‘Cleveland Cowboys’? Local Non-Profit Wants to Bring Equestrian Sports to the Inner City

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By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

The Compton Cowboys became a powerful, positive face of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer when they showed up at protests on horseback, dressed in the coolest threads, challenging stereotypes and inspiring other potential future equestrians in front of the world.

Urban stables are not a new concept. The Compton Cowboys began over 20 years ago, around the height of the Bloods-Crips rivalry, as an alternative to joining a gang. The dynamic group highlights the “rich legacy of African-Americans in equine and western heritage.” Urban stables centered with the Black population exist in many major cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, even London, England

Leg Up 4 Cleveland’s Kids (LUCK) is a local collaboration of several individuals involved in equestrian sports who want to add Cleveland to the list. Dr. Laura Hammel, a professor at Notre Dame College, is one of a small, dedicated group of LUCK staff, committed to exposing Cleveland’s kids to all aspects of equestrianship, including grooming, exercise, riding, even mucking out stalls. Program attendees are referred by teachers, counselors, and sometimes by word-of-mouth — no one who meets the criteria is turned down. 

Current participants are bussed out from their homes in Cleveland to Elan Equine, an equestrian center in Wellington, Ohio, where Hammel and others oversee their instruction. For many, it is their first exposure to horses. LUCK’s goal is to obtain property within the city of Cleveland to build a community stable that will become the program’s new home.

“We want to be accessible for the kids so that they can ride their bikes, or their parents or school buses drop them off,” says Hammel. 

“Making horses accessible within the city scales the number of students who can learn with horses and deepens the experiences and learning they can have,” says David Silver, the founder of Detroit Horsepower. “And by turning vacant land into a community asset, the facility can strengthen the neighborhoods that young people grow up in and add vibrant new opportunities that shape the city’s future.”

Hammel says LUCK has received verbal support from several Cleveland City Council members, but has struggled to find suitable property in the city. According to Hammel, the group went through “a year and a half of talks” with the City, which included potentially sharing space with the Cleveland Police Mounted Unit. Hammel considers that an “ideal” arrangement due to the potential for a creating positive connection between children and police officers. 

“We looked at a site at Kirtland Park, which was just east of Muni Lot … it was the perfect footprint for the stable. It had an unused baseball facility where the horses could graze and have paddock space. It also has a park underneath that is part of the Historic Register, so it would be a family area with a stable overlooking Lake Erie. It was right behind the railroad tracks, so the police could ride their horses downtown and have access to the Browns Stadium, and so on, said Hammel. “The city council was very supportive of this move and of the location. We had architects draw up plans. Mayor Jackson’s cabinet, they put a stop to it and wanted to move it to a plot of land near E. 55th Street [and Thackeray Ave.]. There is a landfill that is not under the city’s jurisdiction, that is leaching into that area. It is also a very high crime area.” 

Since the end of those initial discussions, LUCK has looked at several other sites and partnerships, including the City of Newburgh Heights, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and Slavic Village. A plot of land proposed by the City of Cleveland, Washington Park in Newburgh Heights, was rejected by the group.

“Our deal-breaker, by our board of directors,” explains Hammel, “is that it has to be land that the city is willing to do a simple deed over to a third party Conservancy, or an organization that will be the good steward of the land, but we can’t go to our funders and say, ‘give us a million dollars, or half a million, and then in 50 years or even in 10 years, the city might take it out of our hands and put a mortgage on it, you know, because it’s developable land. We can’t risk that.”

The Mayor’s Office responded to a request for comment saying more information about this topic is forthcoming soon and will be released to The Observer.

Equestrian sports have long been viewed as an elitist sport dominated by wealthy, white people, and non-inclusive simply by virtue of being too expensive for anyone earning less than six figures, and exacerbated by the general economic disparity seen among the Black population. This often leads to perceived cultural limitations and other racist behaviours inflicted on Black equestrians. White equestrians have now begun speaking up about these issues and demanding the need for inclusivity to be addressed.

Urban stables take many forms, but their mission is the same — to introduce a different way of life to the city, while providing at-risk youth an alternative “gang family” to the violent versions found in the streets. 

Photo Credit: Rachel Cruz