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Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy Preserves Urban Black Cowboy’s Legacy, Shares Love of Horses with Community

by Rebecca Walton/Phelps Media Group | Jan 12, 2021, 2:25 PM

Left to right: PURA Executive Director Erin Brown with rider Jessie Schulman on Kidd, rider Stephon Tolbert on Kowboy, and Michael Upshur.
Photo: Courtesy of Phelps Media Group

Horses and city life—these two things are not often seen as synonymous, but for the founders of the Philadelphia

Urban Riding Academy, these are an ideal they strive toward every day. PURA was founded to preserve the life, legacy, and culture of Black urban cowboys in the city of Philadelphia. It was established by the producers and directors of the recent Concrete Cowboy movie, starring Idris Elba, to be aired on Netflix late spring of 2021. But its new mission is to create a home for children, teens, and adults to experience horses up close and personal in the city of Philadelphia. 

The urban Black cowboy has been living throughout neighborhoods in Philadelphia for over 100 years. From the early 1900s through the late 1950s, horse-drawn wagons delivered ice, milk, and other produce to residents of the city. Horses were no strangers to Philadelphia streets; eventually modern vehicles replaced those delivery routes, but the urban Black cowboy still remained. 

Fletcher Street Stables was one of the first urban stables and was one of the last standing homes for the urban Black cowboy. Like the others preceding, Fletcher Street held those same values: family, friends, and horsemanship. Over the years, generations of urban youth wandered into the barn, learning how to responsibly care for horses and how to ride. They became part of an environment giving them refuge from the more troublesome areas of the city.

Erin Brown, known as The Concrete Cowgirl, began her riding career at Fletcher Street Stables and has been competing horses for nearly 30 years in both the hunt seat and stock seat disciplines. After the passing of the late Eric Miller, Brown became the Executive Director of PURA and has been working hard to continue its mission.

Brown is an active representative on the USEF Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion External Thought Leaders Group and contributed to the development of the USEF DEI Action Plan. A key strategy of the plan is to partner with organizations like PURA through the USEF Community Outreach Organization program and Opportunity Fund.   PURA is one of several like-minded organizations USEF will be working with to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible. 

PURA currently supports multiple programs, including a 4-H Club, Cowboys Against Crime, and the Junior Concrete to Cowboys and Cowgirls, which includes horsemanship and riding lessons for the urban youth of Philadelphia. While the constant encroachment of gentrification wiped out historical equestrian landmarks, including the loss of Fletcher Street Stables’ turnout area, the team at PURA has continued to believe in their mission to keep horses in Philadelphia. Before his passing, Brown was working with Miller to find a new home for the organization and help it expand to be inclusive for a larger community. 

“Eric wanted me to come see a building and it wasn’t in the same neighborhood, so I was against it at first,” explained Brown. “When I looked at the property, though, I fell in love. I knew in my heart that this was the place. It’s perfect because although it’s backed into Cobbs Creek Park,  it is also right across the street from a residential location. So you are in the city and then you cross the street and you are in the park. It’s a gorgeous place. Once it is a barn, it is going to be absolutely amazing.” 

In June of 2020, Brown and PURA joined forces with North Run’s Missy Clark to create Concrete to Show Jumping. With a mission to open doors to diversified worlds within the horse industry, Concrete to Show Jumping aims to open the eyes, minds, and hearts of equestrians by participating in new experiences, forming new alliances, and building friendships with equestrians from diversified backgrounds.

The first project that the two have launched together is raising the funds for this new facility through an initiative

called “Fresh Start for Philly Youth.” This home will provide stabling for 20-25 horses, paddocks, an indoor and an outdoor arena, as well as recreational space for other youth and veteran programs. With the help of the entire equestrian community, PURA and Concrete to Show Jumping believe that this goal is attainable. Every dollar raised will be put towards the facility and the horses and students who will call it home. 

“If your child wants to learn how to ride but you can’t afford it, there will be a program for that,” explained Brown. “There will be recreational programs for those that just want to be around horses. This new facility will provide a safe environment for everyone in the community to be able to enjoy.” 

“Horses are something that touched all of our lives in such a special way,” Clark added.”It’s important to continue that legacy and bring it to people who would not otherwise have the access to horses in their community.”

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, PURA is now collecting donations for the Fresh Start for Philly Youth initiative, creating a new facility that will provide a space unlike any other for children, teens, and adults to experience horses up close and personally. For more information or to be a part of Fresh Start for Philly Youth, please visit thepura.org or donate here.