Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Experience points to embracing our urban cowboys


- Reframing sulky riding in a positive context
By Allen Meagher
Anyone who’s seen the video of sulky riders taking over both sides of the Cork-Mallow road would be inclined to think sulky racing was a menace.
Indeed, prosecutions did follow, an outcome welcomed as much by community groups as by the general public.
However, the exception does not prove to be the rule and as Chrissie O’Sullivan from the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG) says of the urban horse culture, “media portrayal has not been helpful.”
She argues that, “The issue of horse ownership should never have become a negative issue.”
In 1996, legislation was introduced that made it almost impossible to legally own and ride a horse in an urban area.
The Control of Horses Act has not so much eroded the sub-culture, as driven it underground.
If a stranger were to enquire about who owns any of the dozen or so horses grazing on land across the road from ‘Changing Ireland’s office in Moyross, they’d have to wait until hell freezes over before they get an answer.

ANIMAL WELFARE & CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY
This raises issues over public liability, animal welfare and civic responsibility. It leaves people in housing estates who dislike horse-dung on their doorsteps with little recourse to action.
Image from YouTube video
“It raises issues in every county in the country,” says Chrissie. TVG held a seminar earlier this year to promote the positives.
Of course, horse-owners themselves have at times been responsible for producing media that contributes to the negative portrayal. Over half-a-million people have watched video uploads of the sulky-race on the Cork-Mallow road. The film was shot by some of those involved.
In response to the race, Cork County Joint Policing Committee recently proposed legislation that would see sulky racers wear helmets and take other safety precautions. They would also be required to seek permission in advance of races.
However, the committee did not call for an outright ban, perhaps recognising there are positives to sulky-riding. In fact, embracing the urban horse culture represents a tremendous opportunity to reach minority groups from youths to Travellers.
As Chrissie told the seminar, “The ownership of horses is the last most tangible link back to the Traveller nomadic way of life…. And local authorities can make a big contribution and have secured access to land and stabling in some areas.”
HORSE PROJECT CHALLENGES & REWARDS
TVG’s seminar was attended by John McCormack, director of services with Kilkenny County Council, who spoke from experience about the challenges and rewards in setting up a social horse project. A number of cases of animal cruelty have been documented so far this year in Kilkenny, yet John highlighted the willingness to drive on with the project. The council works closely with Kilkenny Leader Partnership on the project.
In Cork, Chrissie’s colleague John O’Sullivan works as TVG’s men’s development worker and he sees it in very simple terms: “Travellers would be a happier people, if there were proper places to keep horses.”
And proper places to race.
Motorsport rally driving on public roads is facilitated by the authorities and Martin Collins of Pavee Point believes that “steps could be taken to facilitate sulky racing in a safe context.”
In Limerick and Clondalkin and other places, groups of horse owners have come together in recent months and recognise they have responsibilities as well as needs (chiefly recognition by the authorities).
Will Limerick as a City of Culture organise a sulky race next year? It’s possible, although Limerick’s bye-laws curtail the urban horse culture.
REDUCES ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR
Wicklow-based Sharon Newsome of the Irish Horse Welfare Trust has countrywide experience of the potential of the alternative approach.
“Managed horse projects… support personal and leadership skills, offer proven mental health benefits and reduce anti-social behaviour,” she says.
Sharon goes so far as to say that, “Horse projects have an important role to play in achieving the goals of the Government’s National Action Plan for Social Inclusion.”
It’s not easy work for local authorities – it involves deep community engagement with distrustful groups in disadvantaged areas - but councils that have supported such projects have seen side-benefits. For example, Fingal County Council’s bill for impounding horses has fallen by 70%, says Sharon.
Models of good practice have been developed, in Kerry and Kilkenny to name but two counties. The challenge is to take the models and put them into practice.
Note: Pavee Point and Kilkenny Leader Partnership receive funding through the LCDP.
Caption: The ‘No Horses’ sign (pictured on top of this page) was erected after horses were slipped into a football pitch to graze, ruining the facility for local youngsters for months afterwards. Photo: AM

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