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The subculture of young men keeping horses on the streets of North Philly

Sam Nixon’s film ‘The Stables’ looks at urban riding in the USA and how horses keep inner-city cowboys away from gang violence

In Philadelphia, urban riding traditions date back to the 1900’s, where a arge community of over fifty stables once flourished. Today, North Philly struggles with poverty and unemployment, making it difficult for anyone to maintain horses. Filmmaker Sam Nixon’s new short film The Stables explores what’s left of the subculture in one of America’s most impoverished regions, and how for decades the culture has helped youths stay clear of gang activity.

“I’d read about the North Philly guys online” says Sam Nixon, talking about how he first became privy to the inner city equestrian way of life in America. “There are great stories across the US of African American urban cowboys and cowgirls, from New Orleans to Compton, even New York.”

“I drove down with my girlfriend from our home in Brooklyn. We just showed up out of the blue. Mil was the first to greet us and right away I knew there was a story with him.”

Mil (real name Jamil Pratis) is 29-year-old and the protagonist of Nixon’s film. He’s an ‘urban cowboy’ who has maintained horses in his neighbourhood for fifteen years. Despite the hardships that come with living in the inner city of Philadelphia, Mil has managed to upkeep his business and endorses the pursuit to local youth as an alternative to criminal activity.

“It’s amazing what an animal can do to you, without you even knowing,” says Mil, speaking from his modest stable, yards away from low-income, terraced residences. “It’s a job but it’s not a job. It becomes part of your life, like waking up. You’ve got to build a bond with them (the horses). Once you have a bond, it’s never the same. ”

Philadelphia has one of the highest violent crime rates in America. Of cities with a population of over a million, it had the third highest homicide rate in the country in 2017, with over 15,000 violent crimes reported. Yet Sam Nixon’s film captures an alternative, anomalous way of living in one of the nation’s most dangerous wards. 

“There is a strong sense of camaraderie and community there” says Nixon, referring to the Strawberry Mansion neighbourhood and pertaining areas of North Philadelphia. “It's a positive space. Kids stay out of trouble as they learn the ropes. Keeping these animals healthy and cared for gives people focus, drive and a sense of kinship.”

Mil’s horses Big Momma and Snow Flake bring a welcome distraction from the North Philadelphian borough haunted by crime, drugs and violence, and provide a small window into the possibility of alternative lifestyles away from criminality.

“When something happens, it happens, but when I was coming up, when things did go down, I wasn’t around because I was at the stable. They (the horses) keep you out of trouble a whole lot” – Mil

“It’s rough around here” expands Mil, looking around the neighbourhood where he’s lived since childhood. “When something happens, it happens, but when I was coming up, when things did go down, I wasn’t around because I was at the stable. They (the horses) keep you out of trouble a whole lot, they do. It’s like a safe zone for a lot of people.” 

Nixon’s film and accompanying photography captures a last bastion of American heritage in vivid colour, and works that mark a departure from the fashion photography assignments that usually occupy him.

“I shoot portraiture, fashion and commercial work, which is great, but it was nice to document a genuinely fringe group in a film,” he says. “I wanted to show how the stables are a great influence on the youth, and how it’s so important for the community that the stables are kept intact and functioning.

“It’s inspiring to see that in the face of difficulty, people like Mil are able to keep, nurture and race such fine horses, as well maintain traditions. With the right support, it’s a tradition that I believe and hope can flourish nationwide.”

The Stables will be screening at various film festivals across the US this summer.