Girl power: at Diamanten in Vollsmose – one of Denmark’s most deprived areas, blighted by gang crime and conflict – immigrant kids are bucking the neighbourhood trend and thriving through equestrian sport.
TEXT Anne Ulrikke Bak PHOTOGRAPHY Anne Ulrikke Bak
If you’re Danish, the name Vollsmose doesn’t immediately conjure images of pony-mad kids lining up to fill hay nets or wanting to learn rising trot. The area of Vollsmose, which is situated northeast of Odense, is classified as a ghetto and consists of social housing built in the sixties that houses around ten thousand citizens, most of them immigrants, of seventy different nationalities. Whenever Vollsmose makes headlines it tends to be for high crime rates and disenfranchised youths, with politicians continuously discussing how to best reach the young generation. The media tends to focus on what is being done in the field of integration, where young girls with an immigrant background rarely take part in sporting activities. However, at the local riding club Diamanten, it’s a very different story than the one you see on the news, with kids – boys as well as girls – queuing up eager to take part in daily stable life and quickly fitting in.
Diamanten (Danish for The Diamond) is part of a bigger youth centre situated in the heart of Vollsmose. Here, the kids mix Adidas tracksuits with long Petri boots. And what’s more important, they have an admirable equestrian community. Thirty-five children aged nine to fourteen – from fourteen different nationality backgrounds – help take care of ten ponies, doing both the hard and the fun work every day. “We have several issues with attitude in Vollsmose, but not here. We don’t discuss things with the children. We are the ones setting the rules. It also means that their parents feel safe to let them come here. They’re actually really happy to,” says Tina Jung Clausen who, alongside Merete Bager and Mette Hollmann, represents the team leaders at Diamanten.
The concept here isn’t called riding but “horsing”. It refers to the fact that being on horseback is a very small part of having a horse. The riding club is financially supported by Odense municipality and being part of Diamanten is free. Instead, you pay by working and by being a good friend. You’ll have to help muck out on Mondays, at least if you want to join the jumping lesson on Thursdays (and you do). “All the hard work is a great part of having a horse. Some of the girls could hardly carry a pitchfork the first time they mucked out. Now they are running topped wheelbarrows. Some of the children are having a hard time in school, but we see them shine when they’re with the horses. Oftentimes, they are the best riders or the best at tightening the girth. It makes them confident and creates a feeling of empowerment that they can take along with them,” notes Mette Hollmann.
We’ve had kids come here, unable to read. Suddenly they’re at the top of their class. Mette is doing a lot of great work reading with them. She finds books about horses, and when a text is about horses you’re really eager to know what it says, right?
“It’s amazing to experience a girl who shows up here for the first time, afraid of horses, sometimes frightened by lots of things in general. To see her gradually become more and more fearless and self-reliant. Suddenly she’s the best rider, exhibiting so much strength. Often, when some of the girls ask us if the saddle is placed correctly, we tell them to take a look themselves. They can make the assessment,” explains Tina Jung Clausen, adding: “No matter what you’re good at, it can be put to use here. We have two boys who just started and who aren’t confident riders yet, but they’re strong and indispensable when picking up straw bales. We’ve had kids come here, unable to read. Suddenly they’re at the top of their class. Mette is doing a lot of great work reading with them. She finds books about horses, and when a text is about horses you’re really eager to know what it says, right?”
In fact, there are lots of crossovers between horses and schoolwork, like how memorising a dressage test or a jumping course can stimulate the ability to concentrate, Mette Hollmann explains. “When you’ve missed out on a few prizes by making mistakes in the tests, you really do what it takes to make sure it won’t happen again.” The stables also depend a lot on the more experienced kids helping beginners out with grooming, tacking up and leading the horses, and instilling in them the importance of good horsemanship that they’ve been taught themselves. “We put a lot of effort into explaining how important it is always to put the horses first. Still, I don’t think you’ll find many riding schools where you learn to ride as quickly as here. Mette helps the kids as soon as they’re in the saddle. Showing them what’s the inner leg and the outer rein. They develop really fast and it makes us proud,” Jung Clausen comments.
While the comfort of daily tasks and routines is key here, the team also arrange outings as often as they can. “We’ve been to international horse shows nearby, visited a stud and been to Broholm Estate to watch para dressage. Some time ago we bought some horses from a sales stable in Ry, the western part of Jutland. The owners really liked what we are doing in Diamanten and invited us to come to a riding camp at their place for free. It was an amazing experience. Many of the kids never leave Vollsmose. Meeting average people from Western Jutland is a big thing.”
Khaditja is fourteen (“almost fifteen”). A friend told her about the stables three years ago, and she hasn’t been out of the saddle since.
“In the beginning I was pretty scared of horses. Especially Queen. She was tall and she had a temper. So, I rode all the smallest ponies until I suddenly found the courage to ride her. She’s a real mare. She has often been mad at me all day, even for several days in a row. But then I’ll give her treats and take good care of her until she softens up. Queen is mostly into dressage. We have participated in a few showjumping tests though, and they went well, even though we didn’t win. She’s a really good horse to ride and I think she’s growing more and more. She’s gaining muscles along her back, and we’re practicing leg yields at the moment. Her quarter is trailing a bit, but I hope it gets better soon.”
Lea is ten years old and started riding half a year ago. She rides Leif, a six-year-old part Arabian.
“I’ve always been into horses. I’ve always made drawings of them. Some of my friends rode here and I asked myself, why don’t you start? The best thing about riding is the experiences and the community around the stable and the relationship you build with your horse. And it is great to have a goal and fight for it. Right now, my goal is to jump my favourite horse, and my favourite horse is Leif.”
BSHAIR AND HAWRAA
Bshair and Hawraa didn’t know each other before meeting at Diamanten. Now they’re close friends, hanging out outside the stable as well.
“I like the fact that riding is a big challenge. In the beginning, you’re just like, this is an animal, how do I handle it? But the adults here really want us to learn. At regular riding clubs, you’re just handed a horse and they tell you, here you go, this is your horse, now get in the saddle. Here, we learn to take care of them, even though we don’t pay anything. It’s like having your own horse. The best thing here is the relationships and the fact that you really get to know the horses. You keep making new friends here. Every time someone new starts you’ll get to know them. In school, there’s a lot of bullying, but if you’re a bully, you’re not allowed to be here. Among us girls, we even like to give riding equipment to each other, so that everyone has something. We want everyone to be equal.” – Hawraa
“I’ve been riding for two years and wearing a scarf for one, which means I have one year of experience wearing the scarf, and one year without. I feel like riding with it is much easier. You avoid getting hair all over the place. I would actually say that wearing a scarf underneath the helmet is an advantage. I don’t think a lot about my scarf when riding, though. I have enough to do with controlling the horse.” – Bshair