Friday Standing Ovation: The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club

Each week we applaud an individual or organization that is doing good work in the horse world. Meet this week’s Philly-based honoree.

Top photo: riders on Fletcher Street. Photo from EquitaLove, Creative Commons.

Hidden within one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club has operated for over 100 years, keeping local kids out of trouble–but it’s in critical need of help.

It’s the last place you’d expect to find horses, although the Strawberry Mansion area of Philadelphia has always had some equine traditions. The rowhomes are knuckled in tight to the gray streets; this is not the Philadelphia you’d be visiting as a tourist. The Fletcher Street Field wasn’t a top-of-the-line equestrian center but it did call this neighborhood home–an abandoned grassy lot was transformed into a series of corrals, barns, riding areas and outbuildings. At one point over 30 horses called this encampment home: they weren’t bedded down in piles of shavings or groomed in heated wash stalls, but they were well-fed and well-cared-for, and more importantly, they were well-loved.

The Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, in some respects, is a typical group of horse enthusiasts–both adults and children participate, caring for the club’s horses and ponies, sharing the work and the pleasures of riding and spending time with the animals. For club members, however, the horses often make the difference between a productive and positive life or falling into the habits of crime so prevalent in the neighborhood. The club had plans to raise funds to construct a real equestrian center, hire instructors to teach neighborhood children how to ride, expand the herd to accommodate more riders, and more. While the rest of Fletcher Street was a decidedly rough neighborhood, it was observed that the block around the field and the horses was very apparently crime-free. Peace seemed to rule.

But in May of 2008, anonymous complaints brought the SPCA to Fletcher Street in a highly-publicized incident, where the group seized two ponies out of the herd. The ponies were found by a vet to be in perfectly good health and were quietly returned to Fletcher Street a day later. The media onslaught indirectly led to the city of Philadelphia ordering all of the horses off of Fletcher Street Field and the lot to be bulldozed flat; the horses were dispersed and the club nearly disbanded.

Current club president Ellis Ferrell, 75, has managed to hang on to three horses and a pony, most of them rescues from kill sales. The greatly-reduced herd is being boarded in a stable across from the now-vacant field; many of the structures along Fletcher Street still include such small stables. Ferrell still supervises a handful of children and adults who help care for the horses and ride (and sometimes drive) through the streets of Strawberry Mansion, with most of the expenses coming out of Ferrell’s pocket. Numerous adults who grew up on the backs of Fletcher Street horses credit this man and this program with saving them from becoming criminals, and are trying to help in any way that they can.

Photo from Organic B'z, Creative Commons

Photo from Organic B’z, Creative Commons

Ferrell and the supporter-formed group Friends of Fletcher Street are working to raise money to purchase either a vacant lot and build a barn, or purchase a property with an existing barn to give the club its own home. The club is currently going through the paperwork to become an official non-profit in the hopes of gaining more momentum and more attention from the city of Philadelphia. In the meantime, however, Ferrell is getting older, and money is getting tighter. His horses are needed more than ever to give an entire neighborhood a little hope, a little cheer.

If there’s one thing Ferrell isn’t short on, however, it’s hope. And where there’s hope, there’s room for big things to happen.

Check out this video about the current state of the club:

If you’d like to learn more about Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club or make a donation, please visit their fundraising website.

If you know someone who deserves a Standing Ovation, we would love to recognize them in a future post. Email the name of the person or organization along with a message about the good work they do to [email protected] Photos/videos are always welcome, and include a link to their website if applicable.

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