Special Report

Philly Stories

Horses bring hope to North Philly youths

Yasin, a young volunteer at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club walks a horse named Victory down Fletcher Street to the corral. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

When the COVID-19 pandemic started two years ago, the staff at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in an impoverished section of North Philadelphia, did not know if they would survive. Crime soared as gun violence gripped the city. Riding and training horses in Strawberry Mansion during such a time did not seem like it would be a stop on anyone’s to-do list, but they were wrong.

Life at the non-profit has been stable as more kids have turned to Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club to find a safe space.

“I want to keep kids off the streets,” founder Ellis “El-Dog” Ferrell, 83, said. “I want to give them something to do besides nothin’ because if they got nothin’ to do, they might get into trouble.”

Ferrell said the non-profit space is a safe haven for kids of any age to come and engage with the horses while building character and community. 

“We’re not just teaching kids how to ride,” he said. “We teach ‘em how to take care of ‘em. You gotta know how to take care of ‘em if you want to ride ‘em.” 

That includes feeding the horses, keeping proper maintenance on them and the stables, and knowing how to saddle them up before a ride.

Ferrell said he wants the horses at non-profit to continue keeping kids safe long after he is gone.

“I just want people to remember me for keeping these kids out of trouble,” Ferrell said as he sat in a foldable chair wearing a shirt that read “Black Lives Matter” and a brown cattleman hat. “When I’m gone, they can say, ‘he taught me.’ That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.”

From left to right: Aziyah, Hakeem, Aazim, and Yasin chat while sitting on the edge of the water bins for the horses in the corral. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Theron, a young volunteer at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, poses with Babbles at the stables. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Aazim poses with Babbles, one of the horses at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia. Babbles was kicked in the face by her mother when she was young, which resulted in her crooked smile, but she is cherished at Fletcher Street. Aazim is a great-grandson of founder Ellis Ferrell, and he has been involved in horse riding and helping at the stables for several years. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Aazim and Theron give a child a ride during their visit at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Ellis Ferrell, founder of Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, sits in a chair and talks about his love for horses. “I had a one-eyed horse that wasn’t trained right,” Ferrell said. “I was out there every morning in the field with him — lunging him. I retrained him. He was my special horse. I get emotional talking about it because we bonded. We both loved peppermint candy. He knew when my truck would pull up because he would get some peppermint. After training, he knew he would get peppermint. He just knew.” April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Darrin Ferrell, son of Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club founder Ellis Ferrell, stands in the corral on Fletcher Street as the horses run around. The corral offers a space for the non-profit’s horses, along with those not belonging to the non-profit, to be active. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

A young visitor at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club gets a full view of teeth from Khloe, one of the horses there. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Rasul walks their newest and largest horse to the corral on Fletcher Street as a Septa bus passes by. They are currently trying to decide between the name Brutus or Hercules for him. April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Aziyah, a young volunteer with Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, interacts with the non-profits newest and largest horse that hasn’t officially been named yet. “Just because he’s bigger, doesn’t mean he’s scarier,” she said. Aziyah is the only young girl who volunteers at Fletcher Street. “It’s given me more confidence. It feels special being the only girl here, but a part of me wishes there were a tad more here. A lot of girls my age would rather do their makeup or go to parties, but that’s not me. I love it here.” April 23, 2022. Photo by Nathan Morris

Some of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club group. Generations of volunteers, from children to adults, participate at the non-profit. “It’s a community here,” said Ellis Ferrell, founder of the non-profit. Photo by Nathan Morris