It was a holiday party, Fletcher Street cowboy style.
The little ones — when they weren’t chasing the chickens or picking out gifts — got hoisted onto horses for a short ride, the teens guiding the horses in a circle around a Christmas tree. The adults tasted olive oil and wine given out by a man in a leather jacket and a cowboy hat. All around, horses in their stables — with such names as BLM, Freeda, and Tennessee Whiskey — watched on.
Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, an iconic horse riding nonprofit serving young people and one that has struggled to stay in operation due to lack of funds, was hosting its second annual toy giveaway at its North Philadelphia stables Saturday afternoon.
The scene could have fooled partygoer Prince Thomas.
“We don’t even know we’re in Philadelphia,” said 57-year-old Thomas, with a laugh.
The club, founded in 2004 by patriarch Ellis Farrell, sent the word out on social media that it was doing a toy giveaway and received more than 500 gift donations, said Hannah Gaudite, Ferrell’s assistant. Lite-Brites, Slinkys, even two scooters that the club held a special drawing for.
Beloved by fans across the world, the club knows how to mobilize its supporters. Last year, it launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the club’s expenses. Ferrell, 82, had been paying out of pocket to support its operations. Fletcher Street set a goal of $100,000 that would go toward hay, feed, and medical care for the horses — it has now raised nearly $350,000.
The fund-raising campaign was likely helped by this year’s Concrete Cowboy, a film starring Idris Elba that was shot around the Fletcher Street stables and included some Fletcher Street riders, though not specifically based on the club. But Fletcher Street has long been the subject of artistic projects: A young Fletcher Street rider was on the cover of Life magazine in 2005, photographer Martha Camarillo published a book about the club in 2006, and the club has been featured in a Barnes museum exhibit.
In recent years, the club has faced other hardship. Across the street from its stables is a block of under-construction Philadelphia Housing Authority apartments for seniors, built on a plot of land the riders used to use for horse grazing and riding.
Representatives of the club declined to speak about the development.
But Michael Cogbill, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s Third Congressional District who attended the Saturday party, called the development “a shame.”
“This is a pillar in our community,” he said, adding that Ferrell is “saving kids” by teaching them how to tend to horses.
Still, Ferrell, known as “El Dog,” said 2021 was a great year for the club. Seated by a fire and clad in a Santa hat, he spoke of the trips the club was able to take kids on — to the mountains in New York, to a horse auction.
“We’ve been able to keep ‘em together,” he said, “keep ‘em out of trouble.”
And the club is a special place for adults, too.
Leroy Jordan, known as “Rowdy” (pronounced “Roadie”), learned from Ferrell and Ferrell’s grandson, Milan, how to ride and care for horses at Fletcher Street a decade ago, when he was in his late 30s. Now, his nieces and grandkids come to ride. But still, for Jordan, 47, the club is a “safe haven.”
Riding, he said, “it take you to another world.”