The Concrete Cowboys of Philadelphia

In a bid to help young men stay out of trouble, southwest Philly resident Malik Divers has come up with his own brand of therapy – horse riding. He allows the kids of a run-down neighborhood to hang around and even ride horses from his own stable, and has them offer $5 rides to local residents in exchange.

By teaching kids to ride and care for horses, Malik has introduced them to empathy, compassion, and responsibility. His teenage horsemen are now part of a unique group called ‘Concrete Cowboys’ – an unlikely yet familiar sight on the neighborhood’s concrete pathways, trotting leisurely alongside cars, buses, and bikes.


Photo: Great Big Story/YouTube caption

Malik and the cowboys were recently featured in a two-minute video clip by CNN’s Great Big Story. “When the stable started about 10 years ago, it gave me something to do, something to keep the kids busy with, keep them occupied from running in the street and getting in trouble,” explained Malik, who grew up around horses. “In southwest Philadelphia there’s a lot of senseless killing and I try to give kids something to get away from stuff like that. And when they start learning with the animals, they kind of calm down.”

The video focuses on one cowboy in particular, Shahir Drayton, who lost his brother, his uncle and several friends to violence in the community. He could easily have succumbed to a bad lifestyle as well, but by spending time with horses, he got to understand himself better. “I first got on a horse after I turned 10. I was young so I was like, ‘I like that horse.’ I thought it was cool,” he said. “Horses have a temper, just like us. Me and Shadow had to combine our tempers and work together, because she used to throw people off. And I used to always just get back on her.”


Photo: Great Big Story/YouTube caption

“When I’m with the horses, it’s like a type of therapy,” he added. “I can have fun and not worry about everything else that’s going on around me. If I would have never met Malik, I probably would’ve been doing stuff I wasn’t supposed to be doing, getting in trouble.”

Philadelphia photographer Charles Mostoller, who also grew up around horses, was surprised and intrigued when he first came across teenagers riding on horseback down the streets of his city. He eventually worked with them on a photo essay, telling the beautiful story of the Concrete Cowboys through black-and-white images. One such cowboy is Abdurrahman “Man-Man”, 16, who met Malik about five years ago.


Photo: Great Big Story/YouTube caption

“Being around horses takes the trouble off my shoulders,” Man-Man told Mostoller. “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 off things, it’s like meditation.” Along with Shahir, he visits the stable every day of the week. Each of them is assigned a horse, and they work together, cleaning manure from the stalls, bathing their horses, and changing their water and feed. It’s hard work, but they enjoy every bit of it.

Over time, the boys have developed deep bonds with their horses. According to Mostoller, Shahir sees his horse as a means of freedom, but for Man-Man, it’s about responsibility and dedication. “I grew up in a bad place and I’ve done some bad things in the past,” Man-Man told him. “I took some time off to think about everything, like I’ll be eighteen in two years, I got college right around the corner.”


Photo: Great Big Story/YouTube caption

“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.”

Malik is currently trying to raise funds through GoFundMe, in order to bring more teenage boys into the Concrete Cowboy program.  Over $1,500 were raised by 22 people in 10 days, against a goal of $20,000.