RIDING HIGH
Excerpt from ‘Riding High’ by Sheryl Garratt
Telegraph Magazine, 2007

On a cold, rainy Saturday afternoon in November, Scribblestown Lane on the northern outskirts of Dublin is muddy and depressing. The black, skeletal remains of a burnt-out car - probably stolen and abandoned by joyriders like the rusting hulks that litter the nearby fields - rest alongside a rotten mattress and piles of fly-tipped rubbish. Down towards the river there is a development of shiny new apartments, a sign perhaps of what will eventually happen to the rest of the open land lying between the housing estates of Finglas South and the travellers' site just over the hill. But for as long as the locals remember, these fields have been owned by no one except the joyriders - and the ponies belonging to local children.

We are waiting for one of them now: Daryl Hogan, a fidgety 15-year-old in the standard adolescent uniform of hoodie, track pants and trainers, who only really comes alive when talking about horses. His own pony is called Steps (it is frightened of steps, jumping whenever faced with them). 'It's only a little horse,' he says shyly before he slopes off down the field to find it, but it clearly means the world to him. A pretty white and blue animal that he bought from a friend for €300 (£215), he keeps it in these fields and rides bareback along the streets and verges of Finglas, usually at breakneck speed.

Like his friend Dean 'Squeeky' Dwyer, 14, he can't remember when he learnt to ride like this. There have been ponies here for as long as there have been houses, and both boys have been around them and on them since they were toddlers. The jockey Robert Winston grew up riding bareback on these rough estates, and Squeeky's dad, Tom, was also a keen rider until he broke his neck in a motorcycle accident. A taxi driver who is separated from Squeeky's mum, Dwyer is currently looking after Squeeky's mare in fields near his home in Cabra West. She is pregnant again only months after giving birth to her first foal, and Dwyer wants to make sure they are looked after properly.

Pony kids like these can be found in many of the housing estates that ring Dublin, especially in the deprived areas such as Ballymun, Finglas, Clondalkin and Coolock. For most of them, the focal point is the Smithfield horse fair on the first Sunday of each month, a strange anachronism in the middle of modern Dublin where small farmers, travellers and working-class youths from the estates buy and sell cheap horses, ponies and donkeys. Squeeky and Daryl never miss it, riding their horses into the city centre whatever the weather to hang out, show off their animals and check out everyone else's. It was here in April that they first saw a leaflet announcing auditions for a reality television show, fronted by the gardener Diarmuid Gavin, and thought they would try their luck.

After a day of trials at a community-run equestrian centre, five young bareback riders were chosen for the show. A team headed by Ireland's top showjumper and current number three in the world Jessica Kürten was to spend an intensive 10 weeks preparing them to jump in the country's most prestigious horse show, the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), at the start of August, with the cameras following their progress. As well as Squeeky and Daryl, the television show's team picked out Jade Mooney, a feisty 12-year-old from Ballyfermot; Dean Comerford, 15, from Tallaght; and Thomas Keenan, an ambitious, determined 16-year-old from the traveller community who had barely ridden a horse before and was afraid of falling off.

Swapping tracksuits for jodhpurs, boots and helmets, and riding with a saddle, reins and stirrups for the first time, even the experienced riders had to learn a whole new set of skills. But what made Diarmuid's Pony Kids so compelling and such a big hit on Irish television was the fact that these children seemed oblivious to the opportunities being offered to them. Fighting, messing around and seemingly unable to concentrate on anything for longer than a minute, they looked likely to fail, until it all came good in the moving final episode, when all five rode in a showcase at the RDS in Dublin in front of a cheering crowd.

It is hard to know what the long-term effects of this experience will be for these children, who are all from some of Dublin's poorest areas. We had hoped to visit the travellers' site in Finglas where Thomas's family is based, but on the day he says it would not be safe. 'There's too much going on up there. Some fellas got stabbed this morning.' Ask what they feel about their achievement at the RDS, and you will get a shrug and a few dismissive words such as 'great' or 'cool'. But when we pop in to Squeeky's nan's welcoming house at the end of the day, the first thing he does is fetch down two of his rosettes to show me. The children may well feign indifference to it all, but underneath there is a quiet pride in what they have achieved, and they have all found ways to continue to improve their riding skills since.

Dean wants to be a jockey, and is soon to take up a trial placement with the national hunt trainer Tom Taaffe. Jade is taking lessons at a community equestrian centre in Ballyfermot, is starting to learn dressage and now has seven rosettes for clear rounds in showjumping contests. She hopes to get a horse of her own after Christmas. Having faced down his fears and jumped in the RDS against all the odds, as well as continuing to ride, Thomas is now studying for the School Leaving Certificate he will need to join the Army. He can barely write, but if he shows the same courage and dogged determination he did in the television show, he will get the qualification he needs to become a groom in the equestrian unit. 'It's something I've always wanted to do,' he says. 'And now I might have a chance.'

Squeeky, the best rider, was kicked by a horse on a return trip to the Galway trekking centre run by Willy Leahy (the children's original trip was featured on the show and was a highlight of their training). He broke his leg in three places but despite having a cast up to his hip, he has continued to ride. 'You wish you could tie him down sometimes,' Tom Dwyer tells me wearily. 'I found him riding along the road with his cast sticking right out. I thought a car would take his leg off.'

The cast is off now, but Squeeky still has a noticeable limp and found it hard being back in the saddle, sensibly pulling up his horse when the others galloped on. ('Sensible' is not a word anyone who saw Diarmuid's Pony Kids would associate with Squeeky, the clown of the group. That he is showing such common sense now is another measure of how far he has come.) Daryl too has suffered a recent injury, breaking his wrist when a horse stumbled and fell on him in Finglas South. But both boys are so keen to continue jumping that they have actually listened to someone in authority for once, and are swimming and doing the exercises they have been given by doctors in order to get fit for Olympia. Squeeky's father says he has tried his best to frighten them into seeing what's at stake. 'They just don't realise the opportunities they're being given here, and I want them to make the most of it.'

The opportunities for their friends in Finglas South are less clear. For decades there has been an unwritten understanding that ponies could be kept on public land, although Dwyer says this is getting harder as the city continues to expand. 'A few years ago, you could find land anywhere you wanted. Now there's nothing left. They're building apartments and houses everywhere.'

Over the years, the community has been made various promises from the authorities to fund pony clubs and build stables to shelter the animals through the winter, but none has ever been kept. This year, some local people decided to take matters into their own hands, and built stables themselves in a field just off Scribblestown Lane. Dwyer was one of the volunteers. 'It wasn't for us, it was for the kids. We always had horses in the fields, so we had to sort something so there was somewhere to keep them. And it was somewhere for the kids to go. If you were looking for one of them, you'd find them up here.'

Before, there had been a problem with horses wandering through gaps in the hedges and out into the road. The volunteers used the abandoned cars to fill in these gaps, then placed shipping containers in a circle and fitted them out as stables around a central courtyard. They put in a water supply, and one container became a storeroom for bridles, food and hay bought with the €5 a week the children paid in to feed their ponies. At weekends up to 60 children were at the stables, and according to Morgan Lambert, who lives on the adjoining land, even on weekdays they would arrive at 7am to muck out, feed the horses and brush them down. 'The passion the kids have for the horses is just incredible,' he says. 'I loved watching them - it's great to see children enjoying themselves. And once you've got them here, you can do things with them, teach them. We collected desks and chairs, there were three teachers who were interested in putting in hours up here, because some of these children don't go to school. If we could get them back into education, then we're all winners.'

In September, as the stables were completed, a notice was put on the containers saying they would be removed unless the people who had placed them there contacted the council. The pony club says it immediately got in touch and arranged a meeting for that Friday. As representatives were setting off that morning, the councillor they were due to meet called saying that his mother was ill and rescheduled the meeting for the following Monday. But at 5.15am on Saturday, Lambert was woken by a noise and looked out to see more than 150 police officers in riot gear, some of them armed. Lambert rounded up as many of the ponies as he could and sheltered them in his yard, but the police took away 30 ponies - including a mare who had given birth two days before, leaving the foal unattended - and smashed down the stables. 'This wouldn't have happened in a better-off area,' he says angrily. 'And people lie down, because they're used to being told what to do. I got behind them because Finglas South is a poor area, and they got up and they did something for themselves. It was all done by ordinary people, giving their time. Now the council is talking about building a proper stables up over there, but that won't work. It's officialdom. These people, most of them are outsiders, but they're great people.'

By the time Gavin got there with his camera on Sunday morning, all that was left was a pile of broken metal. 'No wonder the kids don't like authority,' Gavin says. 'As part of the show, we took them to the mounted police in Áras an Uachtaráin, which is where the President lives. And they were fantastic, the policemen and women there, showing them around. The kids had a chance to get up on the horses, and they wouldn't do it initially because they quite rightly had to wear helmets, and the helmets had "police" written on them. And now I can see why. This is what they are passionate about, yet there are no facilities. And then when their parents and their friends try and do something, it's destroyed.' After Gavin brought the story to the attention of the media the ponies were returned, but he says a number of them had been injured - something Fingal County Council denies. For its part, the council says the containers were illegal, that there are a bewildering number of community-led pony clubs, and the one they were in touch with denied having anything to do with the stables. It says it is talking to all parties concerned, and discussing formal rights to graze the ponies on 70 acres of the land. But for now, the horses are outside, in the cold and rain, with no plans for a new shelter to be built.