"Tell me something to do with horse riding that begins with S?" says Naomi Howgate. She is talking to Warren, a little boy in a blue hoody, whose horse has stopped by a letter S that's been stuck to the fence. "Saddle" says Warren, who's nine, and then he and the other children continue trotting round until Naomi tells them to stop at the next letter they come to. "Tell me something to do with horses that begins with V?" This proves trickier. "Could it be someone who helps horses?" asks Naomi. The clue works, prompting an answer of "vet!" and off they trot.
"If the parents can't afford to pay, we still let the children ride"
It's a Sunday morning in Brixton, and surrounded by tower blocks, four children are riding horses in a fenced off outdoor arena. Naomi, who wears several hats here at Ebony Horse Club, is officially the Business and Funding Manager, but she spends two days a week looking after the stables and giving the children riding lessons. "We're a small charity, so everyone does a bit of everything," says Naomi, who is also qualified as a horse riding coach.
The centre opened in 2011, and now provides riding lessons for 150 children a week. Most of them are local — the children I speak to tell me they live, "five minutes away," or "just over there." But Rads, a youth worker who’s studying sports coaching, tells me they also accept referrals from outside the catchment area.
"There are lots of services we work with like CAMHS [Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service] and immigration," says Rads, "If there’s a high need, an interest in horses, and a history that means they'll benefit from working with horses, then we consider people who live on the other side of London, as long as they can get here. Because although there are other riding centres, we have a holistic approach — we're a youth centre as well, and then there’s the prices."
Ebony Horse Club has been registered as a charity for over 20 years and there are regular trips away for the children to ride horses in the countryside. A four day riding trip in Wales which cost £500 per person, was predominantly paid for by sponsors, with parents asked to contribute just £70, while horse riding lessons at the club are priced at £7 for children from households with an annual income of under £22k. This is a lot cheaper than it would be elsewhere, but it could still seem insurmountable if money's tight.
"If the parents can't afford to pay, we still let the children ride," says Naomi, "Those are actually the children we really want to reach."
"Building trust with the horses helps builds trusting relationships with people"
Zoe, who's 16, has been coming here since she was 10. "My primary school did a six week course here. I was one of the students they brought over, and I've stayed on since," she says.
Ebony Horse Club works with schools most mornings, and their introductory course starts with the basics. "Some of the children have never seen a horse before, so we teach them how to tell if a horse is feeling happy or sad, or irritated, how to walk up to the horse safely, how to build a rapport, and how to get on," explains Naomi.
Zoe comes to the centre once a week for her lesson, and once or twice a week in the evening to volunteer. "But now it’s the holidays, I'm here whenever I can. Near enough every day." The time Zoe has spent here has led to a place at college to study Equine Management. "I'll be learning about horses' behaviour and doing normal yard things, just a bit more extended than what I do now. It'll be early mornings, late nights, and lots of studying," says Zoe, who's clearly prepared to put the work in.
"I want to be an equine vet, or therapist — just working with horses and knowing the ins and outs of why horses do things, what they feel and how to help them," she says.
Oshane, who's 14, wants to become a jockey, while Hosanna, who's 15 also has her sights set on becoming a vet. "I love animals," she says, "but since I've been coming to Ebony and working with horses, I know I want to dedicate my life to animals."
"When I first came here, I wouldn't speak to anyone. Now I've made life long friends"
According to Naomi, 16 children from Ebony Horse Club have gone on to study or work in the equine industry. "If they want to go to college, we help them with that, but if they just want to have fun, that's fine too," she says.
The children clearly love it here, but it's about more than the riding lessons. Howard, 15, has been a regular for the past five years. "I like riding with my friends," he says, "It's fun — you can challenge each other, and see who can jump the highest.
"Jumping's my favourite — I've jumped a metre 10cm."
But like Zoe, Howard comes in even if he's not riding that day. He says, "I come in to see my friends, to help out, and look after the horses. I groom them and get them ready for other people to ride. If I wasn't here right now, I'd probably be at home doing nothing, or out on the street.
"This is an opportunity for me to do something productive."
Zoe also enjoys the social aspect: "When I first came here, I would come for my lesson and leave," she says, "I'd have my head down and I wouldn't speak to anyone. But over the years I've met new people and made life-long friends. I love the good vibes here.
"It helps kids get off the street, and it helps kids who think they can't do things, to actually do something they never thought they would be able to do."
Hosanna has been coming here for seven years. With her GCSEs looming, she now has to spend more time studying, but until recently, she was here four times a week, even though she only rode on one of those days. She says: "I like the fact that you can come in and just spend time with the horses when you're having tough times during your life."
"At first I didn’t enjoy the mucking out, but now I'm used to it"
For Hosanna, the benefits of Ebony Horse Club transcend her time in the saddle: "I like to learn new things because once I know how to do something, I feel happy," she tells me. "And I've learnt how to be patient, because with horses you have to be patient and try to understand why they behave a certain way."
"When we're not volunteering, there's a classroom where I can play games with my friends. We're like a big family, that's why I feel safe while I'm here. Everyone's really nice."
Today, Hosanna is helping out with the younger children. "Anyone over 12, we invite to be a young volunteer," says Naomi. "They teach the younger children how to get their horse ready, lead them round in the lesson, and do the stables. As they progress, we teach them more, like how to spot if a horse is off-colour."
This seems to be something the older children enjoy. Grace, 16, says, "At first I didn’t enjoy the mucking out, but now I'm used to it, it's a really nice experience — it adds to the whole horse atmosphere, and I get to interact with other people.
"Sometimes I assist in lessons, and lead the children who aren't at the point where they can ride by themselves. They need someone next to them, to guide them. I love doing that and I love talking to the young children — they're really cute and it's so nice seeing them progress." This is also an important part of Zoe's experience. Although she'll be moving to Gloucestershire for college, she plans to come back here in the holidays. "I want to help out as much as I can, and help the little kids I don't think I'll be able to leave this place.
"I'll always have to come back."
"You can spend time with the horses when there are tough times in your life"
Grace, who visits two or three times a week, has been coming here since she was eight. "I can canter, I can jump, I can ride bareback, I've done some stunting too — I've reared, which is when the horse picks up their two front legs and rises up. I'd like to do more stunting!" Grace says, although she doesn't have any plans to pursue a career with horses: "I'd love to do accounting, and have horse riding as a hobby," she says.
Through Ebony Horse Club, Grace and Oshane have raced at Ascot. Other children have played in an exhibition polo match at the Guards Polo Club, and most recently, 18 year old Ebony protégé Khadijah Mellah won the Magnolia Cup, an all-female, amateur jockeys’ charity race, that took place at Glorious Goodwood.
There are other benefits. Rads, who's worked here for a year and a half, says: "Even in the time I've been here, I've seen a transformation in children who were non-verbal, who'll now come up to me and have a conversation without me instigating it.
"Coming here helps with their social skills, and EAL [Equine Assisted Learning] helps them with life skills — for example, if they're grooming a horse, it's like, "and you've got to look after yourself, too." They also get a lot of their social circle from us, and it's a safe space for them to grow and achieve their potential."
"The shiny London of pop-ups and six-figure salaries isn't the London that these guys know"
Naomi explains that learning what the horse eats, and that it has to be looked after, builds empathy for the horse. "The trust they build with the horses helps them to build trusting relationships with people — and this can be the first time they've had a trusting relationship," she says, "One of the amazing things is seeing them grow in confidence. We have people who, when they first come here, they won't talk to other young people, they don't know how to communicate with adults, but spending time with the horses teaches them about communication and they really grow.
"Riding itself builds confidence and coming here opens their eyes to new opportunities. We're used to the shiny London that's all pop-up restaurants and six figure jobs in finance, whereas the London these guys know is actually quite different."
The staff members aren't the only ones to find this kind of progression rewarding. When Hosanna tells me why Blossom is her favourite horse, there's an echo of how Rads and Naomi talk about the children. "Blossom's interesting," says Hosanna, "and she's come from a pretty rough background. She wasn't really able to jump properly. So getting to know her and getting to teach her how to jump has been really amazing."
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.