FROM THE OUTSIDE, the ramshackle rowhouse on Fletcher Street near 27th, in Strawberry Mansion, looks like any other property whose owner couldn't keep up with the bills.

But step inside, and you are in Horse Hell.

Fifteen dull-eyed horses live in cramped, makeshift stables built along one wall.

Urine-soaked carpeting covers spongy wooden planks that form a narrow walkway outside the stalls.

Cobwebbed chains dangle for no apparent reason from the ceiling, which is hidden in a dungeonlike gloom penetrated by just a few bare lightbulbs.

Rats scurry boldly between the moldering stalls, and the stench of animal waste is nauseating.

Outside, another few dozen horses live in similarly squalid stables.

The outdoor equine slum seems more like a junkyard, with old jalopies, a dented filing cabinet, rusty metal barrels, tires and other trash sharing space with the horses inside their barbed-wire-topped, chain-link-fenced enclosure.

In one lot, a mountain of manure looms higher than the nearby bulldozer that shoveled it there.

The horses' owners say that the site is a savior for area children, who come daily to ride and tend to the animals, and who otherwise might fall victim to the streets.

But the horses are the real victims, say city officials and animal-cruelty investigators, who stormed the site yesterday to shutter the stables.

City officials gave the owners of 60 horses counted at the site yesterday 24 hours to relocate their animals, after which the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will take them.

SPCA agents removed a pony and a horse that they decided were too sick to stay.

Authorities also announced that they would bulldoze the outdoor stables, which sit on city property, tomorrow.

It is legal to privately own horses in the city, and there are no restrictions on the number, but the SPCA gets involved if agents determine that the animals are not cared for adequately.

Inspectors from the city's Licenses & Inspections Department condemned one rowhouse containing stables that is in danger of collapse, and ordered that unsafe electrical wiring and other problems be addressed in another.

The undertaking outraged many horse owners, who swarmed the scene and shouted at police officers, L&I workers and SPCA agents.

"When this all be gone, I want you all to come down here and see what happens to these kids," shouted Charles Phillips, vice president of the Urban Riding Club, which owns 30 horses. "Some of them are going to be dead; some of them are going to be in trouble."

About a dozen children out at recess at neighboring Richard R. Wright School pressed against the fence that circles the school and joined in the protest.

"Don't take the horses!" one shouted, as another pleaded: "Bring those horses over here!"

Horse owners questioned the raid's timing, saying that the site has been a patchwork urban farm for more than a century - and that the city has owned some of that land and ignored their squatters for decades.

City property records show that city agencies have owned at least four parcels of the illegal farm since 1970, and another one since 1990.

"All of a sudden, it's a big deal and they got to move these horses and close all this?" horse owner Kevin Hatch asked. "It don't make no sense to me."

Hatch and other horse owners said that they pay someone $100 a month or more to rent the stables and sometimes care for the horses.

None would identify who they pay, and authorities said that they're investigating those claims.

Some horse owners accused city leaders of closing the stables to clear way for residential development.

But Frank Keel, a spokesman for the city Redevelopment Authority, said the agency has had problems convincing anyone to develop the site.

"There was an attempt made about 15 years ago to build phased public housing on the site, but the environmental tests on the soil apparently were problematic and the housing project was abandoned," Keel said. "There's been no developer interest since then."

"We approve of the city's actions today to shut down the operation," Keel added.

"The neighbors in the surrounding area deserved to be rid of this problem."

"We are aware of the situation and are investigating it," said Doug Oliver, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter.

The SPCA's chief executive, Howard Nelson, said that neighbors have repeatedly complained about the animal stench that permeates the neighborhood and the horse urine that often flows along their curbs.

And SPCA workers also have been cracking down on animal cruelty, which has been declared an epidemic in Philadelphia, he added.

Such cruelty includes a dead horse that was found last fall at a similar stable around the corner from yesterday's Fletcher Street activity.

"Nobody's saying they can't have their animals," said Lisa Rodgers, the SPCA's director of outreach.

"They just can't have them drinking water with feces in it."

Nelson agreed: "Some of these horses were standing in three feet, four feet of feces."

Yesterday, one SPCA veterinarian was especially disturbed at discovering an open bottle of vitamin B, an injectable that normally needs a prescription.

"I don't know how they got that," he said.

While some agreed that the stables weren't thoroughbred-worthy, they insisted that the horses weren't poorly treated.

And although many horses' coats were matted with manure and other muck, one owner said that his freshly washed horses like to roll in the dirt.

Another said his pony was dirty on purpose.

"He needs to be washed, but you can't wash him in weather like this because he'll freeze," said Hatch, whose pony Special K was one of the two sickest animals removed yesterday. "I don't think he was in such bad condition."

Many horse owners blamed city and state leaders for failing to recognize - and fund - the riding programs operating from the illegal stables.

"We try to maintain the building, but we can't do everything because we don't have the money," said Johnny Williams, who owns a horse named Fantasia.

Phillips complained that state politicians and city leaders have ignored his pleas for money to help support the stables.

He said he recently applied for non-profit status, so that his club could secure funding to reach more children.

"This really is a historical landmark," he said. Phillips' horses were housed in stables that were not condemned.

Horse owner James Royal, whose Fletcher Street Riding Club owns 13 horses, said he believes the stables could be a "tourist attraction."

But as SPCA agents waded through urine puddles and manure piles, some simply shook their heads at such sentiment.

"Even the rats don't want to live here," said Nelson, as one rodent scuttled out of view. *