Deep in the beating heart of Brixton in south London, the Ebony Horse Club is quietly teaching inner-city children the joy of being around horses, as patron and ITV Racing presenter Oli Bell reports.
It may be slightly strange in this special edition of Country Life to spend the next few moments reading about a riding centre that could not be more inner city. However, in all my time working and being around horses, I can honestly say that nothing has had as profound an impact on me as the Ebony Horse Club, situated in the vibrant, beating heart of Brixton, south London. As a patron, I feel very honoured that I can take this opportunity to tell you all about this wonderful charity.
When you arrive at what is described by Ebony as a ‘youth club with horses’, you are instantly made to feel welcome, not only by the staff, but also by the incredible children and young adults who spend their time volunteering and caring for the horses stabled under the arches of one of London’s busiest train lines.
On the small patch outside Ebony’s metal gates, children are playing football, locals are sunbathing and youngsters are whizzing past on their scooters. Inside is a group of young men and women, local residents who spend their hours after school and weekends caring for nine horses under the tutelage of a team of hard-working and dedicated staff. Those that work at Ebony go about their business without fuss and always with a smile.
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The volunteer programme sees its 30 or so members engage with all aspects of horse care and employability skills. Weekly riding lessons provide the backbone to the week and enable the 80% of children who arrive with no riding experience to feel the thrill of riding a horse. Added into the mix are outings and day trips away from London, aimed at broadening horizons and raising aspirations, which means there is rarely a quiet day at Ebony.
Having been launched in 1996, this bedrock of the local area has been nearly 30 years in the making. What started out as a once-a-week, after-school provision has grown into the all-encompassing youth charity we see today, which opened its own dedicated centre in 2011.
Yet although Ebony is thriving now, there have been some dark days along the way, notably in 2007, when a hugely promising young rider, Nathan Foster, was shot dead when mediating in a dispute between two rival gangs. Foster, who had learned to ride with Ebony, was only 18 and a role model for youngsters seeking to avoid the violence of the inner city. For those fortunate enough to have seen him ride, he was tipped for the top, with the ability as a horseman to turn professional. The fact that his life was so pointlessly cut short will never be forgotten.
The glimmer of light amid the immense sadness of this story is that it brought attention to the work Ebony is doing with young people in Brixton. This meant the charity received considerable support, including royal patronage when The Duchess of Cornwall became president in April 2009. This exposure accelerated the fundraising drive to build a dedicated riding centre in the heart of the community, becoming a permanent fixture in the area.
Now, more than two decades since it all began, Ebony accurately reflects the diverse and multicultural country we live in. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your background is or who you are — quite simply, everyone is welcome. As Maria, an 18-year-old Ebony rider, says: ‘I feel included here and no one ever judges me.’ Maxim, also 18, credits Ebony with ‘helping me socialise with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise’, going on to say that the youth club has ‘allowed me to be myself’. In a world that can often be dictated by social media and filters, it’s incredibly heartwarming to hear youngsters acknowledge and value the opportunity to socialise together and be true to themselves.
I have spent most of my adult life involved with horses and I see first hand the incredible relationship humans and horses have. For those who live in the city, this is naturally far harder to experience and yet Ebony quietly goes about its business giving people an experience that, once they feel it, will remain with them forever. They call it ‘the bug’ and, once you get the bug with horses, it will never leave you.
Not only is there a sense of achievement in learning to ride, caring for horses also teaches responsibility, teamwork and communication, as well as physical and mental benefits. Were it not for the work they do here, many volunteers and Ebony alumni would not have learned those vital life skills that make the transition into adulthood that much easier.
For parents in the local area, Ebony can be similarly transformative. I’m sure that, as a parent, there is very little more rewarding than seeing your child blossom. As Gladys, mother of one of the riders, explains: ‘It has completely changed my daughter’s life. It has given her the opportunity to learn to ride and to develop her skills, through which she has discovered a true passion — her dream now is to be the first person of colour to represent Team GB in equestrian sports at the Olympics.’
Arguably Ebony’s most famous graduate is Khadijah Mellah, a young woman from Peckham who, in 2019, trained to ride in the Magnolia Cup, a charity Flat race. She defied the odds to record a groundbreaking and historic win at Glorious Goodwood in West Sussex. A team of filmmakers documented her journey in Riding A Dream, which aired on ITV that year. When I first met Khadijah, I asked her what she wanted to achieve out of the ‘challenge’ and her answer will stay with me forever. She said: ‘I want to inspire people like me that anything is possible.’
Given the thousands of messages Khadijah subsequently received from youngsters all around the world, from all walks of life, it’s fair to say she has done what she set out to do. Added to that, she has helped to set up the Riding A Dream Academy, designed to provide a pathway for youngsters from inner-city riding schools into the equestrian world. Khadijah is an incredible force and someone of whom I am immensely proud, but had she not been taught the foundations at Ebony, none of this would have been possible.
It goes without saying that, for a lot of the youngsters at Ebony, life could take a different path and yet the security and love that they receive there allow them to fulfil their immense potential. Khadijah is one of a number of huge success stories and I hope that, in years to come, we will continue to see and hear of many others. Wouldn’t it be great if the club was used as a blueprint to open up equivalents in every city in England?
There are a host of incredible people deserving of thanks, who work tirelessly to benefit others and, were I to list them all, I’m not sure Her Royal Highness would have much space left in this magazine, but they all know who they are. What the staff at Ebony do changes the lives of so many people and I’m sure I speak on behalf of the parents and children in saying a massive thank you to each and every one of them. The truth is that Ebony doesn’t only change the lives of the youngsters that walk through the door, it alters all our lives. I hope, wherever you’re reading this, one day you will be lucky enough to experience it for yourself. I guarantee it will change yours, too.
To learn more about Ebony Horse Club, 51 Millbrook Road, London SW9, or support its work, telephone 020–7738 3478 or visit www.ebonyhorseclub.org.uk
Friends of Ebony Horse Club
Khadijah Mellah first came to Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire with her family on QIPCO British Champions Day in October 2019, the year in which she won the Magnolia Cup at Glorious Goodwood in July. That was a wonderful achievement and showed what a positive impact racing can have throughout society if it takes the opportunity to do so, writes Sir Francis Brooke, The Queen’s representative at Ascot Racecourse.
Meeting Miss Mellah prompted me to devise a racing syndicate called the Friends of Ebony Horse Club, whose members wished to support the charity both directly and by funding horses in training. This enabled young people from Brixton to visit racing yards in Epsom, Lambourn and Newmarket and to gain valuable work experience, as well as watching horses represent them on the racecourse. The syndicate’s horses run in the blue, red and black colours of The Duchess of Cornwall and, thus far, the syndicate has had four winners.
At a race day last November, Her Royal Highness welcomed many young people from Ebony to Ascot and made sure that they had a day to remember forever. The link between The Duchess, Ascot and the Ebony Horse Club gives everyone involved enormous pleasure and long may it continue.
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