A boy stands next to a horse in front of an autumn treescape
Aazim poses for a portrait with Major, a horse from the riding club, outside in Fairmount Park

As the wind gusts picked up at Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, adding to the chill of a November Sunday, Aazim Ferrell didn’t seem to mind. Wearing a blue hoodie and jeans, the 13-year-old carefully brushed a horse named Major, and shared a vision for his future.

“My dream is to own a ranch one day,” Aazim told Billy Penn.

“I wanna train horses with my friend Corey,” he continued, gesturing toward the boy standing next to him, whom he met four years ago at the stables’ annual camping trip to upstate New York, “and make him my jockey.”

Aazim Ferrell loves working with horses at the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club Credit: Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

Born in Francisville, Aazim now resides with his mom near the stables in Strawberry Mansion. Living in North Philly has prompted a wish for the city he calls home.

“I wish gang violence would change — and corrupt cops, and school lunch menus — but the gang violence,” he said.

He often hears gunshots around the neighborhood, but that’s not the scary part, Aazim said, as he’s gotten used to that. But he often worries about his younger siblings. Aazim has two brothers, ages 7 and 9, and a 6-year-old sister.

Of the more than 2,100 people shot this year in Philadelphia, over 10% — more than 230 victims — were children under the age of 18, per stats from the City Controller’s Office. More than half of students at Strawberry Mansion High School, in the neighborhood where Aazim lives, reported having witnessed shootings or lost family members to gun violence.

From left to right, Aazim poses with Whiskey alongside his friend Corey with Frida. Both are horses from the riding club Credit: Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

Aazim is now in eighth grade at the William Dick School, where he’s finally beginning to flourish. He said he’s changed significantly since fifth grade.

“I kind of had a track record at my old schools,” he said. “I got into a fight at Bache-Martin. I was jumped and broke a kid’s finger — his index finger.” Aazim held up his own finger to explain. “Only I got kicked out.”

Credit: Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

He was transferred to the Edward Gideon School in Strawberry Mansion to finish out the year, and then landed at William Dick, nearby. There, he’s grateful for what he calls “ES classes” — part of the district’s Emotional Support Program.

“I think the class is helping me,” he said. “I don’t lash out anymore.” Aazim paused, looking straight ahead as his eyebrows furrowed. “I was lashing out from childhood trauma. From not having my father in my life.”

Aazim Ferrell loves working with horses at the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club Credit: Nathan Morris / Billy Penn

His father left when he was 3 years old, Aazim said. That was difficult, but it led to positive relationships with the women in his life. “I’m very close with my mom and grandma,” he said. “I try to step up and be the man, but my mom tells me I can’t take care of everybody — I can only take care of myself.”

That’s what the riding club at Fletcher Street gives him the space to do.

While the emotional support classes at school have helped with trauma, it’s the horses at the non-profit that make him feel seen, heard, and healed.

“You can just talk to them, and they talk to you, too,” Aazim said. “They’re my therapy. That’s my favorite thing about living here — my family, friends, and these horses.”

Aazim Ferrell in the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club stable with his horses Credit: Nathan Morris / Billy Penn