When Tasha Harris, a teen from the streets of Southwest Philadelphia, began riding horses at Philadelphia's Work to Ride program in Fairmount Park in 2002, she had some trepidation.
"I really had to build my confidence," Harris, 18, said, noting that the horses were a bit intimidating.
Six years later, Harris is more than confident as she plans to leave for Nigeria today with three other inner-city youths to compete in her first international polo tournament.
The team from the acclaimed equestrian program on Chamounix Drive in Fairmount Park has been sharpening skills in this "sport of kings" for weeks.
"This is huge," said Lezlie Hiner, who established the nonprofit program in 1994 to help children develop horseback skills and offer an alternative to the city's often dangerous streets. It is open year-round to children 8 through 18. "We've never been out of the country together as a team."
The team members are Harris, a senior at World Communities Charter School at Broad and South Streets; Brandon Rease, 12, of North Philadelphia, a fifth grader at William Levering School in the 6000 block of Ridge Avenue; Kevin Jones, 17, of the city's Germantown section, a junior at Valley Forge Military Academy; and Kareem Rosser, 15, of Southwest Philadelphia, a freshman at Valley Forge Military Academy.
They will be in Nigeria for 13 days. They are scheduled to play two matches, one against a South African team and one against an opponent to be named later. They also will participate in four clinics.
"We're the only African American team in the country," said Hiner, who is white and who will serve as a chaperone on the trip.
She said Work to Ride has a boys team and a girls team, each with four members. Hiner is sending a mixed team to the tournament and said she planned to have 12 to 14 polo players in the next few years. She said there were about 20 children total at Work to Ride.
Harris, who plans to attend Temple University in the fall, said she was eager to make the trip to Nigeria.
"I'm really excited about it," she said. "Whenever I'm at home and just happen to think about it, I start thinking about all the things I could be doing over there."
Harris, who joined the polo team two years ago, said the most exciting thing about polo was "that you're on a 1,200-pound animal and you both have to work together."
"Two years ago, when I first started polo, I never thought I'd be able to ride at full speed and hit a ball," Harris said, "but the more I did it, it seemed more natural to me."
Rease said he also was looking forward to competing in Nigeria.
"This is my first time out of the country," said Rease, who said he had competed in a tournament in Texas.
Rease said he also played basketball and baseball, but what he liked about polo was "going fast, hitting the ball in the air, and bumping" opponents.
The Work to Ride Interscholastic Polo Team will compete in the UNICEF/Emir of Katsina Charity Shield tournament in Kaduna, Nigeria. The annual competition was established in 2003 and hosts teams from India, Egypt, South Africa, United Kingdom, Nigeria and the United States.
It will be held at the Fifth Chukker Polo and Country Club. Chukkers are the six seven-minute periods of play in a polo match.
This year, the tournament was expanded to include youth teams, said Uche Ojeh, a native of Nigeria, who volunteers as a mentor and spokesman for the Work to Ride program.
Ojeh (pronounced o-JAY) said the team was invited to the tournament after a supporter of the program from New York told people in Nigeria that she knew a new team from Philadelphia.
Ojeh coordinated the trip.
"Just having a knowledge of Nigerian society and culture and American society and culture, I guess I was in a good position to coordinate everything and make it happen."
One of the more difficult jobs has been raising money for the trip, which Ojeh estimates will cost $20,000 for the team and three chaperones. He said that about $15,000 had been raised through donations and that Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. had promised to raise $6,500.
Ojeh said the horses for the event, provided by tournament organizers, were being shipped from Argentina. He said that polo was popular in several African nations, which he attributed to the British influence on the continent.
Edward Armstrong, director of tournaments and clubs for the United States Polo Association in Lexington, Ky., said the equipment, including mallets, boots and helmets, cost about $1,000 per rider.
Armstrong described the Work to Ride polo team as "a very talented bunch of ladies and gentlemen. In polo, you have to be a horseman. They have good equestrian skills."
Hiner said: "If people know about us, they are not surprised, but if they don't know about the kids and their skills, then they are fairly well surprised at what they can do."