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Poverty
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Europe
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Ireland, Dublin, Horses, Housing Projects
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In the jungle of Dublin's high rise public housing complexes, teenagers bypass wheeled transport in favor of horses, riding bareback down city streets and through patchy fields. For these young boys, the bond between horse and rider reflects an escape from the poverty and drug use that surrounds them.
Stefanie Boyar

1996 — student award of excellence

In the jungle of Dublin's high rise public housing complexes, teenagers bypass wheeled transport in favor of horses, riding bareback down city streets and through patchy fields. For these young boys, the bond between horse and rider reflects an escape from the poverty and drug use that surrounds them. The lifestyle of these urban cowboys or pony kids is steeped in a long tradition of horse culture in Ireland, dating back to the horse-drawn carriages of itinerant travelers and coaches used by the wealthy. But the reality of this cultural phenomenon is far more grim. Often abused by young owners ill-equipped to properly care for them, many ponies are malnourished, kept in gardens and public parks or worse -- wandering the streets and creating a public nuisance.

These growing abuses culminated in a showdown between the urban cowboys and the Irish government, which resulted in the passage of the Control of Horses Act in December 1996. This legislation allows local municipalities to enforce rules preventing the ownership of horses by anyone younger than 16 and allowing the seizure of mistreated or malnourished ponies on public land. The law was long overdue - the Dublin S.P.C.A. euthanized more than 100 injured and diseased horses in 1996 alone. But eradicating the urban horses won't be a simple process, as enforcing the law has set up a culture clash between animal rights advocates and Dublin's pony kids, who take pride in their urban cowboy image and relish the freedom they feel while galloping through the city. The goal of these photos is to foster a greater understanding of this urban cowboy subculture as it struggles against the threat of extinction.  

This documentary project was completed while studying photojournalism through Syracuse University's London Center.

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Wesley Smith, 14, is one of Dublin’s last urban cowboys. In December of 1996, the government passed legislation that will prevent children from owning horses and will allow local officials to round up the horses on public land. The new law will mean an end to a way of life for riders such as Smith, who gallop bareback through the barren fields around the high-rise public housing complexes. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
A horse roams over the sparse patches of grass in Ballymun, Dublin’s most notorious public-housing project. Because many of the boys can not afford to stable their horses, they tie them up outside the buildings. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
Pony kids liken their image to the romantic visions of the Wild West, where outlaws and cowboys rode horses as a means of transport before cars were invented. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
Horses are shoved through the cobblestone streets at the Smithfield Horse Fair, a monthly horse market not far from the city center where the cowboys meet to buy, sell, race and show-off their animals. Although many of the horse owners’ families are on welfare, they pay as much as $500 for the animals. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
The Dublin S.P.C.A. regularly patrols Smithfield, looking for incidents of abuse or neglect. Adequate bridles and saddles are a rare sight. According to the S.P.C.A., many of the horses are just changing hands from one fair to the next. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
A group of boys meet at a Texaco station on a Sunday afternoon. Owning a horse is more prestigious than owning a car for many of the cowboys. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
The Ballymun Horse Owners Association houses as many as 23 animals at a time. The stable, which has been around for 16 months, is set up in a building that used to be a pub. The club was set up as a place for cowboys to stable their horses and learn how to properly care for them. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
Horse clubs set up to educate Dublin's young horse owners have some success stories - a pair of pony kids use their horses to pull a coal-delivery cart through the city, using proceeds to to feed and shelter their animals. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
Owning a horse has become central to the identity of young boys in Dublin. “They mean well and they try hard,” said Peter MacMahon, a veterinarian who treats many of the abused animals. “But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems.” Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation
The reality of urban riding is far more grim than the image of cowboys riding bareback through the city. Unable to be saved by Dublin's S.P.C.A., a young pony is delivered to the municipal dump. Stefanie Boyar/Alexia Foundation