Almost every weekend, Bryhen Carter, 28, can be seen riding a thoroughbred horse through the streets of North Philadelphia past trash-strewn lots and aging rowhomes.
For Carter, a product of the storied Fletcher Street Riding Club, the longtime hobby helped teach him responsibility and kept him off the streets as a youngster.
"When I was about 13 and had my own pony, I knew for a fact that if I didn't get down there before and after school, they weren't going to eat, they weren't going to be clean, they weren't going to have their stalls cleaned," Carter said.
While Carter and other enthusiasts love owning a horse in the city, which is permitted by law, animal welfare officers are not keen on it, pointing to the number of irresponsible owners. Horses are the leading victim of animal cruelty complaints in the city behind dogs and cats, according to the Pennsylvania Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA), which removes two to five horses a month.
"Most people, they really don't think about the cruelty aspect. They're just getting a horse and they're not actually thinking about what they need financially and space-wise and even the knowledge of horses," spokeswoman Wendy Marano said.
The recovered horses are usually purchased for cheap at auctions and kept in "backyard ownership," Marano said. The animals are often found with their ribs showing due to malnourishment, have sores, the wrong shoes or lack proper veterinary care, she said. She cited a case earlier this year where an owner surrendered three malnourished horses to avoid animal cruelty charges.
"The question people should be asking themselves is not whether I'm allowed to have a horse, but should I have a horse," she said.
Ellis Ferrell, head of the Fletcher Street Club, acknowledged that some buy horses for the wrong reasons, but that most owners take it seriously.
"It's a tradition for us to have horses," he said. "Really, it's a lost art because it's something that we grew up with."
'We treasure our horses'
The Fletcher Street Riding Club has had some setbacks since a highly-publicized run-in with the PSPCA in 2008. In that incident, animal welfare officers took two ponies that it claimed were neglected, but were ordered by a judge to return them, according to Ellis Ferrell, the club's president.
Ferrell, 73, said he takes good care of the horses and plans to rebuild the program that once had 23 horses and up to 30 kids.
"We take good care of our horses because we treasure our horses," he said.
The club has lost its stables on West Fletcher Street and had trouble raising funds since the incident, but Ferrell said the club hopes to regain its land and jumpstart the tradition.
What is prohibited?
While horses are permitted, city law does prohibit the owning of certain farm animals:
cow or similar creature in all but a few designated areas like zoos, schools, and slaughterhouses