Urban horse project for young people set to close unless funding secured

Department of Agriculture says it can no longer fund wages or other day-to-day costs at Ballyowen equine centre

The only State-built, urban horse project for young people in disadvantaged areas will close in July unless emergency funding of €65,000 is secured.

The Ballyowen equine centre in Clondalkin, home to 20 horses and ponies, opened in 2017 with the support of South Dublin County Council and the Department of Agriculture. The opening followed a long campaign by young horse-lovers who had founded a local equine club five years previously.

The local authority, which then had the record of impounding and destroying more roaming horses than any other in the capital, provided a three-acre site while the department has provided €580,000 to build stables, paddocks, a sand arena, and meeting-cum-classroom, and to fund two full-time staff.

It has been hugely successful, agrees the council, providing young people with a safe place to keep, look after and learn about horses.

Horse seizures nationally have reduced dramatically, from a high in 2014 of 4,923 to just 817 in 2020.

A council spokeswoman said that while final 2021 figures for the area are not available, initial figures indicate a further reduction on the previous years.

However, the department says it can no longer fund wages or other day-to-day running costs.

Board member and co-founder of the club, People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, agrees the original agreement with the department was that alternative funding would be in place by now.

“We all thought we’d get funding from other sources but the avenues have been completely exhausted. We had thought between the Departments of Education, Justice, Health, or Children we would have secured the centre. But all avenues have been completely exhausted. We just don’t seem to fit the criteria for the schemes.

“It is a small amount of money we need – about €65,000 for the two salaries. If we can’t get that, come July the club will not be able to function and we will have to close. Noone wants that. It would be a travesty.”

‘I’m here every day’

Jake Casey (14), owner of Black Beauty, a 15-hand Friesian horse, says he would be "out on the streets probably, in trouble" if he didn't have the club. "I am down here every day after school. As soon as I come in she's over to the door looking for me. She loves me and I love her," he says.

McKenzie Flood (13) describes the club as “like a get away from the outside world”. She has a 14-hand Connemara pony. “Being here with my horse, it just shuts everything out. Behind these gates it’s just horses. It’s just calming.”

Asked how she would feel if the club closed, she says: “I’d be very devastated. I’d be very sad.”

Her father, Patrick Fagan, says the club has given her "a great confidence boost, something to do. The horses take all your stress away. It's great for the kids' mental health – there is a lot of depression, social media pressure on the kids here."

‘Best friend’

Cody Dunne (14) comes "every day" he says to "feed and clean" his horse, Black Betty. "I love her with my heart and soul. She's my best friend. She keeps me out of trouble. If I didn't have this I'd just be roaming the streets getting hassle."

The young people pay €108 a month, for rent, feed and hay, says manager Rachel Maher.

Others who benefit from the club, she notes, are autistic children from local schools, community employment participants and young children at risk of dropping out of school.

“We are ticking so many boxes here – animal welfare, mental health, young people at risk, education, sports,” she says.

“Unfortunately there is no obvious funding source. Without €65,000 we will have to close in a few months. Ideally, if we had three- to five-year funding we could put a strategic plan in place to...provide jobs, expand.”

A spokeswoman for South Dublin County Council said the authority was “committed to supporting and working with the club in all aspects of its operations and running of the club. The club has agreed to work with South Dublin County Council in reviewing its business model and governance structure”.