho Figueras’ famed BlackWatch team.

But Rosser is soft-spoken and still a little surprised that polo has taken him all around the world to places like Tianjin, China, and Kaduna, Nigeria. “A lot of polo players quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘A polo handicap is your passport to the world,’” says Rosser. “And it really is. It’s such a global sport, and unique.”

Rosser credits Work to Ride with offering him the opportunity to develop not only as a world-class polo player but also as a person. “It allowed me to find who I truly am, and it provided alternatives that we normally wouldn’t have as kids growing up in West Philadelphia,” he says. “I think like most of the kids in our neighborhood, without Work to Ride, we would probably have fallen victim to drugs and crime.”

After graduating from CSU, Rosser returned to Philadelphia to take a job at a bank after meeting his boss, also an avid polo player. Rosser also uses his finance background ands global connections as the executive director of the fundraising arm Friends of Work to Ride. “I’m currently focused on launching a capital campaign and raising funds so that we can institutionalize and grow the program that we have and expand to serve more kids,” he says. “I feel like we can change more lives.”

Malachi Lyles

Malachi Lyles by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

Malachi Lyles by Sharif Hamza for Ralph Lauren Polo.

When Malachi Lyles was 11, his mother found Work to Ride online and enrolled him at the summer camp. Soon, he was hooked, but not without incident. “I remember my first or second lesson in the program, and my horse took off [at a gallop] with me, so that was a little scary,” he says. “They’re real big animals that you really don’t have much control over.”

Now, at age 18, Lyles is very comfortable around equines and is considered a rising polo star, garnering a handful of All-Star selections at tournaments over the past few years. His greatest polo achievement has been playing with two of the best players in the world. “We went down to Wellington [Florida] last April, and we got to play with Facundo Pieres and Adolfo Cambiaso,” he says. “That’s something that I’ve dreamed about, literally.”

Lyles, who was homeschooled growing up, teaches at that same summer camp he started out in, and he’s also a working model, signed to Fetch Models. “You could literally travel the whole world playing polo,” he says. “Same thing with modeling. I want to go overseas with it and see how that goes. I want to use these two vehicles to take me as far as I can.”

The worlds intersected for Lyles when Work to Ride became the face of the Ralph Lauren Polo spring campaign. “I’d written it down in my book where I write down my goals,” he says. “Back in June of last year, I wrote, ‘I will model for Ralph Lauren,’ and the next thing you know, it’s happening.”