Detroit Group brings horseback riding to kids of Detroit

MEGHA SATYANARAYANA,Detroit Free Press

DETROIT (AP) -- A dude with dreadlocks and baggy pants recently rode a horse on an open lot beside the Lodge Freeway near Livernois on Detroit's west side.

Cars pulled over. One driver ran onto the curb. Bikes stopped. And one-by-one, parents and children emerged, many about to ride a horse for the first time in their lives.

"It was great. Mom said, 'I'm going to do this thing for Mother's Day,'" Summer Washington, 18, said. She rode a white horse named Rosie after she and her mom, Chiquita Washington, saw the horsemen and had to pull over for the $3 rides.

Bringing horseback riding to urban youth is one of the missions of the MotorCity Horsemen, a group of Detroit men taking their love of horses and bringing it to urban children who may have seen a lot in their lives, but have never seen a horse.

"That's why I'm bringing them down, to see something different," said co-founder Durell Montgomery, who started riding horses as a youngster when he spent his summers with family in rural Alabama.

In addition to giving kids rides, Montgomery and friends patrol the neighborhood on horseback, and keep an eye on kids heading to school through blocks with vacant properties and non-working streetlights.

As word has spread about the horsemen, so has their reach. They will be teaching kids to ride this summer in Highland Park.

MotorCity Horsemen started about a year ago out of friendships formed in a west Detroit neighborhood and at the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center in Rouge Park.

The 10 horses live in Plymouth, and when the weather is right, or a birthday party needs a kick in the ribs, Montgomery and friends -- including his childhood neighbor Aaron Lyles -- load a small trailer with one or two horses, and head into the city. He's working toward getting nonprofit status and toward a dream of keeping the horses somewhere in the city.

Recently, they took to the narrow streets near 7 Mile and Greenfield, and Montgomery suddenly found himself Facebook famous.

Rashad Morgan thought he was seeing things that day.

"Man, I think I'm seeing horses," he said to his passenger.

She replied, "Naw, you're trippin'."

Morgan posted a picture on Facebook, and then came the comments: What the heck is that? Only in Detroit! Gas prices must be way too high.

The picture of Montgomery, 28, started to spread like wildfire, and Montgomery is hoping it will help his group raise funds.

After those childhood summers riding horses in Alabama, Montgomery wanted to keep riding. Discovering the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center three years ago gave him access to horses and introduced him to friends that would eventually become MotorCity Horsemen.

It's the kind of project that Christopher Ewing, former head of the now-defunct Detroit Equestrian Club, said is exhilarating.

"I cannot imagine what it would do for a black kid to see something like that," Ewing said.

But the back and forth from Plymouth to Detroit is wearing, and Montgomery would like to keep the horses within city limits. City ordinances seem to prohibit him from riding the animals around Detroit, but efforts to clarify that with city officials were unsuccessful.

Ordinances also appear to prevent keeping horses in the city without special permission, so he's looking at the Buffalo Soldiers barn, which closed in March. Former Heritage Center leader James Buchanan said the plan could work. "It's very possible. The place to me, it's just a jewel," Buchanan said.

But with all the vacant land in Detroit and the Wild West feeling of people doing for themselves, Montgomery said it would be nice to cobble together a couple of lots and keep the horses in his neighborhood.

Ewing agrees.

"How wonderful would it be to take urban blight in 2012 and return it to a rural atmosphere where you have animals and things that city kids could be exposed to in their own backyard," he said.

Published: Wed, Jun 13, 2012