Pony Kids: Urban cowboys

Among kids living on Dublin housing estates, horses vie with motorbikes as the preferred way of getting around. But new legislation, aimed at cleaning up the city's image, threatens the pony kids' way of life. Photographs by Perry Ogden. Words by Fintan O'Toole

In Ballyfermot and Ballymun, Clondalkin and Finglas, the large public housing estates that ring the city of Dublin, an extraordinary equestrian culture has evolved, spontaneously, in the past decade. In parks and back gardens, on greens and waste ground, the teenage children of mostly unemployed families keep their ponies. In Ireland, horse ownership is generally the prerogative of farmers and of the wealthy business and professional class. Dublin's suburban horse culture is a fascinating example of what happens when the poor appropriate the pleasures of the rich.

When I was growing up in a Crumlin housing estate, then on the outer limits of the city in the 1960s, horses were not an unusual sight. Milk and coal were delivered by horse - scrap was collected the same way. And the divide between city and country was still blurry - some of our neighbours kept hens in their back gardens, one local man even kept pigs. While much of this disappeared in the 1970s, enough survived to make plausible the recent tradition of keeping horses.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, many itinerant Traveller families were settled in the outer suburbs of the city, and some retained the love of horses that has long been a central part of their culture. The horses that once pulled caravans around country roads ended up tethered in the gardens of council houses. What is fascinating, though, is that kids from the settled community had no difficulty identifying themselves with this aspect of Traveller culture. Travellers have long been despised and discriminated against by mainstream society. But many of those growing up in Dublin's suburban sprawl don't feel particularly mainstream either.

One of the simplest explanations of the pony kid culture is the easy availability of cheap horses. Once a month, at Smithfield Market in the centre of Dublin, an almost medieval horse fair takes place. Chaotic, noisy and vividly alive, it has none of the quaint, folksy air of a ritual for tourists. The air is loud with shouts and curses, sharp with the tang of horse sweat and urine, the damp stench of dung. Bullet-headed riders clatter their ponies across the rough cobblestones. Mounted posses appear in the surrounding alleyways, then push through the crowds like invading armies. Sharp-eyed kids appraise the flesh, then walk away in high dudgeon at the seller's scandalous demands, only to sidle in again when the underlying rhythm of the market sends out the signals that now is the time for a bargain.

All of this unruliness rests uneasily in Dublin's modern metropolis. Wandering horses have caused fatal road accidents, and pose a threat to public hygiene. And the animals themselves are often subject to neglect or wanton cruelty. Many of the young owners have little idea how to care for the horses. Not surprisingly, the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA) has campaigned for the introduction of regulations governing the ownership and care of horses. The Control of Horses Act came into effect in 1997, and may well mark the end of the suburban horse culture. According to the new law, horses have to be licensed at a cost of pounds 25, and must have a microchip implanted in one ear to identify the owner. But licences will not be issued unless the horses are kept in well- regulated stables with at least one acre of privately held land, and unless the owner is more than 16 years old.

Most of the "suburban equestrians" are too young and too poor to meet these conditions. And if they don't their horses are impounded and, if not redeemed, eventually destroyed. The pony kids, long identified with a Wild West image of Dublin suburbia, have, ironically, become outlaws. And in the process, the lawmakers have set up a series of culture clashes - between rich and poor, old and young, and between the so-called Celtic Tiger economy and the less respectable place from which it has emerged.

The problem, though, is that the law looks more like an attempt to eradicate the urban horse than an effort to control abuses. The authorities seem to find the very idea of working-class kids keeping such animals amid the windswept concrete of the ill-planned suburbs they created in the early 1970s and 1980s offensive and embarrassing. In addition to the genuine concerns about animal welfare and human health, there is a distinct sense of a newly rich city anxious to bury the more awkward aspects of its past.

There is no obvious effort to see the world from the point of view of the pony kids, to understand what needs are being filled by the elemental sense of freedom they get from galloping across a piece of waste ground. There is a vacuum in their lives where education, ambition and hope should be. And there are other forces waiting to fill that gap. These kids may not be old enough to get a licence for a horse, but many are old enough to have seen widespread heroin abuse, or to have seen close relatives die from Aids-related illnesses. For many the choice is stark - drugs or crime versus horses. The new law does not address that bleak choice.

At various times, local community groups have attempted to acquire land, to set up proper stables, and to run schemes which educate owners in the correct care of horses. Keeping horses enriches the lives of these kids, helps them to develop a sense of responsibility, and diverts them from destructive alternatives. These groups have received little help, and few have been able to sustain the cost and effort involved. In that sense, the row about urban horses is no more than a microcosm of a far greater conflict in Ireland, the conflict between a booming economy and the persistence of large-scale poverty.

To watch these kids riding their horses is to see those who are often pushed into the ground moving joyfully above it. It is to see powerless kids suddenly fused, even for a few moments, with a powerful impetuous force.

Over a two-year period, Perry Ogden plunged into the turmoil of the Smithfield horse market with his camera. Using a neutral white background, he plucked kids from the crowd of riders and dealers, and created moments of stillness in which their humanity is captured. As images of the young, these photographs break with tradition. Perry Ogden's photographs could not be further from the familiar Irish stereotypes of cute kids in a rural landscape, war- hardened kids on the streets of Belfast, or gorgeous, cool kids in hip new Dublin. These compelling images force us to confront a sub-culture struggling against extinction

Extracted from `Pony Kids' published by Jonathan Cape at pounds 20 on 18 February 1999 Perry Ogden 1999

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