Ride to the Olympics CEO on increase in Black polo players: ‘We break barriers’

(ATLANTA) — Historically, very few African Americans have played polo, but that’s changing in Atlanta.

“I’ve never ridden a horse outside of me starting this, let alone actually play polo, so I had to get over my fear of, like, thinking I would get kicked or that I will fall,” Gia Tejeda, a junior economics major at Spelman College, told ABC News. “I just feel as though if you can learn how to navigate a horse and really master a sport that you can also, in the same sense, conquer the world, because it takes a lot to ride a horse.”

Tejeda’s three-woman team includes another Spelman student and one from Savanah College of Arts and Design. They’re sponsored by Ride to the Olympics, a foundation that exposes urban students to equestrian sports.

“We break barriers,” Kim Watson, CEO of Ride to the Olympics, told ABC News. “It was almost, like, tear-jerking it to see what it does to their confidence level.”

The group was founded in 2017 by men’s formal wear designer Miguel Wilson, who said he hoped one day of having its members qualify for the Olympics.

“The change of scenery, seeing the concrete turn into grass … for a lot kids in the inner cities, going out to the country and just being able to spend a few hours with horses is life-changing,” Wilson told ABC News.

Polo is very expensive to play and requires wide-open spaces that are hard to find in most cities.

“There are barriers that exist — so it’s about bridging that gap,” Wilson said.

Even though comparatively fewer African Americans ride horses professionally now, Black jockeys played an important role in American history. Among the first 28 Kentucky Derby winners, 15 jockeys were Black. But zero Black riders participated from 1921 to 2000. And even fewer played polo.

In 2019, with the help of Wilson and Ride to the Olympics, Morehouse became the first historically Black college to create a polo club and be declared a member of the United States Polo Association.

“A lot of kids in these inner cities,” Wilson said, “they know about football, they know about basketball, but who knows how many professional polo players we have walking around in northwest Washington, D.C., or in southwest Atlanta?”

Tejeda said she’s “honestly still in awe” to have the opportunity to play the sport.

“When you think of polo, you don’t think about Black kids playing the sport,” she added. “So to be the pioneer in starting this is really amazing.”

Added Wilson: “I mean, the Morehouse team was phenomenal. But to see these young ladies is extraordinary.”

Female players composed about 40% of the U.S. Polo Association’s membership in 2020, and the number of women’s tournaments has grown steadily over five years, but no Black women currently are playing professionally. Uneku Atawodi, a Nigerian, is credited with being the first Black woman to reach such heights.

“I wasn’t exposed to it, so that’s generally the main reason” more Black Americans don’t play polo, said AnaSimone Guimone, a junior who plays for Spelman College.

Ride to the Olympics recently teamed up with the Boys and Girls Foundation to create eight polo teams in urban areas for kids 8 to 18, and it hosts the Polo Classic in Atlanta, where student members and other Black players can play together.

“I wanted to create an environment where African Americans can go to a polo event that celebrates our culture,” Wilson said. “Most polo events aren’t about us.”

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