In the heart of South London, away from the wide-open meadows and vast paddocks of rural England, an urban stable provides an opportunity for friendship and escape from the freneticism of London.

Horse riding, as with many activities that encourage participation in nature, improves the physical and mental well-being of people. The young riders at the Ebony Horse Club build their confidence and bond through teamwork, enhancing their resilience via close bonds with the horses. We come to learn that the charity is far more than just a stable nestled between tower blocks and train lines. 

‘We are an oasis in an urban community; between the railway lines and tower blocks of south London’.

Naomi Howgate, General Manager of the Ebony Horse Club

In Brixton, close to Loughborough Junction, brightly painted railway arches serve a plethora of purposes. Some are storage whilst others lay empty. Boxing gyms, motor mechanics and dog groomers have each claimed arches under the tracks, upon which Thameslink and Southeastern trains speed along. Above the clattering of trains is often the sound of young Londoners, revelling atop horses in Wyck Gardens, a slither of green space in a densely populated area of South London. This area is one of many in South London that suffers from underinvestment, subsequently, deprivation and a lack of opportunity are common themes affecting people throughout the local community. Yet local residents have sought to alleviate themselves and their neighbours from these ills. The Loughborough Junction Action Group was formed by volunteer residents in 2008 with a view toward sustainable regeneration. This is an area that has been defined by the altruism of individuals.

The Ebony Horse Club was established over 25 years ago when local resident Ros Spearing noticed that there were very few opportunities available to her young neighbours. She had learnt to ride as an adult and was enlightened by the experience. She endeavoured to share this joy, seeking to embolden a sense of pride in a hobby that could provide opportunity within a disadvantaged area. A place synonymous with gang crime and youth violence, Loughborough Junction and its environs were rundown. Notably, the vicinity of the railway arches was consumed by illegality. Ros Spearing convinced a number of young people to uptake her offer of learning to ride horses, but they were forced into travelling to stables in other areas of London. The young people who accompanied Ros were enthusiastic about this opportunity and subsequently asked to bring along friends to future sessions. This model was maintained for over 15 years, with an emphasis on youth work provided by a local community centre and a coach service transporting riders to their horses. A significant barrier to access was toppled in 2011 when the land was reclaimed in Wyck Gardens to establish an urban stable. The image of drug use and youth violence was ridden with, in its place a state-of-the-art facility with an adjoining arena and paddock. 

Through the teaching of riding and horse care, as well as conducting outdoor activities and trips away, the Ebony Horse Club has a restorative nature. Offering new experiences to children that have been neglected of access to typically rural pursuits, mentors encourage young people to exceed their expectations.

‘I know about the joy and fun that you get from riding, as I’ve experienced that myself…it’s something that should be available to a lot more people’.

Naomi Howgate, General Manager of the Ebony Horse Club.

Their influence has encouraged many to pursue college, university and horse-related careers, the latter would likely be implausible without the work conducted by the staff and horses at Ebony. The well-being of children and young adults is at the forefront of a project that also caters for those with emotional and behavioural difficulties, as they endeavour to ensure that no child is neglected of opportunity. 

Particularly for those who struggle with feelings posed by emotional and behavioural difficulties, horses provide an empathetic and calming presence. As emotionally intelligent animals, they can take the place of figures who may not be present in a young person's life; they respond to emotion and require calmness and sensitivity from a handler. During the grooming process, the riders learn to regulate their emotions. Important life lessons are acquired through the bond forged between horse and rider. 

Wyck Gardens' small size fails to inhibit the mental health benefits attained from accessing green space. Despite the congestion and overcrowding of London, Wyck Gardens is part of a safe space for young people, within which they can exercise and pause from external stresses, where supportive figures can provide care and comfort. 

Naomi Howgate is the General Manager of the stables, following on from a period of voluntary work with Ebony that began in 2017. In her time spent within the landscape of youth services, funding has been scythed by the local government. This leaves the Ebony Horse Club stables as one of the last bastions of youth care, a sanctuary for a growing catchment of young people. To protect itself against the hostility of cuts, Ebony is part of a strong network of other youth charities. ‘We are always working together with a wide network of other youth charities’. This allows those in a position of care to navigate young people towards other services that will benefit them. 

The elitism and cost of equine sport is a further barrier to access. To counter this the Ebony Horse Club has heavily subsidised its lessons against that of other London-based stables. A session at the stables costs under £10, with further subsidies available to those in need of help. This is a testament to the Olympic Legacy Project from which the stables acquired its funding in 2011. In the build-up to the London 2012 Olympics, the British Equestrian Federation donated £200,000 to the Ebony Horse Club, thus helping the charity expand the number of children it taught from 40 to 160 a week. 

The aspirational world of horse riding is beginning to accept and adopt those from a greater breadth of backgrounds. Khadijah Mellah, a rider who began her career atop horses at Ebony, has since gone on to become the first hijab-wearing Muslim jockey to compete in a British horse race. After expressing an interest in riding, her mother noticed a flyer for the horse club at her local mosque. Committed to the sport of horse racing, Mellah was presented with an opportunity to represent Ebony Horse Club at charity events. One of which allowed her to train with professionals at the British Racing School, at Newmarket. The Magnolia Cup is an all-women charity race and the 2019 field included sportspeople and celebrities in their ranks. Mellah won the race, receiving rapturous applause and plaudits from commentators in the succeeding months.

A problem rife around London is the redevelopment of working-class areas, where housing stock is replaced with unaffordable units, creating a displacement of inner-city communities. Loughborough Junction has not escaped the tight grip of gentrification, in part due to thoughtless urban planning. ‘When this place was opened ten years ago, no one would come to the park to do yoga and walk their sausage dog’, a sign that the area is no longer infected by high crime rates, but a possible challenge to the longevity of the stable's current home should displacement be taking young, working-class people away from the area. 

This is not an immediate concern. The Ebony Horse Club is well-positioned to continue providing care to young people for the foreseeable future. Such is the collective strength of their number that they are seeking to expand their operations to other urban areas, perhaps even beyond London. One prospective location, a former stables under a railway arch within the confines of the M25 has already been acquired by a local council to be transformed into an office and co-working space. The prospect of regular rental yields has guided the decision-making process of many London councils; whilst complimentary of the vital work of the Ebony Horse Club, the behaviour of these councils provides a sobering reality. 

In the face of great external challenges, those behind the Ebony Horse Club remain determined to provide effective youth services to as many people as possible. Their tenets of holistic youth development are fundamental to their core values. 


Images from within this article were captured by photographer Stan Platford. More of his work can be seen on his website.

With thanks to Naomi Howgate and the young riders of the Ebony Horse Club for their cooperation. If you would like to support their efforts, find out how you can help via their website.


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