The founder of the Urban Equestrian Academy talks to Racing Post’s Jonathan Harding
The Urban Equestrian Academy is based in the countryside on the outskirts of Leicester and it helps to bridge the gap between these two realities, connecting inner-city children to the world of horses.
Freedom Zampaladus, better known as Fr33dom, founded his social enterprise in 2017 to introduce more young people to equestrianism, an often inaccessible pursuit for those growing up in major cities.
The 41-year-old was born in Leicester but moved to Antigua as a teenager, when he began working with racehorses. They were an important outlet as he became increasingly caught up in criminality.
His uncle was the most notorious marijuana dealer on the island and Zampaladus was integrated into the family business. He then faced a choice between returning to England to pursue a career with horses or to remain in Antigua and potentially end up in jail or even worse.
Having excelled as the country’s youngest licensed trainer, he opted to leave the island at 19 to complete his qualifications in equine care but was disillusioned by a lack of representation in the industry and slipped into old habits, returning to Leicester to “run the streets”.
Zampaladus was fortunately able to turn his life around and, after greeting us with a beaming smile at the academy headquarters, he explains how he hopes to draw on his experiences to help others.
“Horses are therapeutic,” he says. “I went through therapy with them in Antigua before I realised that. I witnessed domestic violence, divorce, drugs, crime and poverty but I balanced those things with my love of horses. They helped me escape that reality.
“A lot of the people we work with have faced similar circumstances and they too can benefit from being around horses. We allow them to spend some time away from it all, even if only for a few hours.
“I believe one of the reasons why the Urban Equestrian Academy has been so successful is because my life experiences enable me to relate to young people and adults on a number of different levels.
“That could be on a religious level as a Muslim, on a gang-banging level as a former gang-banger or as someone who turned their life around and became an activist. Don’t think I don’t regret some of the things I’ve done, I do, but I don’t shy away from my past.”
There are a number of volunteers at the academy and we are given a tour of the yard by Salwa Tebai, who joined in 2018. She was raised in France and speaks to the horses in English and French, with an affection towards them that is the same in every language.
We are introduced to each of the academy’s horses individually in one of the fields at the rented site. It is a stone’s throw from the built-up heart of Leicester yet, surrounded by woodland and hills, it could hardly feel further removed from the city in the distance.
“It was really cool growing up in Leicester,” says Zampaladus, who recounts his early life in his book From The Hood 2 Horses. “It was a diverse place and I had a lot of friends from different backgrounds.
“Horses were never on my radar but I was always into animals. I was a geeky kid and was a bit like the black David Attenborough. Rather than playfighting in the park, I was watching butterflies. I could even tell you the species of a bird just from the way it flew.
“Dad decided to take the family back to Antigua when I was 14 for two reasons. It was hard for working-class people to make a living in the early 90s and he wanted us to understand where we came from, but I was settled and didn’t want to live in the Caribbean.
“The one glimmer of happiness was that my uncle had racehorses, including one called Iron Mike. When we got to the village I went straight to the stables and spent every day there for five years.”
Zampaladus learned to ride and became increasingly involved with the racing yard. When Hurricane Luis devastated the island in 1995, his uncle’s trainer walked away and the teenager seized his chance.
He became the island’s youngest trainer when taking out his licence at 17 and the yard was successful; he had carved out a new path. It set him on the road to a life-changing decision to return to England.
After then studying at Brooksby Melton College, Zampaladus spent a year and a half working for breeder Umm Qarn in West Sussex but soon became frustrated by the lack of representation in the industry.
“When I entered the world of horses in England I was introduced to institutionalised racism and social isolation,” he says. “There was a real lack of diversity and I fell out of love with it. I used to share a house with other people and got into incidents over racist stuff.
“I had enough of having to live without people who looked like me, or acted like me, without easy access to a mosque or halal food. I turned my back on it, came back to Leicester and went back to doing what I was doing, running the streets, for a couple of years.
“I was sick of putting up with silly behaviour simply because of the colour of my skin. I was angry. I knew how good I was and I was annoyed I wasn’t accepted. I went from being the youngest trainer to being subjected to racism and undermined. It was restricting.”
Few people can boast a more varied CV than Zampaladus, who “put on his clip-on tie” and worked for the likes of Santander and British Gas. He confesses to “not being cut out for that world” and clashed with managers before channelling his boundless energy into youth work.
“I had a reputation in Leicester,” he remembers. “I was 24 and when I told the bad boys to listen, they did. I had my own kids at that time. I started taking the children out to ride horses and noticed how confident I was explaining it to them. I spoke that language.
“I was worried my kids would not get the chance to see the great work I could do with horses. That’s when it really clicked and I decided to set up the academy. I came up with the concept in 2015.
“I could have called it the Black Equestrian Academy but it wouldn’t work for me. The lack of diversity in equestrianism is not just black people. It’s basically everyone who is non-white but also those who are white but don’t come from a rural or privileged background.
“The word urban covers everything we want to do to connect the inner city to the equestrian world and we call it an academy because we’re not a riding school – this is an educational establishment.”
Among those volunteering are Saarah Nazir, a would-be showjumper who has been able to hone her craft at nearby Isaac Hall Equestrian, and Shareefa, a published poet who is glad of an extra pair of hands to help groom a friendly pony, affectionately known as Kevin Hart.
This is a place for them to not only improve their riding skills, and one day compete, but to study equine care, and Zampaladus speaks with obvious pride when telling us how far they have already come.
He has driven more than 3,000 people to the academy from the city in the ‘Pony Express’, a branded minivan, with around 100 people a week taking part in classes, at a cost of £9 per week for children.
Zampaladus is certainly not finished yet. He hopes to expand the Urban Equestrian Academy by opening their own site in the city centre, as well as establishing satellite operations in other cities.
He also plans to set up a racing unit for aspiring jockeys, connected to a gallops, and in the short term, build a quiet room at their current site so people of all faiths have somewhere to worship.
“Ultimately we want to franchise,” adds Zampaladus. “We’ve already loaned one horse to two brand ambassadors in east London and our plan is to have operations across the UK. A number of people have been in touch asking how we can offer our services in other cities.
“It’s in everybody’s interest that racing and equestrianism generally becomes more diverse. It just makes the world a better place. The industry should get behind projects like ours and help us out.
“It’s not just about going on a course and saying you’re going to be more diverse. Representation is really important and the governing bodies need to have people from more diverse backgrounds. The sports must also provide facilities that are welcoming to all people.”
There is a sense of community at the Urban Equestrian Academy, with volunteers and participants from different backgrounds leaving their lives at the door and embracing their shared love of horses.
Zampaladus is doing so much more than teaching young people how to ride or look after these animals – he is forcing open doors that he found were closed to him growing up and broadening their horizons.
‘I want to show people it can be done’
The Urban Equestrian Academy has already had one success story in Kanane Francis, a young, self-styled ‘urban jockey’ from Leicester.
In September, the 20-year-old graduated from the British Racing School and he hopes to pursue a career as a jump jockey, having already spent time working for Mick Appleby and Nicky Henderson.
A career in racing had not been on his radar growing up in Leicester but after first sitting on a horse in December 2019, he was hooked and Zampaladus, a family friend, believed he could become a jockey.
“I studied animal care and looked for veterinary jobs,” says Francis, who is hoping to complete the remaining 18 months of his level 2 equine groom apprenticeship before taking out his jockey’s licence.
“Freedom posted on social media about children learning to ride and I thought it would be good to volunteer and be around animals.
“I fell in love with it after an hour or two. I volunteered for a few months and learned how to gallop horses. It gave me such a buzz. I couldn’t get enough of it and knew I had to carry on riding. I loved going fast and Freedom suggested I go to the British Racing School.
“He really motivated me. I’ve had some down times and he’s helped me to carry on, as well as acquire a body protector and helmet. The academy opens a lot of doors for people who may want to work in the industry. It gets young people thinking about future careers.”
Francis believes there is diversity in racing but he hopes to lead by example and encourage more black riders to get into the sport.
“There is diversity but many people from an ethnic background are working as stable staff, they’re not riding or anything like that,” adds Francis. “It was only me and one other kid at the racing school. I was a bit shocked but people may not be aware of the opportunities.
“One thing the sport could do is to open more racing schools closer to major cities so young people view it as a potential career. It’s about showing it can be done, then racing will become more diverse.
“It’s been hard for me at times as I’ve had to spend time away from home but I feel so happy riding horses. I’m determined to make it happen and hope to ride in point-to-points in the next few years.”
If you are interested in supporting the Urban Equestrian Academy, you can find information about donations here