AS GIFTS GO, this one might not seem like much: a vacant lot so full of debris that a dozen trash bins wouldn't be enough to clear it down to the dirt.

But to Ellis Ferrell, the lot on Fletcher Street near 26th in Strawberry Mansion is heaven-sent.

For decades, Ferrell, 76, has longed for land of his own to build stables and a clubhouse for the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, of which he is president.

The club has been around since the 1950s, squatting on a field across the street from that vacant lot on Fletcher Street. But a 2008 raid by animal-control agents and the subsequent razing of its ramshackle stables and clubhouse left them without a home and teetering on the edge of extinction.

Some Internet heroes began riding to the rescue a few years go. Beguiled by features on the club and its "ghetto cowboys" by NPR, its "This American Life" program, Life magazine and others, animal lovers from California to Kenya took to their keyboards to champion Ferrell's club and its role in keeping kids out of trouble.

Two Californians - Susan Jordan, a Delaware native, and Sean Eisele, a filmmaker originally from Philly - created a Facebook page for the club and set up a fundraising page on

A woman now living in Kenya has helped Ferrell, who's not technologically savvy, with online research. Jordan and a North Philly accountant helped the club get nonprofit status last year. A Sewell, N.J., farmer donated 100 bales of hay in December.

The vacant lot came about five months ago, a donation from real- estate investor Adam Ehrlich of Good Bet Trading.

Now comes the big cleanup.

A previous owner put up a chain-link fence across the lot to discourage short-dumping. Still, people have used the lot for years to ditch their junk - including a mountain of manure that towers higher than passers-by. The owners of horses stabled a few doors down deny dumping it there, so the pungent piles are now Ferrell's problem.

"It seems like a big project. There are more obstacles ahead," said Ruth Birchett, a nearby block captain and longtime club supporter, eyeing the manure determinedly. "But it's doable. We can fix this."

Ferrell's first goal, beyond the big cleanup, is to build stalls to return his horses to Fletcher Street. Since the 2008 raid, Ferrell has kept his horses elsewhere - two ponies at Pennypack Park's Circle K Stables and a stallion at a Franklinville stable.

Later, he hopes to build a clubhouse, where college students would mentor his riding pupils, and get proper city licensing for his horses. Donors have pledged nearly $5,600 toward the club's $50,000 fundraising goal on

Philly's full of fillies

There are other horse-riding programs in the city, including Courtesy Stable and the Work to Ride program at Chamounix Equestrian Center, both in Fairmount Park; the Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy in Rhawnhurst; Monastery Stables in West Mount Airy; and Northwestern Stables in Chestnut Hill.

But they can be out of reach, both in price and location, for the kids Ferrell wants to help.

He has no fancy stables nor grooming gear and teaches whoever wants to learn, for free. One of his past students - Kyle Anderson - is a jockey who rides at Parx.

"If you are interested in riding, I will teach you," Ferrell said. "You don't have to be on no waiting list or pay no money."

He teaches kids to canter and trot their horses on the same blighted blocks where many live. The horses are no 4-H blue-ribbon winners: They're rescues. One-Eyed Dusty, for example, lost an eye when he just a colt.

"He'd have been dog meat," Ferrell said of the stallion.

Babbles, a brown pony, was born with a jaw so crooked he looks as if he's making faces at you.

And the surprising sight of horses grazing in the weeds among the rundown rowhouses of Fletcher Street is effective advertising to lure tykes away from the troubles the streets offer.

"Can I ride?" comes the frequent refrain of the parade of passers-by who stop to stare, smile and pet a soft muzzle.

Horses are more plentiful in Philly than one might imagine: Animal-welfare agents estimate that "hundreds" of horses are hidden in back yards and garages throughout the city in conditions many wouldn't consider ideal - or even humane.

The Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gets about one call a week reporting suspected horse neglect or abuse, said PSPCA spokeswoman Elizabeth Romaine.

"People purchase horses like they purchase dogs or cats," said George Bengal, PSPCA's director of law enforcement. "But horses are extremely, extremely expensive to keep and house and feed and get medical care for. It's a big problem for us."

A 2013 law sponsored by City Councilman Bill Greenlee requires regular inspections of stables, annual licenses (at $100 per horse per year), a quarter-acre of fenced open space per horse, a veterinarian-approved equine exercise plan and leakproof containers to store manure.

But the law has gone largely ignored.

"Obviously, when we pass legislation, our intention is to have it enforced," Greenlee said. "But we also know that there are lots of [city] departments that can really use more money than what they got."

Just 12 horses were licensed in Philly this year, according to the Animal Care and Control Team, whose task is to enforce the law.

ACCT also inspected just five private stables (two of which were carriage companies) in the past year, said Tara Schernecke, ACCT's director of field services. The horse law, as well as recent laws requiring ACCT agents to inspect kennels and do extreme-weather checks on city pets, are unfunded mandates that are tough to meet with a staff of 12 animal-control officers, Schernecke said.

"Obviously, we would have to start citing anyone who remains out of compliance with the law," Schernecke said. But many "people just don't know about it."

The law carries fines of $150 for noncompliance - or $2,000 and forfeiture of the horse, if agents find the animal has been abused.

Still, Bengal said, there's no penalty for scofflaws who ignore the fines.

"If you get two or three parking tickets and don't pay them, they can boot your car," Bengal said. "You don't get your horse licensed and you choose not to pay the fine, I don't know of any other penalties. That's silly. There's no incentive to follow the law."

A nabe's unsung hero

Ferrell, who grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., was 8 or 9 when he first rode horses . . . well, sort of.

"My grandmother always said, 'I'm not buying anything I can't eat.' So she bought bulls," Ferrell said. "So I rode bulls before I rode horses, because that's the only thing I had to ride."

Although he spent his working life as a truck driver, Ferrell never left the stables long. For most of his students, it became a lifelong passion, and for some, a career.

"If I hadn't had this when I was younger, I would have gotten into trouble. But I was always here getting dirty and staying out of trouble," said Lee Cannady, a Philadelphia police officer who worked for years in the mounted patrol unit. "I was here every day after school - unless I was being punished. That was the worst thing you could tell a kid - that they couldn't ride for two days."

Kyle Anderson, 27, the Parx jockey, agreed: "This guy [Ferrell] taught me everything."

That's why Birchett, 62, has joined the crusade to revive the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club even though the only time she ever rode left her "sore for two days. My buns was cooked."

Ferrell "is one of the unsung heroes in our neighborhood," Birchett said.

Ferrell's an old man now, and most of the kids who ride his horses now are his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The riders who exercise their horses in the city-owned field on Fletcher Street are decades younger and no longer active in Ferrell's club, even though he was their first teacher.

But for Ferrell, with the new lot and a team of supporters, the future seems as long and bright as it did decades ago and he's itching to get his club back in action.

"I don't plan on dying," he said. "I'm planning to live as long as my grandmother. She lived to be 104."

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo