Philadelphia Riding Club Helps Youth

This riding club teaches life skills and helps encourage academic achievement.

Philadelphia Riding Club Helps Youth | This riding club teaches life skills and helps encourage academic achievement.

Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, is the home of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, which evolved from the long and little known tradition of the city’s black urban cowboys and one man’s dedication to provide horsemanship to the inner city.

When horses were no longer needed for transportation or livelihood, many black urban Americans kept their horses as a part of their communities, reported CNN. These morphed into riding clubs, and at one time there were over 30 horses stabled on Fletcher Street. Now there are only nine.

Ellis Ferrell Jr, known as El-Dog, founded the nonprofit club in 2004 in the strawberry Mansion neighborhood in North Philadelphia, according to the organization. But a riding club existed in that location for over 100 years. The current space that the club has consists of a donated plot and land owned by the city that has been used by the club for decades. Now, those fields may be used for low-income housing that could end this long urban riding tradition. 

El-Dog’s commitment to Fletcher Street
El-Dog (81) has been riding horses on the streets of Philadelphia for over 50 years, reported 6ABC. He told the news broadcaster: “Pennsylvania is a farm state. Normally you can ride horses anywhere in the city. I've been all over. Downtown, West Philly, North Philly, South Philly...we rode all over.”

He is using all his knowledge to provide a horsemanship experience to urban youth that will keep them off the streets and doing well in a form of equine therapy. The club volunteers do more than just teach kids how to ride, they are being mentored to achieve academic excellence.

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After the youth do their homework, El-Dog gives them chores to do that will help build self-esteem. “At the stables, the children clean the stalls, brush the horses and bathe them, and then they get a chance to ride them,” he told CNN. “We have a little spotlight area across the street [where] they can go and ride. Sometimes they help pick up the hay and unload.”

One of the riders, 11-year-old Hakeem Greer-Gilliam, spends his weekends and free time taking care of his favorite horses. “I clean them and ride them around the block,” he said.

“It gets me out of the house and away from video games. It teaches me responsibilities and how to take care of horses.”

Concrete Cowboy
The Fletcher Street urban riding club and others like it are so ingrained in Philadelphia that in 2021, Concrete Cowboy, a Netflix movie based on this real-life experience, reported CNN. The movie that starred Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin  is about a troubled teen who is sent to spend the summer with his absent father in Philadelphia. There he is embraced by his father and fellow riders and given a new sense of purpose.

This is truly a case where art imitates life since the movie was inspired by the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. El-dog said that his favorite parts of the movie are the ones where the riders huddle around an outdoor fire on cold nights and swap stories because that’s what they do at the club.

Compton Cowboys
But urban riding clubs are not exclusive to Philadelphia. A group in Los Angeles is also reclaiming the black cowboy experience. This group is called the Compton Cowboys.

Nine friends started the club. “We decided to move the culture forward by paying homage to the Black cowboy culture that has been lost over the years,” said Randy Hook, a musician and one of the  founders. “Our goal is to reclaim a lot of that history, tradition and culture.”

The club teaches youth how to care for the animals in the after-school program, takes the kids on field trips, and also holds equestrian events.

“We want them to have a sense of value for the environment and things that live and breathe,” Hook said. “Horses are magical, they just make you feel good.”

Both riding clubs take part in community events, marches, and even voting drives as a way of preserving their culture and history. It is an important lesson for Black History Month and all year long.

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