Sta­ble lives

In the un­likely set­ting of a tough south Lon­don es­tate, Ebony Horse Club of­fers a life­line for chil­dren

The Observer Magazine - - NEWS -

Sad­dle up with the young horse rid­ers of Brix­ton, south Lon­don

It’s late af­ter­noon at the pony club, and a girl on a piebald horse is trot­ting con­fi­dently around the sun-dap­pled arena, a hel­met above her pink hi­jab. We are not in the home coun­ties, sur­rounded by gal­lop­ing coun­try­side and leafy bri­dle paths but in a pad­dock fringed by high-rise coun­cil blocks, and the sta­bles sit un­der a row of graf­fi­tied rail­way arches. Grey Thames­link trains trun­dle past over­head and in the dis­tance there’s the in­ter­mit­tent wail of po­lice sirens.

This is the Ebony Horse Club, where kids who would be as likely to go to the moon as learn to ride a pony get to do just that. One of the rid­ers to­day is Marie, 13, who lives on the third floor of the tower block op­po­site and can see the sta­bles from her win­dow. “When I tell peo­ple I ride horses they say, ‘Where do you do that?’ And when I say ‘Brix­ton, right next to where I live,’ they’re amazed. Hardly any­one knows there’s a pony club here. Peo­ple are sur­prised; it’s not what they’re ex­pect­ing.”

But spend an af­ter­noon at the club and you leave won­der­ing why they don’t come as stan­dard in ev­ery area of in­ner-city need. Take the story of Calvin Cas­sar, 18, the club’s poster boy. On his first visit here six years ago he was a trou­bled young­ster, a pupil at a spe­cial school, bat­tling all sorts of dif­fi­cul­ties. “I was go­ing through a hard time at home, pretty dis­tant from my fam­ily, not get­ting on with my dad. I’ve got ADHD, dys­lexia, autism, anger­man­age­ment is­sues – you name it, re­ally. I would get very frus­trated at my­self, and then at ev­ery­one else. I spent a lot of time on my own in my room; I had melt­downs, and I wasn’t an easy per­son to be around.”

His very first visit to the club brought a sense of some­thing bet­ter, some­thing worth striv­ing for. “I’d never been on a horse and I re­mem­ber get­ting on to Buddy and be­ing re­ally scared, but know­ing I had to not seem scared. And some­how once I was there I felt re­laxed: I had to con­cen­trate on it, and I for­got about my learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and my ADHD. And also, I re­alised I could do it: I could ride a horse, I un­der­stood horses, and to­gether we could achieve things.” Buddy was also, lit­er­ally, a shoul­der to cry on. “When things were re­ally tough at home, I could come here and cud­dle the horses,” he re­mem­bers. “It helped.”

Naomi How­gate’s early ex­pe­ri­ence of rid­ing was both sim­i­lar and dif­fer­ent to Calvin’s. She grew up in North York­shire, owned a pony, en­joyed the same bond as Calvin does with the an­i­mals. When she grew up she moved to Lon­don and got a nine-to-five cor­po­rate job; but then she heard about Ebony, and came here as a vol­un­teer – and to­day she’s one of its in­struc­tors and man­agers. The ‹

‘When things were re­ally tough at home, I could come here and cud­dle the horses. It helped.’ Calvin, 18

‹ horse in­dus­try might dis­pute it, she says, but eques­trian stereo­types have proved stub­born: as well as the dearth of eth­nic-mi­nor­ity rid­ers, pony club mem­ber­ship is over­whelm­ingly fe­male. At the Ebony Horse Club, as many boys ride as girls – and just like Calvin, all of them thrive. “In many ways, you find the chil­dren who are most up against it get the big­gest ben­e­fits. You get kids who’ve strug­gled in school, who are be­ing bul­lied or are self­harm­ing, who are in care – or per­haps young car­ers them­selves,” says Naomi. “Many of them have chaotic lives and they’ve be­come trapped in a nar­ra­tive where their prob­lems are cen­tral to ev­ery­thing – and when they’re here the fo­cus isn’t on them, and that gives them such a break. They’re not be­ing judged, and we’re not in­ter­ested in their aca­demic abil­ity – all we see is how well they get on with the horses.”

And rid­ing can up­turn a child’s ex­pec­ta­tions of their abil­i­ties. “It’s a great lev­eller. You get A-graders who are con­fi­dent, but what­ever you think you know, things can be dif­fer­ent when you’ve got half a ton of horse un­der­neath you. Peo­ple shine who haven’t shone be­fore.”

Chal­leng­ing be­hav­iour isn’t un­known here but, says Naomi, it doesn’t tend to last for long. “For the young peo­ple who come here, rid­ing quickly be­comes some­thing

‘I come here to be with friends. It’s be­come a huge part of my life – it’s just a big fam­ily here.’ Maria, 14

they want to do – so they don’t want to act up, they want to fit in. We hear from teach­ers about chil­dren who’ve started to be­have in school be­cause they don’t want to get a de­ten­tion that will stop them from com­ing rid­ing.”

It’s not just the chil­dren who have to fit in here – the horses have to be amenable to what’s re­quired, too. “We can’t take any horse, it’s got to be a par­tic­u­lar kind of horse,” Naomi ex­plains. “Some like one per­son rid­ing them the whole time, and they can’t have that here – we’ve got more than 100 chil­dren rid­ing ev­ery week. And they’ve got to be able to cope with ur­ban re­al­i­ties: they’ve got to not mind the sirens, and the trains – and if the air am­bu­lance needs to land in Brix­ton, it comes to land right be­side us, so that’s some­thing else not all ponies could cope with.”

The club also of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties for so­cial mix­ing that work in both di­rec­tions: a few days ear­lier, a group of 30 young Ebony mem­bers were off to spend a day at a Hamp­shire pony club. They spent the day with the club’s mem­bers, whose par­ents put on a bar­be­cue for them; for many, says Naomi, it was a glimpse into a way of life they’d never seen be­fore. “On the coach they were film­ing the fields from the coach win­dows – some of them had never seen the coun­try­side be­fore. One child said to me, ‹

‹ ‘I didn’t know this world ex­isted.’ And on the way home, some of them were say­ing they’d like to live in the coun­try­side when they were older – it’s ex­panded their hori­zons, in one day out.”

Ebony’s roots go back 22 years, when its founder Ros Spear­ing, a lo­cal res­i­dent, started tak­ing chil­dren pony rid­ing. She’d learned to ride as an adult, and re­alised how good it would be for young­sters in the dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­nity around her to know the same ex­cite­ment, and to have the same sense of tri­umph and pride in learn­ing to do it. At that time, the land which is now the Ebony Horse Club was, ac­cord­ing to Calvin, who used to play here as a child, “a run­down, druggy park” lit­tered with used sy­ringes. The chil­dren trav­elled to other Lon­don clubs for lessons and treks.

Seven years ago the land was re­claimed for the sta­bles, with space for up to nine horses, an arena and a pad­dock; to­day, around 120 chil­dren ride here each week, most of them pay­ing just £7 per les­son (the go­ing rate in the vast ma­jor­ity of clubs is around £35-45 for a half-hour’s tu­ition). Run­ning costs aren’t cheap – around £400,000 a year, most of it con­trib­uted by char­i­ties and trusts – but much of the work is done by vol­un­teers, in­clud­ing the chil­dren who pay to ride here, and the club has a keen pa­tron

‘It’s good for aware­ness: when you’re rid­ing you have to know how your horse is feel­ing.’ Mikaeel, 16

in the Duchess of Corn­wall, who has vis­ited with the Queen and, says Naomi, “takes a big in­ter­est in what we’re do­ing”.

The club’s out­comes, in terms of kids who’ve learned self-con­fi­dence and self-es­teem, are im­mea­sur­able; Naomi says she cries most days when she re­alises the dif­fer­ence rid­ing has made to some up-against-it young­ster. Calvin has never looked back: “This place to­tally changed my life. I used to be al­ways in trou­ble, I was no good at read­ing and things like that. But when you work with horses you don’t need to be good at read­ing: there’s the odd form to fill in, but that’s it. I dis­cov­ered I had an­other big skill: I found I could ride horses, and bond with horses, and af­ter that I re­alised I could bond with other peo­ple, too.” If it wasn’t for Ebony, he reck­ons he’d be drug-deal­ing, in a gang, maybe even in prison by now; in­stead, he’s just ap­plied to join the King’s Troop Royal Horse Ar­tillery, and his longterm dream is to run a cen­tre for res­cue horses. “To­day I’ve got am­bi­tions: I see my­self as a tal­ented and as­pi­ra­tional young man,” he says. “And I know that what I do mat­ters, be­cause I’m a role model for the chil­dren who are rid­ing here, and I take that very se­ri­ously.” ■

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit ebony­horse­club.org.uk. The pho­to­graphs are from Hol­lie Fer­nando’s Ebony project

‘This place to­tally changed my life’: (clock­wise from above) Calvin, who says Ebony got him out of ev­ery kind of trou­ble; Tuka ad­justs a har­ness; the sta­bles

Feed­ing time: (clock­wise from above) horses next to a tower block where some of the young rid­ers live; Maria takes a mo­ment; watch­ing on at the pad­dock

Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence: (clock­wise from above) Mikaeel slips a horse a treat; O’Shane tidy­ing the yard; at the sta­bles; in the of­fice; Ed­die in his turquoise har­ness

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