Farai Chideya, NPR
Volunteer Cathy Clark helps two members of the Compton Junior Posse groom Twinkle the pony.
Volunteer Cathy Clark helps two members of the Compton Junior Posse groom Twinkle the pony. Farai Chideya, NPR
Farai Chideya, NPR
Volunteer Harvey Lockhart shows the children how he has developed trust in working with horses like Indio.
Volunteer Harvey Lockhart shows the children how he has developed trust in working with horses like Indio. Farai Chideya, NPR
Farai Chideya, NPR
Khalia Akbar, granddaughter of the founder of the Junior Posse program, grooms a horse.
Khalia Akbar, granddaughter of the founder of the Junior Posse program, grooms a horse. Farai Chideya, NPR
Of all the places you'd expect to hear a lone cowboy's yodel, Compton, Calif., isn't one of them.
Compton was rated the most dangerous city in America last year.
But tucked off the freeway is an unusual neighborhood, one where men on horses trot down the street, past parked cars.
And down a plain driveway — where you'd expect to find a backyard — there's a sprawling horse corral. The place bustles with kids of all ages, grooming horses named Twinkle, Jazz and Indio.
The yodel in question belongs to Harvey Lockhart. Mister Harvey to the kids. He's everything you'd expect from a veteran cowboy: grizzled hat, hands calloused with years of roping and a passion for horses.
"I used to rodeo. I used to ride race horses," Lockhart says. "And you know when I was little, when I was seven or eight years old, this girl took us to the stable, being from Los Angeles, and I fell in love with it. And I used to clean stalls all day just to ride."
Mr. Harvey is one of several adult volunteers with the Compton Junior Posse, a horse-riding club designed to keep kids off Compton's mean streets. Longtime resident and club founder, Mayisha Akbar, says she started the Junior Posse out of necessity.
"I mean, it is a war," she says. "If I go out there and stand on the street, I'm not afraid because they're not targeting me. But I don't want the teenage boys standing on the street because you never know when somebody might come along and target them. So this gives them an oasis here."
In fact, Akbar's own son has been shot several times since they moved to Compton. But he survived the attacks and today his daughter Khalia, 7, gets ready to ride her favorite pony, Speedy.
Christopher Rutherford, 19, remembers being Khalia's age and growing up nearby. He was drawn to the equestrian oasis.
"So I decided to come out and ride the horses," he recalls. "Found out I was good at it, and I started doing stuff like bulldogging and calf-roping. And from there on I fell in love with the horses, so I just kept riding."
Rutherford is now a freshman in college, but over school breaks, he comes back and helps Mr. Harvey teach new classes of riders.
The lesson includes more than how to cinch a saddle or slow a gallop.
For Mayisha Akbar, it's about showing these kids that there's more to life than Compton. A lot more.
"In lower-income neighborhoods, what happens is that they are generally confined to a one- or two-mile area," she says. "So they never really experience the real world. So what we did is we took the kids and wherever they would go to compete they would have to go into other communities. And they would have to talk to other people."
She has taken the kids to compete in horse shows across Southern California, and she asks nothing of the kids in return except an open mind. Sometimes they even win. One year, the Junior Posse shocked a competition in Malibu by taking first, second and third place... all on the same, little gray Arabian.
"The little girl who won fourth place, her father came up to us and said, 'I just paid $20,000 for my daughter's horse, and you guys came up here from South Central and won,'" Akbar laughs. "He was a little irritated because, you know, we got our horse at an auction for two hundred bucks."
Tiffany Hosley, one of several parent-chaperones, watches her two sons and two nephews circling. The setting sun catches motes of dust kicked up by the more than half-dozen horses in stride. Hosley says riding has changed her son Jalen's life.
"It gives them the mindset that they always need to use their bodies and their souls to do whatever it is, so I've seen a big improvement," Hosley says. "Prior to him riding he gave me problems in school. Him riding and the discipline that comes with riding has made him better in school and at home."
Another parent, Robert Parron, says riding has helped his son, Justin, in school, too... but for very different reasons.
"That is my leverage for him on his education and all," Parron says. "He knows that his grade depend on him keeping and loving his horse and having time for his horse. So he's an A student."
For 16 years, Mayisha Akbar has given Compton's most vulnerable youth a safe haven. And children who grew up riding in her backyard corrale are now sending their children to do the same. But you get the feeling she's always thinking about the kids she couldn't help.
"We have lost any number of our young men," she says. "We lost one young girl, a teenage girl, to a drive-by. And it's just hard. It's really been a journey. And not a real delightful journey. But it's been a journey."
As darkness falls, I ask Mr. Harvey if he'll give me one more cowboy yodel. He picks one that he's taught the whole club. His posse of latch-key kids and last-chancers gathers their horses into a tight circle, and, for a brief moment, the hard-charging lyrics of Ice Cube, Easy E, and Dr. Dre that have come to define Compton give way to Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues."