It’s 45 degrees outside, and Abdurrahman “Man-Man” Early, 16, forgot his gloves. His cold hands struggle to pull on a stiff pair of cowboy boots, and the three horses behind him whinny in anticipation of fresh hay and some time in the corral. Man-Man comes to this humble stable in Southwest Philadelphia every other day in the winter, and practically every day in the summer, to tend to the horses and clear his mind.
His brother is in jail, and growing up, his father wasn’t around much. “I never really had a guy figure in my life,” he says.
The horses are his escape. Four years ago a friend brought him to the stable to help out, and he met Malik Divers, the owner of the horses. Malik grew up in Southwest Philly, and spent a lot of time with horses and now he finds local kids to follow in his footsteps.
“Being around horses takes the trouble off my shoulders,” Man-Man says. “Like, when I'm having trouble at the house, this is where I come to think about things. Sitting up top of there, taking your mind of things, it’s like meditation.”
Shahir Drayton, 17, flashes a wide smile as he grabs the leather saddlehorn and throws his leg over the back of Sunny, a bay colored pinto, and takes off running. “What I like is the rush,” he says. “I feel like a different person when I ride.”
Sometimes he pretends they’re acting out a scene from an old Western film, low-slung row houses and orderly sycamores substituting for ocher mesas and weatherbeaten mesquite.
Mostly when out riding, they stop at parks and offer pony-rides to onlookers for $5. Half the proceeds goes to hay for the horses and the other half to the guys. But it’s not the money that keeps them coming back, it’s the horses.
“I just think horses are beautiful animals,” Shah says. “But it’s not going to take care of itself. So if you wanna get it, you gotta be man enough to take care of it.”
Shah and Man-Man come to the stables every other day during the week, and on weekends. They clean the manure from the stalls, bathe the horses, change their water and feed. It’s a lot of work, but they seem to enjoy it. Each of them is assigned a horse, and the guys have formed deep bonds with them.
For Shah, the horses represent freedom and a thrill. For Man-Man, the connection is more profound. The responsibility and dedication needed to care for the horses carries over into his turbulent teenage life.
“I grew up in a bad place and I’ve done some bad things in the past,” he says. “I took some time off to think about everything, like, I’ll be eighteen in two years, I got college right around the corner. I gotta sit down, do what I need, and achieve what I always wanted to. I guess the horses just kept me on the right track.”