Nestled in the heart of Brixton surrounded by high-rise tower blocks and railway arches lies the home of Ebony Horse Club, the charity that hit the headlines this summer when one of its members, Khadijah Mellah, captured the Magnolia Cup at Goodwood.
Established 22 years ago by keen rider Ros Spearing after she identified the need for a way to take youngsters in Lambeth and Brixton off the streets, Ebony Horse Club started out by hiring mini-buses and visiting riding schools.
In 2011 the Club moved to its current home, which was built as part of the Olympic legacy project, providing the organisation with stables, space for up to nine horses, an arena and a paddock.
The charity focuses on the belief that riding and horse care can have a transformative effect on young people growing up in one of south London’s most disadvantaged communities, by teaching life skills and providing opportunities for personal development.
Ebony’s Engagement Manager David Fleming, who joined the organisation two years ago with business partner Naomi Howgate, says: “What we’re trying to do is change lives through horses.
“We like to think we’re helping to combat knife crime”
“Horses can do a lot as there are certain attitudes that young people have to have when they’re around horses. They need to leave their angst and anger at the gate as horses react to that.
“We also want the young people to ride the horses, get fit and learn the responsibility of owning and taking care of a horse. These are the kind of skills that they’ll take home with them.
“Mainly we work with disadvantaged kids and the basis would be that it is an 80-20 split that are classified as disadvantaged.
“This area has a lot of knife crime and we’re working with the council and the government to help tackle getting young people off the streets. We like to think we’re helping to combat that.”
Young people wanting to become a member of Ebony Horse Club initially come to the facility with their school for a six-week riding programme, which costs £30. Once completing the course, those wanting to ride are placed on a waiting list before they can join as a member, which gives them the opportunity to ride once a week.
“They have the benefits of all our camps and trips,” says Fleming. “We go racing, to Olympia, to eventing yards, and go to Wales for a camp. They get to do things that they’d never dream of doing initially and a lot of them don’t realise what’s out there beyond south London.
“One time after a camp, one of the older members was crying when we were leaving because he was going back to London after an amazing time, knowing full well that it would be the only holiday he’d get that year.”
Since joining Ebony Horse Club, Fleming has been keen to showcase the racecourse and breeding industry to the 160 young people that make up the Club. He previously worked in bloodstock for 20 years with roles at Coolmore and the Racing Post.
Fleming says: “I’m passionate about anything to do with racehorses. The racing and the breeding industry have been incredible to us, as they’ll take us behind the scenes like they did when we went to Ascot and got to meet Frankie Dettori and see the weighing room.
“These are the kind of things that young people need to see when you want to show them racing. It’s not about showing them a bookmaker and how betting works; it’s taking them behind the scenes.
“We were really keen to get Khadijah into the race”
“The British Racing School, the National Stud and Godolphin have been phenomenal to us.
“I really want the racing industry to embrace what we’re doing and to help us. If the young people want to get into racing, I’ll do everything I can to get them in there. If they want to get into other equine sports, I’ll do the same.”
It was through Fleming’s racing connections that he brought in ITV Racing’s Oli Bell as patron for the charity. It was Bell who had the idea to have a representative of Ebony Horse Club in a charity race.
Bell duly secured a place in the Magnolia Cup at Goodwood; all that was required for Fleming and Howgate was to select a female rider to compete in the race.
He says: “We had two candidates we thought would be good and we spoke to both of them. We were really keen to get Khadijah into the race and we were honest with her about how hard it would be and the level of publicity she would receive.
“She had never ridden a racehorse so I rang the British Racing School to ask if they could offer her training, which they did. I then contacted Nick Bentley, a jockey coach, to get him involved.
“Khadijah was staying at the British Racing School, riding out for a number of trainers but then got involved with Charlie Fellowes.”
There was a significant bump in the road for all involved when Mellah failed her fitness test a month before the Magnolia Cup. While many may have let the news defeat them, the 18-year-old was determined to take her place in the line-up. And what a line-up it was.
The 12 women taking part in the five-and-a-half furlong sprint included Victoria Pendleton, the Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist and accomplished amateur jockey, TV presenter and model Vogue Williams and Sophie Van Der Merwe, a professional event rider.
Undaunted by her big-name rivals, Mellah proceeded to produce a ride that Jamie Spencer would have been proud of, settling her mount Haverland in mid-division, challenging late up the stands’ rail and charging home to take the spoils by the narrowest of margins in a thrilling finish.
“We are a charity and funding is so important for us”
Her success sparked jubilant scenes at the racecourse, creating a memorable day for all of Ebony Horse Club to enjoy.
But Fleming is not resting on his laurels and is keen to keep spreading the word of Ebony Horse Club and the work that they do even further.
“We are a charity and funding is so important for us,” he says. “If the funding dries up then we’d be gone, which would be devastating for so many young people. That’s not going to happen on my watch.
“The vital thing for the future is that we keep our core values and we don’t deviate from them. The Khadijahs of the world are great but helping an eight-year-old kid to ride is just as important, as we need to look after all our members.
“I would love to see us becoming more well-known and obviously, I’d like to see an Ebony Horse Club in every city. Saying it and doing it is another thing and it’s incredibly important if we do expand that we keep our core values.”
‘WE NEED MORE PLACES LIKE EBONY TO GET CHILDREN OFF THE STREET’
One of those who has benefited greatly from Ebony Horse Club is Calvin Cassar. He first started coming to the south London charity with his school at the age of 12.
Suffering with ADHD, dyslexia and autism, Cassar found it hard to settle in a classroom and much preferred hands-on work. Becoming part of Ebony was a huge benefit to him.
Cassar said: “I chose this life and it’s turned out better for me as I had difficulties going through life. I was homeless three or four times, but I still did college to learn what I needed to do for horse care management.
“Ebony is something we need more of to get children off the streets.”
Through Ebony Horse Club, Cassar has now gained a place on the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association’s Entry to Stud Employment Programme, which takes place at the National Stud in Newmarket.
He said: “David talked to me about it, as he used to do a lot of stud work, and I thought it might be a different route for me to go in.
“I want to see where it can take me; it should be a good experience.”