Stables throughout North Philadelphia offer children and adults with hands-on horse riding experience.
On corner lots, sandwiched between empty buildings away from arterial bus routes, horses roam Philadelphia. They don’t smell, they don’t leave droppings in the street and they don’t make hoof marks in the grass. Members of the self-named Black Cowboys can be seen riding to Fairmount Park.
“We have the most beautiful horses, they’re the best kept,” said the owner of stables on West Fletcher Street, who wished to remain anonymous because of legal issues pertaining to the stables.
Fletcher Street riders are just a few in a larger network of Philly riders. The Black Cowboys, as well as other privately owned stables are spread around the city, most of which are found in the northern quadrant.
Local residents, often children, learn how to ride and care for the animals.
The Cowboys ride down broken sidewalks and side streets, usually to open areas like Fairmount Park and Lighthouse Field on Erie Avenue, and parks off of Cheltenham and Germantown avenues.
South Carolina native Otis Zimmerman owns stables at the former site of Accurate Electro Planning Inc. on the corner of 11th Street and Allegheny Avenue. He advises riders not to race horses in the city.
“I buy a horse for pleasure, not for running,” Zimmerman said. “I buy a horse for joy riding.”
Now in his 60s, Zimmerman and his sister Elizabeth Zimmerman, who no longer ride, now manages the stables after their brother, Alfonso Zimmerman, died. The family of 13 children moved from the country to Philadelphia in 1959 when their mother got a job in a hospital. Otis Zimmerman said he found the transition difficult.
“In the South, whatever you eat you have to grow,” Zimmerman said. “People work hard all day and make less money–people in the South [are] a whole lot better than people in the city.”
Alfonso Zimmerman opened the stables in the 1990s. Now, Otis Zimmerman owns three-quarter ponies and a full horse named Chica. He uses Chica and the ponies to teach children to ride. He supplied horses for a rodeo at the Liacouras Center and also rents ponies for parties and other events.
“I always tell [the children] never go up to a horse from behind, and never mount them on the right side, always on the left,” Otis Zimmerman said.
The stables attract children who are not involved in extracurricular activities and whose parents need ways of keeping them occupied outside of school.
“It depends on how long the parents wanna keep ‘em here,” Otis Zimmerman said. “There’s some that are teenagers.”
Rebecca Gilbert, an instructor in the department of rehabilitation sciences in the College of Health Professions and Social Work explains that children respond to animals due to the lack of peer intimidation.
“When you’re getting feedback from the animal, you’re not getting that emotional weight attached,” Gilbert said. “Horses are prey animals, very in-tune to what the other members of the herd are doing.”
Gilbert said this makes them ideal for young children and teens.
“An animal is very honest–it is what it is,” Gilbert said.
While Otis Zimmerman maintains his stables without much disturbance, the riders on Fletcher Street have had a different experience. In 2008, the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals raided the stables and took two ponies, citing them as being in unsuitable operating condition.
The owner successfully sued, and after a veterinary inspection determined the animals to be healthy, the ponies were returned. Fletcher Street currently holds a business license. PSPCA issued an online apology after the return of the animals.
The stables had an earlier incident in 2004.
Some of the stables at Fletcher Street were dismantled, and private developers tried to buy the land for houses. Riders there declined to comment.
Christine Kindler, southeastern regional director for the Pennsylvania Equine Council, explained that horses are not a new phenomenon in Philadelphia. Historically, they were the primary mode of transportation for city residents. Today, when owning horses in an urban location, she said the issue becomes more about waste management and zoning laws than stable upkeep.
In 2009, the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission published its “Draft Recommendations for a New Zoning Code and a Change Memo.” In May 2011, the zoning code commission wrote its new code and sent the final proposals to City Council. Before that, the last major zoning regulations were published in 1988.
“It’s a manure issue, the question is what’s going on in the neighborhood,” Kindler said. “Part of what you have to look into when you’re keeping a horse is what the nutrient treatment plan is. Is [the manure] going into the water supply?”
Kindler emphasizes that horses, as well as people caring for them, must be in a well-ventilated area to prevent inhaling the ammonia from urine.
Both Otis Zimmerman’s horses and those at Fletcher Street receive monthly veterinary visits, and once a year the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals inspects his stables. Fletcher Street occasionally has surprise inspections.
Otis Zimmerman said he doesn’t know why his stables have not come under scrutiny like those of his colleagues.
“You just try to keep it clean,” he said. “My horse [Chica] she’ll always go to the bathroom in one spot–just like my dog.”
He requires everyone who uses his stables to help with the clean up of waste, and warns riders not to feed the animals before riding to avoid droppings left in the street. This, he said, staves off neighborhood complaints.
He arranges for animal waste to be collected by Fairmount Park Organic Recycling Center every few days.
“They charge me to come pick it up, then they charge me for the weight of it,” Otis Zimmerman said.
The stables are paid for out of pocket, with sporadic donations here and there.
Individual owners at the stables purchased horses at auctions. Otis Zimmerman spent $999 on two horses, riding equipment and feed at a New Jersey auction on Sept. 28.
Otis Zimmerman said the future of the stables depends on what his family wishes for them once he can no longer manage the horses.
At Fletcher Street, riders are determined to stay put for as long as the law will allow, and said they are not moving anytime soon.
Amelia Brust can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.