Urban horse riding and urban cowboys in Dublin
Urban horse riding is when children and teenagers keep horses in cities and housing estates in a striking contrast to the green countryside stables where equines are usually kept. These riders have been called urban cowboys or pony kids. They often ride in their trainers and jeans without helmets or other accessories like jodphurs, body protectors and boosts that riders usually wear.
Some of the most notable places in the Western world where this has been documented are in Ireland, Philadelphia and the United Kingdom, although there are likely to be more cities around the world.
Urban riding is often likened to the romantic visions of the American Wild West when it was commonplace for outlaws and cowboys to ride horses as a means of transport before cars were invented. When this happens in the 21st century, kids can often be seen riding their animals to the local shops or to local parks where they play with their friends.
Keeping horses in inner-city areas also harks back to periods between the 18th and 20th century when work horses were used to pull pull carts or taxi wealthy people in coaches. These horses were often kept in stables near houses with small brick yards and little greenery - a situation similar to urban horses today.
Although urban riding is considered romantic by some, it can also be dangerous as the horses are often not supervised by qualified professionals. There have been numerous cases of accidents involving horses and equines that have been mistreated.
In most areas, local authorities have taken action to prevent the use of urban horses. Animal welfare groups such as the DSPCA in Ireland have taken a hard-line approach in condemning urban riding. However, in each case, community groups have been organised to help the horses and their owners to enjoy riding.
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The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club was established by men from a deprived ghetto in Philadelphia where horses have been part of their community for more than a hundred years. Despite gang and drug related violence gripping the area, the group of african-american riders are protecting their horses and urban riding so that children at risk from gangs may learn many qualities like discipline, respect and reward that are associated with equestrianism. Like urban riding in other cities, notably Dublin, their cultire is threatened by creeping modernisation across North Philadelphia. The group have filmed a documentary (right) about their story.
Similar schemes have taken place in Dublin, Ireland, where hundreds of ponies and horses are ridden on the city’s council estates. Many of these are bought from the 400-year-old horse market in Dublin. Unfortunately, many horses and ponies are abandoned each year and need to be put down. Although there have been prominent cases of cruelty, many of the children are very attentive to their pets. In September 2007, celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin and the show jumper Jessica Kurten trained five of these urban ‘’pony kids’’ from Dublin to compete in the prestigious RDS Dublin Horse Show.
More recently, the Grassroots Urban Horse and Pony Club, was established in Bristol, England, to provide a suitable riding arena for the children who ride urban horses on the city's deprived Knowle West estate. The club has received a road safety training course from the British Horse Society and they are currently applying for more grants.
In conclusion, urban horse riding appears to thrive in deprived inner-city areas among youngsters hooked o the thrill of riding. This transcends the sterotype of horses as a pursuit only for the wealthy and ties in with the free-spirited accepting nature of the horse.
Although it can be dangerous due to its unregulated nature, urban riding undoubtedly provides a lot of enjoyment for children and teenagers who would otherwise not be involved with a traditionally upper-class and expensive sport. For this reason, it is well worth maintaining and developing.
*Urban riding, where it is described here, refers to it happening in the West. There are places where children ride horses freely among dense populations in the East, but horses are often still used for work in these areas which can still be classed as third world. The contrast with the wealthy developed world is what makes urban riding in the West so unique.