Our railway arches are home to a whole host of diverse businesses and organisations that provide a wide range of activities, services and products for their local communities. Among the slightly more unexpected organisations to be found in the arches is an urban riding school and charity that changes the lives of young people in Brixton by teaching horsemanship and providing opportunities to develop key life skills.

Ebony Horse Club moved to land nestled between the tower blocks and railway lines of Brixton in 2011. The charity teaches young people aged eight to 18 how to ride and take care of horses. It also offers opportunities for the youngsters to enjoy days out at Ascot Racecourse and to hear from inspiring speakers from the City of London – activities that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. These opportunities help members to build their confidence, learn new skills and expand their horizons. Among the Club’s members is Khadijah Mellah, the first female, hijab-wearing jockey to win a flat race in the UK. Her story has since been made into a TV documentary, Riding the Dream.

Naomi Howgate, general manager at the Club, said: “Ebony is a youth club that just happens to have horses. We usually welcome 140 riders a week, providing lessons in riding, grooming and other aspects of horse care, as well as taking them on educational trips and experiences that help them switch off from the challenging circumstances that they may have at home.”

The programmes that the Club provides were scaled back when the Coronavirus pandemic hit. Naomi said: “What’s a horse club without horses? We haven’t been allowed to offer classes during lockdown, so while our horses would usually winter away in the Surrey countryside every year, they’ve been on an extended break right through to the Spring. It made sense to close the centre, but we’ve still been working and keeping in contact with all our families. We’d never done online sessions before; our activity has always been face-to-face, but our youth team have run zoom calls, checked-in with parents, made sure anyone who needed it had mental health support. It’s been hard, but we have kept going.”

Since they started over 25 years ago, Ebony Horse Club has welcomed anyone from any background to ride or simply enjoy the space. They have four arches in about an acre of land just a stones-throw from Loughborough Junction station. Naomi said: “It’s the horses that draw people in, but people come for lots of reasons. We offer a lifeline for families going through difficult times or who don’t have access to outside space. To be able to get outdoors in a safe space where they are supported is so important. If love, trust and respect isn’t available to them elsewhere, they get it in spades here and the horses give so much back. They are very intuitive. Every child has their favourite horse, and the horses know it. It’s really special.

“The Centre is good at bringing everyone onto a level playing field. The horses are big, powerful animals. Your background doesn’t matter because once on the horse you have to control it. If a member has a lesson and the horse does what it needs to do, steering round cones, complicated things like jumping, it can be really empowering for them. You can see them thinking ‘I just did something I didn’t think I could. Overcoming my nerves worked with this horse.’ It’s so important for their self-esteem. When the horses are here, people stop to look and spend time in the fresh air. It’s a really different vibe and community spirit. It makes a huge difference.”

The charity finances its activities through fundraising, which had to continue despite the difficult backdrop of lockdown. Naomi said: “People could see that communities were struggling. We carried on a presence on social media and were surprised by people’s generosity. We agreed a rent holiday with The Arch Company, which was extremely helpful and though the next couple of years will be difficult, we’re hoping to expand so that we can offer more support for local people.” The Club is already in negotiation to move into another railway arch so that they can expand their inside space and offer more workshops, homework clubs and one-to-one sessions.

51 Millbrook Road, London