In a muddy yard surrounded by tower blocks, two teens bounce up and down in their saddles in time with their ponies’ two-beat trot. Today’s horse riding lesson: flying changes, a manoeuvre that makes a horse change their lead leg while cantering. It’s a standard exercise in the equestrian world, but the inner-city location of the arena and the trains rattling from the adjacent overground station are atypical of the middle class hobby’s traditional settings.
Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, south London is a stable that’s giving a leg-up to disadvantaged kids. Home to eight-and-a-half ponies (depending on how you count Poppit, the miniature Shetland pony), they welcome around 110 riders aged eight to 19 each week. They’re enrolled programmes that, over the last eight years, have helped countless children kickstart careers in the animal industry – as riders, stable-workers, vets. Ebony even produced The Times Young Sportswoman of the year, Khadijah Mellah, after it helped her become the first UK jockey to win a race in Britain wearing a hijab.
The club is largely funded by donations and relies on volunteers and senior riders to help with the day-to-day management. Most ride for free while the rest pay a relatively affordable £7 (the average national rate for a half-hour horse riding lesson is between £35 and £45). Heavily subsidised residential trips are also offered – last year 30 kids headed to Sweden for a week, at a cost of just £70 a head.
“I’m here four times a week,” 16-year-old Tia tells me while brushing a stocky black pony called Eddie, “though I would be here everyday if I was allowed.” It’s Tia’s first day of being a senior. This means she can attend the more advanced classes on Saturday – as long as she embarks on a stable management course and volunteers around the centre during the week.
Tia lives 10 minutes down the road and was riding before she started at Ebony. But when Maxim, 16, joined five-and-a-half years ago he had no prior experience with horses. “I wanted a dog but my mum didn’t like dogs and my dad’s allergic,” he says. “My mum found this place and was like: ‘Oh, you can do horse riding instead.’” Both now want to work with animals when they’re older, with Tia already studying animal management in college.
Located just off Coldharbour Ward in Brixton, one of London’s most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the centre opened in 2011 on a vacant lot that was “a hub for not good activity”, as yard manager and chief instructor Laura Boland tactfully puts it. Its roots go back 24 years, however, when founder Ros Spearing would take children horse riding in the countryside to offer a brief respite from the area’s high rates of gang-related violence and crime.
Still: if it was just a desire to get inner-city teens off the street, taking them horse riding could seem a little … random? Especially considering not all the children who come are what we might imagine are your typical horse enthusiasts. “We have some kids who come in who’ve asked if they’re cows,” Boland laughs, “and we’re like: ‘No, they’re not cows, they’re black and white ponies.’”
But the centre is more than just a place to explore a new hobby or kill time. While the club is open to anyone who lives in a two-mile radius, priority is given to kids who have been referred via social services.
“Horses have a transformative power,” explains Boland. “Working with them really makes you think about your energy. A lot of these kids might not have ever known how to express their emotions correctly. If you come in angry that horse is going to say: ‘Actually, that energy doesn’t work.’ And then you’ve got to think: ‘Alright, how am I going to make this horse want to work with me?’” That, she adds, is “a really positive” emotional breakthrough.
Moreover, she points out that, because the horse can’t talk back, learning how to work with them encourages the children to be present and reactive in the moment. By being spurred to confront their feelings, the kids are learning another important life-lesson.
This is demonstrated most clearly by Shay. The 16-year-old has been coming to the school for five years and has built a reputation for being able to handle the more troubled ponies. “Tommy’s hard to ride as he’s super sensitive, but Shay’s got the most beautiful calmness to him,” Boland notes with pride as Shay elegantly sails over a set of jumps.
The flow of energy between rider and horse is something of which Boland has hard experience. “A few years ago my horse bolted on the road and flipped over. I nearly died but that experience changed my life for the better. I was in a bad headspace and my horse picked up on that and it all came out in that way.” But she’s quick to note that this was one of the best things to have happened to her, inspiring her to make a big life change. “I definitely wouldn’t have moved to London if it wasn’t for that.”
It’s not just the horses. The playful tit-for-tat between kids and volunteers – the hot topic of that day was Shay’s scraggly beard – a testament to the comforting atmosphere the centre creates. “The big thing that kids say is that we’re like a family and it’s like coming home,” says Jordan, one of the volunteers. “It’s all about making them feel important and about them having positive relationships with adults so they feel like they can do whatever they want to do.”
It’s these twin pillars – the horses’ mirroring energy and the club’s community spirit – that helps Ebony transform so many lives. In the 18 months that Laura Boland’s been at the stables, one poignant case particularly demonstrates this.
“There was this one boy who really didn’t have the easiest life. When he first came he didn’t speak to anybody and was completely non-verbal. Now he’s super confident and chatty – riding the naughtiest ponies and any of the ones that need help.”
With the ponies brushed down and their stables mucked out, the group head into the classroom to clean tack over brownies and hot chocolate. Despite it being a chilly winter evening Maxim and O’Shane, another young rider here today, are taunting each other with buckets of water – “Water fights are common around here,” Boland sighs with a playful eyeroll. The four seniors – Shay, O’Shane, Maxim and Tia – bounce anecdotes off each other while polishing their stirrups. Then the three volunteers and Boland test them on the material from their stable management lesson earlier that day.
Among the scattered conversations, one thing is wholly clear: the kids love it here. And if the conversations I overhear about their future dreams of training for Ascot, going to veterinary school or becoming an athlete are anything to go by, Ebony Horse Club is right about horses having transformative powers. Their ability to turn rocky backgrounds into stable prospects is pretty fucking cool.