Nearly every city, town and neighborhood struggles with the question of how to keep their youth productive. Programs are put in place to keep them in school, off drugs and away from criminal activity; unfortunately, not all these programs are successful and some even aggravate existing issues. But with the aid of the Fletcher Street stables, northern Philadelphia found a program that transcends generations — urban horse riding.
The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club is a registered nonprofit whose mission is to “save and restore this historical, important facet of Philadelphia’s community, and most importantly, its children.” For most of the club’s 100-year existence, it was part of a larger urban horse riding community that boasted 50 stables.
Today, increasing poverty, growing unemployment and encroaching gentrification threatens the vital tradition, and the Fletcher Street stables stand alone as a beacon of hope in desperate times.
“Horses helped my life,” Hop White, the stables’ owner, told East Coast Equestrian. “I could have been a gang-banger or a drug seller. My time was put in here instead of where I grew up.”
Creating an “oasis of peace” in a city with one of the highest crime rates in the United States is no easy feat, but with compassion and patience urban cowboys are transforming the lives of local youth while preserving a unique and historically rich way of life.
“Once a kid comes around here, it’s hard for them to detach themselves,” White explains. “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.”
Some of the young riders are introduced to the lifestyle by their fathers, who were once novice cowboys themselves. Lee Cannady, a Philadelphia police officer, started at the Fletcher Street stables when he was a boy. He now teaches his own children to ride, some before they can even walk, and exposes them to the therapeutic nature of caring for animals.
Other youth are initially drawn to the stables by shock alone — when they see a man casually riding a horse down the streets of northern Philly, they simply follow. But once that shock wears off, the kids stay because of the community and the family they find waiting for them.
This family is fun, but also demanding in its expectations. If Fletcher Street is to fulfill its mission and offer Philadelphia’s children a better way of living, a sense of accountability and discipline is essential.
Kids learn not only how to ride, but also how to care for the horses, the stables and the facility. If their school grades slip, they are not allowed to ride. Report cards are checked regularly to ensure riders are meeting their academic potential.
Despite the positive impact urban horse riding has on at-risk youth, the City of Brotherly Love has not always been kind to Fletcher Street.
Many of the stables in the area surrounding the riding club were abandoned and fell into disarray. As poverty and unemployment rose, stables could no longer afford to operate effectively and, tragically, sometimes the animals felt that burden as well.
Being in such proximity to deteriorated stables led to the misconception that Fletcher Street too was floundering — and perhaps mistreating its own animals.
Media outlets flooded the stables as police confiscated two baby ponies, claiming reports of animal abuse. Two days later, the ponies were returned when veterinary analysis found them to be healthy. But camera crews did not cover that story. Nor did they clarify that earlier reports of abuse were unfounded.
White said that although the facilities will never be as beautiful or posh as those in the suburbs, the horses receive the best treatment possible and have veterinarian check-ups every month.
But in that on camera frenzy, reporters painted Fletcher Street as a “hell-hole for horses” and tarnished the stable’s reputation, and that of urban horse riding culture, almost beyond repair.
“They’re down to five or 10 guys who are left trying to keep things together,” Cassandra Del Viscio, a producer who visited Fletcher Street, said. “One of these guys is a narcotics officer. One of the guys served in Vietnam. These men are trying very hard. They’re exhausted. They’ve come very close to giving up. They love their horses, and try to pass everything down to the kids.”
Del Viscio, along with photographer Martha Camarillo, planned on creating a documentary based on Camarillo’s 2006 photo book called “Fletcher Street.” Although the project never took off, urban horse riding will still get its moment in the limelight.
Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”) star in the new film inspired by Philly’s urban riders. “Concrete Cowboys” is the story of how troubled Detroit teen Cole is sent to live with his estranged father in Philadelphia. Cole soon discovers his father’s thriving world of urban horse riding amidst a struggling city.
The film’s release date is 2020, but anyone desperate for more on the life of urban cowboys can check out Greg Neri’s book “Ghetto Cowboys”, on which the film is based.
“[Cole’s] father is part of a group of black urban cowboys who save horses from slaughterhouses,” the summary reads, “and use them to teach neighborhood kids how to be responsible for the care of another life.”
Rescuing horses from slaughterhouses is not just a piece of fiction either. The Fletcher Street Riding Club purchases its horses from New Holland auctions, which has its own reputation for animal mistreatment, and gives a second chance to many horses who might otherwise have been euthanized.
Inspired by Camarillo’s book and the story of urban horse riding, French Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa set out to create an “experimental Western” with his 2013 film, “Horse Day.”
After spending nine months in Philadelphia, Bourouissa managed to capture the different types of riders — from horse owners to youth mentors to pleasure riders — and the different ways they use riding in their lives.
“Bourouissa films a rider and his horse on a trip through the streets, running errands and saying hello to neighbors. In another scene, horses and riders weave their way through clogged lines of traffic, earning smiles or looks of bafflement from drivers.”
His film encapsulates the most basic message of the Fletcher Street stables — that urban horse riding is an integral part of the life and culture of northern Philadelphia. And it will take more than some bad publicity and a declining economy to overturn a 100-year-old tradition that has given countless men, and horses, a second chance at life.