19-year-old Shariah Harris spent all of last week prepping for today's match in the 20-goal Silver Cup at Greenwich Polo Club. So did seven other players, but they’ve been through the drill hundreds of times. Shariah just made her high-goal debut a week ago—and with it made history. She became the first African American woman to compete in high-goal polo.
While she’s riding in the patron’s seat, she is neither a patron nor a pro. She’s an unassuming interscholastic player who made her way to Cornell University on an academic scholarship.
“I never thought I’d be lucky enough to ride a horse, let alone play polo with giants of the sport. Now I’m on the field with players I have looked up to my whole life,” said Shariah.
The opportunity came her way through the support of two other women: Annabelle Gundlach, patrona of Postage Stamp Farm polo team, and Lezlie Hiner, founder of the Work to Ride program (worktoride.net), a nonprofit organization that brings urban youth from low-income households into the equestrian world. As the name implies, participants don’t get a free ride. They have to work their way into the irons by mucking stalls, sweeping aisles, grooming horses, cleaning tack, you name it.
Shariah, who entered the program when she was just 7, has played for Work to Ride in Africa and Argentina. That’s where she met Gundlach, who this summer is recovering from an injury and invited Shariah to play in her place in the Silver Cup. Gundlach (who will be back in the irons for the U.S. East Coast Open next month at Greenwich) noted how groundbreaking Shariah’s achievement is.
"Polo is a partially stagnant sport because of the perception that it is inaccessible. Here is an organization that is breaking down those barriers. Surviving on donations, Work to Ride is providing opportunity through equestrian sports and is giving kids a chance to excel in life," said Gundlach.
"As Winston Churchill said, 'Polo is a passport to the world.' The people you meet and the places you go are unique. This is another stamp in Shariah's passport. I am confident that she will leverage these collective stamps going forward in whatever she chooses to do in her life."
Shariah (“A” handicap) was named the 2016 national interscholastic player of the year. Earlier this year she helped Cornell’s arena polo team make it to the national semifinals. Now she finds herself having to adjust not only from arena polo to grass, but to a speed that feels supersonic compared to low-goal polo.
Learning to play the #1 position has also been a challenge for Shariah, who normally plays #3 on her college team. “I’m used to playing more defensive, being the orchestrator of the team and giving my teammates direction,” she says. “Now I’m listening to them and going open.”
Who better to learn from than Joao Ganon, Kris Kampsen and Brandon Phillips? “They’re great teachers. They help guide me where I need to be,” said Shariah, who is concentrating most on learning how to read a play and how to get more open to receive passes.
She is playing ponies from Matias Magrini’s string and found that has already upped her game. In her debut match last week Shariah made two attempts on goal that just missed by inches.
Asked if she was planning on a career as a pro, Shariah laughed and said she was unsure. “Right now I’m just trying to make it through college!”
All Photography by Chichi Ubina