Ghetto ponies keep Dublin’s urban cowboys away from drugs

Dublin's urban cowboys - by James Horan
The Horse Riding, Nike Wearing, Tough Kids of Dublin - Photo by: James Horan
Dublin's urban cowboys - by James Horan
“The Horse Riding, Nike Wearing, Tough Kids of Dublin” – Photo by: James Horan

The kids are not old enough to legally own a horse, but old enough to have seen family members and friends lose their lives to drug abuse. For twenty years, the Irish government have worked towards removing the only thing keeping the vulnerable outlaws away from criminal activity: The horses.

In “Pony Kids”, published in 1999, Jonathan Cape writes: “There is a vacuum in their lives where
education, ambition and hope should be. For many the choice is stark – drugs or crime versus horses. The new law does not address that bleak choice”.

It started with gypsy ponies wandering into the poor neighborhoods of Dublin. Football fields became homes of hungry herds and the young cowboys started buying and breeding the animals. Ballymun, Dublin’s drug capital, is the original home of the remaining urban cowboys and pony kids.

Dublin's urban cowboys - by James Horan
Photo by James Horan
Urban Cowboys - Photo by James Horan
Photo by James Horan

Irish photographer James Horan grew up in an housing estate where kids kept “ghetto ponies” in the back of their houses and raced them bareback through the streets. Many of the young, urban cowboys are children of settled gypsies adapting to the urban city life, bringing the old tradition of horse ownership with them. Horan’s parents would never let him talk to them. Once a grown man, he came back to photograph the fading phenomenon, an aspect of the past the newly rich city of Dublin is keen on repressing.

In an interview with Vice, Horan talks about the social stigma around the phenomenon:

“Some people that live in housing commissions are gypsies that were settled by the government, so they went from traveling the country around in caravans to the housing commissions. Some of them took it up but they brought a culture with them. They brought the horses and you’ve got to remember that in that society if you own a horse, you have status”, he said.

Urban Cowboys - Photo by James Horan
Urban Cowboys – Photo by James Horan

“The kids from the city all have Nike or Adidas tracksuits and wear runners. It is almost like a dress code in the housing estates in Ireland and in England. Riding bareback is a sign of how tough they are. It’s really fascinating, and a lot of the culture is actually disappearing”, Horan said to Vice.

The Control of Horses Act, a result of a growing number of animal abuses and a conflict between the urban cowboys and the Irish government, came into effect in 1997. It marks the end of the urban horse culture, a long-lasting headache for the government. Dublin’s pony kid culture was built on the easy availability of cheap ponies and monthly meeting places like the Smithfield fair.

The regulation of the Smithfield Horse Fair has drastically helped eradicating the
phenomenon.

“A lot of the kids don’t know what they are doing, they get the horse because their friend has one and they live in really poor neighbourhoods where there is high drug problems, high unemployment and bad family backgrounds which sometimes make them forget about their horses”, Horan said.

Urban Cowboys - Photo by James Horan
Urban Cowboys – Photo by James Horan

As a result of the irresponsible and possibly dangerous horse management, animal welfare groups as the DSPCA have, together with the government, taken a hard-line approach trying to condemn the urban riding. On the other side, people recognizing the positive effect the ponies have on the vulnerable teenagers have organized community groups to help the horses and their young owners.

There are still a few pony kids left, racing their ponies through the parking lots and waste grounds of Dublin’s suburbs. Having moved from Dublin to Australia, Horan put the experience of his youth into perspective:

“As a kid I always kept away from the people who had horses, my parents would never let me talk to them. I think a lot of Irish people in general kind of turn their backs to the gypsy population, almost like how Australians turn their back on the Aboriginal people here”, he said.

1 Comment

  1. Those kids are abusing those poor horses. Not much of a life for the poor equines, being kept in housing estates, being pulled around, allowed to wander and get injured…and look at some of those photos: the first one, the kid is too big, and the kid in the background is yanking back on the horse’s mouth. The horses are rearing in an attempt to get rid of the pain in their mouths. The horse rearing in the photo with the boy in the wheelchair could very easily go right back over and the kid would get badly injured or killed.
    The kids are NOT tough or “cowboys” – they are ABUSERS, and the horses are cheaply bough and are deemed expendable.
    The sooner this “culture” dies off or is killed off, the better.

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