Below is a full transcript of the Practical Horseman Podcast with Erin Brown.

Opening quote—Erin Brown:

So many other people that come through these programs (like PURA), and through Fletcher Street, have a different story, but it's also always the horse that helps them get through these times.

In Philadelphia, there is like a surge—the gun violence is out of this world. And these kids, you know, not every kid wants to play basketball and not every kid wants to play football. Some kids want to ride horses and it's an extra activity to help keep the community and the youth safe and something that they can turn into a career.

[Music fades in toward the end of Erin’s quote and then back out at the beginning of the introduction.]

Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy's Executive Director Erin Brown

Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy's Executive Director Erin Brown

Introduction—Julia Murphy: Welcome to the Practical Horseman Podcast, featuring conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts. The show is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors, and our goal is to inform, educate and inspire. I’m Julia Murphy and this week’s episode is with Erin Brown, aka, the Concrete Cowgirl. Erin is the Executive Director at the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy—a nonprofit organization created to preserve the life, legacy and culture of Black urban cowboys in the city of Philadelphia.

In 2019, producers and directors of the Netflix film, Concrete Cowboy, starring Idris Elba, partnered with the late Eric Miller (the former Executive Director of PURA) and the riders of Fletcher Street to form the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy.

Due to gentrification, many of the stables that once made up the community of Black cowboys in Philadelphia are gone. With the help of Parks and Recreation, The Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, or PURA, has found a new, permanent home that will not only give the Urban Black Cowboy a permanent home but also offer a unique, safe space for children, teens and adults to experience horses up close and personal.

PURA recently launched the “Fresh Start for Philly Youth” fundraising campaign to raise funds for their new home in Cobbs Creek Park that includes stabling for 20-25 horses, paddocks and a covered arena, as well as recreational space for other youth and veteran programs. You can donate to the campaign via PURA’s GoFundMe, which you can find on their website, thepura.org, or by searching for “Fresh Start for Philly Youth” on GoFundMe.

Also, in 2020, Erin and the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy teamed up with North Run’s Missy Clark to create Concrete to Show Jumping—an alliance built on the goal of bringing inclusion and diversity to the horse industry. Concrete to Show Jumping aims to open the eyes, minds and hearts of equestrians by offering new experiences, forming new relationships and building friendships with equestrians from diversified backgrounds.

Erin will go into more detail about both PURA and Concrete to Show Jumping during our conversation, but before we get into that, I’d like to thank the sponsor of this week’s podcast, SmartPak, and share their message:

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Julia Murphy: Now, let’s jump into the podcast with Erin. So, first and foremost, can you tell us what the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy is and what does it do?

[00:03:46] Erin Brown: Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy is extension and outgrowth of the original Fletcher Street Stables. Growing up on Fletcher Street since the early 1990s, there's always been this fostering and love for horseman ship and horses for the urban Black cowboy and the community and I was, once upon a time, one of those kids in the community. 

PURA and Fletcher Street was once this amazing place with all these different horsemen that have come from all over the city who've lost their barns to redevelopment. [The purpose of] PURA is to bring that back—what Fletcher Street once was once upon a time—and to have something that cannot be effected by redevelopment and gentrification and all of those other things. It's like this permanent home and actual organization that's able to host a variety of different riding disciplines, horsemanship, the whole nine [yards].

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Julia Murphy: What is PURA's goal and how do they accomplish these goals that you set forth for the organization? 

[00:05:18] Erin Brown: Our current goals at the moment are—we have a new location—it's in the Cobbs Creek Park section of Philadelphia. We've worked closely with Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. and the Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, she's such a lovely woman, Kathryn Ott Lovell. So, our goal right now is to turn what was once was a bocce court into a new barn. That is our main goal right there. And then, we will be able to serve the community in so many different ways from this new location.

Julia Murphy: That's a big undertaking. How is that going for you guys? 

[00:06:04] Erin Brown: It's going well. This is a project I've been working on since 2018 with—who was the executive director before myself—Eric Miller. We've been working on this project for a while, but we are having some movement. We've been fund raising like crazy.

We have the help of Missy Clark and Wrangler and the filmmakers of Concrete Cowboy, just all trying to make this happen. So it's going. We just finished a meeting with Parks and Recreation last week and they are waiting for our final architectural designs of the barn. And then we can stick the shovel in it!

Julia Murphy: That's so exciting and get to break ground finally! 

[00:07:02] Erin Brown: Yeah, yeah! I can't wait. It's so long overdue. 

Julia Murphy: That's awesome to hear. And, so, with the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, like you said, you come from the Fletcher Street area and it's this community. Can you touch on why you do this? Like, what passion went into the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy?

[00:07:25] Erin Brown: Well, growing up on Fletcher street, horses weren't ever my intended career goal. So it was just like, you know, here's something different. And, this is what you have to do to be here—you have to have passing grades. But, also for me, or for myself, it was an experience to help me develop into the person that I am today.

I was a very shy kind of kid and I was bullied and picked on and all of those [things]. I didn't have many friends, but horses were my voice. I felt like they understood me. So many other people that come through these programs (like PURA), and through Fletcher Street, have a different story, but it's also always the horse that helps them get through these times.

In Philadelphia, there is like a surge—the gun violence is out of this world. And these kids, you know, not every kid wants to play basketball and not every kid wants to play football. Some kids want to ride horses and it's an extra activity to help keep the community and the youth safe and something that they can turn into a career.

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Because, here I am, after managing several facilities in Philadelphia and [being] a riding instructor for several years, you can definitely make a career out of it. If you don't want to be a bar manager or run a program, you can be a farrier, a vet. There's so many different avenues that this can open for young people that are growing up.

So that is one of the main reasons [for the program]. As I mentioned before, Eric Miller, who was their original director [of PURA]—he was a very close friend of mine, I'd do training rides and resell horses for him—he lost his life to gun violence maybe a month before filming [Concrete Cowboy]. So, light bulb click, you know what, "I want to start this program Cowboys Against Crime." And that is basically for Eric Miller and everyone else who has been affected by gun violence. But to also try to bring peace in the streets and bridge these worlds, or this gap between regular people, everyday people, and the police department. My mind is always tumbling with different things to do.

Julia Murphy: That's so sad to hear about Eric, but he must be so proud that his tragic passing did spark something that's brought so much good to people. 

[00:10:37] Erin Brown: I hope he is, because this vision of the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy was his. The filmmakers of Concrete Cowboy helped him bring it as far as the actual business and the nonprofit status. They worked with him closely to do all of those things. Eric's main thing was, he's older than I am, but he saw so many other stables lose their homes to redevelopment in the city of Philadelphia. So, that is the purpose for PURA—to stamp its foot and [now] we have this amazing thing that cannot be taken from us.

Honestly, growing up, I was your typical teenager, except we didn't have camera phones and social media. We had a landline where you had to press zero to dial the operator to get to your friend. If it was busy and we had a beeper. Some of my closest friends from high school are no longer here due to drug overdoses. So, had it not been for horses and me [being] at the barn every day and competing up and down the Mid-Atlantic, I have no idea where [I would be]. I probably would have been hanging with my friends, but I had a responsibility to tend to my horse every day after school after I did my homework—or pretended that I did my homework—and that was my commitment. I didn't see what it was doing then, but I definitely can look back and understand and see now. 

Julia Murphy: It's amazing how horses just find their way in and take hold of you and change your whole life.

[00:12:35] Erin Brown: Yes, yes. They definitely do. 

Julia Murphy: You mentioned a couple of minutes ago Cowboys Against Crime. So, could you speak on that a little bit? Is it affiliated with the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy or is that its own organization? 

[00:12:50] Erin Brown: It's affiliated with the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy. It's something else that I wanted to pitch out. I worked for the police department's mounted patrol unit for eight years. And so, I saw both sides of the fence—the regular, everyday civilian side and I could see the police department side—because I'm like right there. So, in any way to make a change, I believe you have to join forces to make a change. I remember when I thought of Cowboys Against Crime, I ran up to my Lieutenant that day, and I'm like, "What do you think of this?" He was new, he barely knew me, and he liked the idea. I haven't penciled it all the way down yet, but it is something that the city needs—cowboys, horsemen and [horsewomen] join forces with your local law enforcement and try to make a difference within your city.

Julia Murphy: You brought up the Concrete Cowboy film before. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? What was their role with the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy and vice-versa. 

[00:14:23] Erin Brown: Again, back to Eric Miller, I know he's probably smiling because his name is being said so many times—typical Aries. The filmmakers—Ricky [Staub] and Dan [Walser] and Staci [Hagenbaugh]—they get their story and how to pitch this movie from Eric. So, Ricky and Dan, they met him one day. They have a nonprofit where they speak at court hearings and they offer an apprenticeship program to recently released prisoners. And it allows them to work in the film industry, because it's so hard to get a job when you have this criminal background. Maybe you want to come home and get on the right track, but you can't because you have the stamp behind your name that's haunting you even if you completely did your time and you want to turn a new leaf. So, they have this apprenticeship program that offers these gentlemen and women coming home to work in the film business.

They were speaking at Eric's court hearing and he told him about [how] he just bought a horse and they thought it was just so darn interesting. So, they got majority of how, if not all, to do this movie and how to tell this story from Eric. This was maybe three or four years before actually filming. They spent time traveling back and forth and hanging out with Eric. They were really good friends. And [Eric] had this vision of this barn to preserve this history and culture of the urban Black cowboy in Philadelphia that's slowly slipping away. [Ricky and Dan are] on the executive board, but they partnered up with Cozen O'Connor, a law office in Philadelphia, who helped with the process and the nonprofit status. So, they are heavily involved, the filmmakers, with PURA. 

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Julia Murphy: And you were speaking a little bit about the African-American history and the urban cowboys in Philadelphia. Could you touch on that a little bit more and what that history and culture is like? 

[00:17:00] Erin Brown: Sure. So, once upon a time there was, gosh, probably 40 or 50 backyard stables. And, what I mean by backyard stables is, they are these abandoned buildings and lots where we turned into barns. I want to say Fletcher Street is one of the first stables where the urban Black cowboy and one of the last still standing. So, once upon a time, actually on Fletcher Street, instead of it being a boarding recreation barn, there was produce. Your ice and your milk came from horse-drawn wagons from Fletcher Street. And, on 26th street, there was a laundry, which was directly around the corner, there is was a laundry service and laundry was delivered by horse and wagon.

As modern vehicles took over, the urban Black cowboy is just to keep the horses that these abandoned buildings and things turned into barns. And over the years, just in my existence from 1990, anyone that's on Fletcher Street at this current moment, there are maybe four or five people there who are original Fletcher Street natives. I remember when every last one of them came over, whether there are new ones in the horse business or they lost their barn to redevelopment. There's only maybe two or three left, and then you have these official riding stables in the city. But, growing up, even if I was not at the barn, I remember sitting on my great aunt's porch and you would see the cowboys riding through the city and giving kids rides and stuff like that. That is something we're starting to not see so much anymore. 

Julia Murphy: And so, the new PURA facility that you were talking about working on breaking ground on, is that on Fletcher street?

[00:19:34] Erin Brown: No, it's maybe 20 minutes away. It's so unique because, number one, it's an actual city building with bathrooms, lights, water. One side of it is a residential street, but this building sits in the park, but if you cross the street, you're back in a regular neighborhood. It backs up into Cobbs Creek Park and Haddington Woods and there's a whole trail system behind there. There's acreage for pastures and there's a creek that you can get in with your horses. Everything that we've never had before growing up in the city is now ours and is going to be ours once we're finished with this project. I understand, again, I'm not the best person to deal with change either. But, the guys—yeah the guys, because there's no girls—they just have to know that I'm going to pull them through to something greater than we've ever had and something to mark and stamp history in this city and something that we have this amazing film behind us to be proud of. It's kind of like in the film, at the ending, where they lose this barn. Well, here's this great place that we're building. 

Julia Murphy: And this facility that you're building, can you tell us a little bit what it's going to look like as far as like barns and rings—kind of like a walkthrough of the facility?

[00:21:28] Erin Brown: Sure. So, there will be probably 16 stalls—that's up in the air depending on tack rooms—16 interior stalls and I'm thinking a shed row barn with 10 [stalls]. So that's 26. And there will be a covered arena. I forget the name of the footing, but Missy Clark and John Brennan, they've got that covered. So, the arena will be directly in the front of the building, so passengers or walkers-by or drivers-by can see kids, people riding their horses in their arena. Whether it's lessons or recreation. Then, the barn is like directly behind arena. It's a long gravel driveway and behind that driveway, you see nothing but forrest, and to the right of that forrest will be rolling pastures. If you continue down that path, it just opens up into the park and there's trails, bike trails, everywhere and nature and green and trees. Then if you get home sick and you need to get back to the city, you just cross the street!

Julia Murphy: You spoke about North Run's Missy Clark a minute ago. Can you tell us a little bit more of what her role in PURA is like?

[00:23:16] Erin Brown: Missy reached out to me, maybe it was a year ago last June, try trying to find out who we are and what we're about. She reached out to me. Growing up, I was on the hunter/jumper circuit, but that was a long time ago, so I asked my best friend—she competes as a low-level hunter and jumper—and I'm like, "Do you know who Melissa Clark is?" She said, "No." She said, "Do you mean Missy Clark?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I guess." And she said, "Yeah, why?" I said, "She wants to talk to me about PURA and she's like, "Missy Clark wants to talk to you about PURA?" And I'm like, "Yeah!" So, [Missy and I] talked for an hour and a half and we continued those conversations either through text or phone calls after. And she pitched this idea to me about bridging the gap in the horse industry with diversity and inclusion and bridging these two worlds. And she was like, "We can call it City to Show Jumping," and I was like, "How about Concrete to Show Jumping?" Because, I'm the Concrete Cowgirl and then it's Concrete Cowboys and it's just Concrete to Show Jumping—that's what it is. So, after that, she's opened so many doors for myself, speaking of the character the Concrete Cowgirl, and Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy.

She's been super duper amazing. Our connection is like we've known each other forever and she's the funniest person to me. She has this dry sense of humor, which is like the best, because I'm a huge Golden Girls fan, so, I get that kind of stuff, like, it cracks me up. She has the biggest heart in the world. She's been a total angel.

I want to say in December, I asked her if she would join our executive board and she did join our executive board at PURA. I had tears running down my eyes because I literally love this woman, she's an amazing person. 

She came up to Philadelphia in June and I was like, "This is around the time where you first messaged me!" Missy actually seeing this facility and being there, she's already had her wheels turning before, but now that she saw this place in person, they're burning rubber. This new facility is one of those places, yeah, it's nice on a picture, but when you're actually there, it's like "Oh my God." It's that kind of thing.

Julia Murphy: As far as all of the programs that you do run with the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, I read on your website, you have the Junior Concrete Cowboys and Cowgirls. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

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[00:26:41] Erin Brown: Junior Concrete Cowboys and Cowgirls, again, with my partner, Mike, we were just sitting down and I think it was like in the business planning stage and. We came up with this program, like what we were growing up, but not in an official program. So, the Junior Concrete Cowboys and Cowgirls are basically the new generation. And what that is for, you come into the barn four or five days a week and you take care of your educational stuff at school and you learn how to take care of a horse and you learn how to ride. The option of competing is yours, it's not mandatory, but you're in a safe space after school, and you're learning at the same time and it's teaching you responsibility at the same time and helping develop these young people into responsible adults. The Junior Concrete Cowboys and Cowgirls is a free program, it's for the inner city youth that need this extra recreation. 

Julia Murphy: And what about the concrete to show jumping? Can you talk a little bit more about that as well? 

[00:28:05] Erin Brown: Concrete to Show Jumping is to bridge two different worlds of adversity. It's to give kids and young people a chance to see life on the other side and vice versa, and to be involved together and be this partnership/family. 

Julia Murphy: This has been absolutely wonderful. That's the last of my questions for you, but do you have anything that you'd like to add? Anything that you'd like to plug that you want to let our listeners know about?

[00:28:47] Erin Brown: Please follow us on our socials—Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy on Facebook and on Instagram. Our website is thepura.org and our GoFundMe is also attached to that as well. And, I want everyone to watch our journey!

Julia Murphy: I know that our listeners are going to absolutely love this and there are big things coming to Philadelphia and we're so excited for you.

[00:29:18] Erin Brown: Thank you so much and spread the word listeners! We need all hands on deck. It takes a village!

[Music fades in and out]

Julia Murphy—Conclusion: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode with Erin and a big thank you to the sponsor of this week’s episode, SmartPak. Learn more at SmartPak.com/ColiCare. You can subscribe to The Practical Horseman Podcast on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher or wherever you listen. While you’re there, please rate and review the show. I’m Julia Murphy and you’ve been listening to the Practical Horseman Podcast.

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