Review of “Polo Cowboy” by G. Neri

The author writes in an afterword that he doesn’t like doing sequels, but what can you do when fans are clamoring to hear more about your characters and their stories? I felt the same way at the end of this book as I did at the end of the author’s preceding book on this subject, Ghetto Cowboy: i.e., keep going, please! I want to hear more!

Cole, 14, spent the summer with his dad Harp in Philadelphia. As the school year approached, he asked to stay with him rather than go back to Detroit where his mom was. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mom; rather, he cherished spending time with his horse Boo and Philadelphia’s Black urban cowboys.

The cowboys in this story and in the previous book, Ghetto Cowboy, are based on an actual group of urban Black horsemen in North Philadelphia. This group saves horses from slaughterhouses, and uses them to teach neighborhood kids how to be responsible for the care of another life. In exchange for getting to ride, the kids groom and feed the horses, and help with the upkeep of the stables. As the founder of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, Ellis Ferrell, said in an interview for Time Magazine:

“[The kids] always had the stables to come to after school instead of being on the street and getting in trouble. It taught them to have respect and responsibility: for the horses, their elders and themselves.”

Another story about these cowboys in “Pennsylvania Equestrian” noted:

“The men all talk about discipline and accountability. They’re not abstract concepts. They are incorporated into rules that are strictly enforced. ‘Once a kid comes around here, it’s hard for them to detach themselves. . . . They look at this as another part of the world. You don’t have anyone cursing, doing drugs, shouting. There’s no tolerance of violence around here. And there’s no tolerance for slacking off at school, either. The kids must bring their report cards. If they get bad grades, they can’t ride until they bring their grades up. Beyond grades, there’s another component. Kids can’t ride unless they help out.”

Cole shared the difficulty, referred to in the above quote, of detaching himself from the horses. Harp agreed to let Cole stay, but predicated it on Cole working for his keep. He got Cole a job as a stable hand for the polo team at (fictional) George Washington Military Academy. It was difficult going at first – the players were “rich, white, and stuck-up” except for the one girl on the team, Ruthie, who was African American and Cole’s age. Ruthie had another obstacle besides race and gender: she had vitiligo, a disease that causes loss of skin color in patches. But Ruthie was a “chukkerhead,” or someone who loves polo, and she wouldn’t let anything stand in her way of playing – not even the name-calling taunts of “Spots,” “Acid Face” and “Freak” she regularly had to endure. [Of course, as Cole gets to know Ruthie, he not only finds her talented and smart, but beautiful as well.]

Ruthie explains to Cole why polo is not “sissy stuff,” as he believes, but is actually considered the most dangerous sport in the world. This is how it works, she tells him:

“[Players are] trying to hit a tiny moving ball from a moving horse that weighs a thousand pounds, charging at forty miles per hour. Your head is eight feet off the ground, and your mallet is over four feet long, and you’re trying to aim at a ball as big as a baseball while you’re leaning halfway off, trying to punch it into a goal without being trampled to death as you’re being rushed by three other players, also on thousand-pound beasts, waving hammers at you!”

Shariah Harris, a graduate of Work to Ride, competing in the Amateur Cup tournament in Tully, N.Y., in August, 2019.
Courtesy of Lezlie Hiner via NPR

Ruthie started to teach Cole the basics of polo, and in turn, he showed Ruthie a thing or two about cowboy riding. When other neighborhood kids saw Ruthie and Cole doing their moves down by Fletcher Street, they wanted to join in. Soon, with improvised equipment like broom handles and tennis balls, and even improvised “horses” – i.e., bicycles, for example – they got a “cowboy polo” team going. The kids loved it, and Cole loved teaching them. Cole’s cousin Smush even joined in, although it wasn’t enough to pull Smush away from his more dangerous activities on the street. Smush wanted to change his life, and was convinced he needed to be rich to do so. Thus he got involved with dangerous people in illegal transactions. He tried to pull Cole in, but Cole was fortunate to have a number of good role models in his life who encouraged him to focus on other paths to success. Still, Cole admired some things about Smush, and was inspired by him to stand up for himself.

The tense and action-packed culmination of the story includes a rough and tumble match between the academy team and the street team, and a reckoning for Smush.

Illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson, intermittently placed throughout the book, definitely enrich the story. I was only sorry there weren’t more of them!

Discussion: It should be noted that not only is the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club real, but so is Black polo in Philadelphia, the base for the only African American polo team in the United States. Like the Urban Riding Club, the organization Work to Ride uses horses to work with Philadelphia area disadvantaged children. After founder Lezlie Hiner got interested in polo, she added it to the Work to Ride program, and now kids from 7 to 19 can participate in the traditionally white sport.

Schyler Smith, far left, Marc Harris and Shane Woodson are some of the younger members of Work to Ride in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Photo by Lezlie Hiner, via NPR

Evaluation:: This book is geared to a middle grade audience, but I can’t recommend this book to all audiences highly enough! The only caveat I would add is that it doesn’t totally fill you in on the background of the first book, Ghetto Cowboy. It is better to read both of these excellent books in order.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2021

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