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High Noon for Ireland's 'Urban Cowboys'

New regulations try to tighten the reins on a horse-ownership craze that has swept poor neighborhoods in Dublin.

It was less a "protest march" than a "protest trot" for those who came into Dublin city center during Christmas week to show their opposition to new regulations on horse ownership in Ireland that went into effect at the end of October.

The protesters certainly stood out: Most were teenagers; all rode bareback. They are the so-called "urban cowboys" who come from areas like Clondalkin on the northern outskirts of Dublin. The area comprises 13 housing developments where unemployment approaches 70 percent and heroin addiction is rampant.

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With little money for pastimes common to teenagers elsewhere, teens have turned to horse ownership over the past decade. At a local horse fair, animals can be purchased for as little as $15. It's estimated there are some 3,000 horses living in the capital's impoverished areas, that have a population of 80,000 people.

"For most of these kids this is a passionate hobby and one that has many social benefits," local politician Joe Higgins says. John Brophy, who runs Quarryvale, a local horse and pony club in Clondalkin, adds, "The horses are not just pets; they represent the only lifeline for many young people, acting as an alternative to the catastrophic drugs problem."

Thirteen-year-old Brian Ryan owns a brown mare named Oasis. As he brushes her down, he laughs that "looking after her is better than just hanging around with nothing to do but get in trouble."

Like most of his friends, however, Brian has nowhere to keep his horse. The Quarryvale club has no pasture or stables and can only help members learn about caring for their pets. Most of the "cowboys" keep their horses in public parks, which has led to conflict with local authorities.

Brendan Kenny of Dublin Corporation, the local city council, describes housing developments as being "like the Wild West," with horses roaming loose. The corporation sees the horses as impractical pets for urban areas and welcomes the new ownership regulations.

The "cowboys" have no difficulty with the broad thrust of what has been introduced. A registration fee of $45 is required for each horse, and every animal is electronically tagged with an identifying microchip in its ear. However, they object to another new standard for horses in urban areas - proper stables that satisfy a veterinary inspector.

Already, the Dublin Corporation has rounded up more than 150 horses whose owners failed to meet the new regulations. The majority of these animals were destroyed.

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The action of the local authority is supported by the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA). It argues that keeping horses in urban areas can be allowed only if the horses are well looked after, with proper facilities.

"There are many caring horse owners in Dublin, but many others take no responsibility whatever," says Threse Cunningham of the DSPCA. The group says it has taken into its care more than 100 horses in the past year that were suffering from neglect and disease.

Local politicians like Mr. Higgins want Dublin Corporation to provide pastures and stables rather than round up the horses, giving the hobby the kind of support that soccer and other sports receive. "We want open grass spaces to be put aside for the horses of Dublin," says Veronica McElligott of the Horse Owners Association.

If such action is not taken, Dublin's urban cowboys could be facing high noon in 1998.

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