Horseback Riding While Black
When I was nine, I BEGGED my parents to let me attend horse camp. Because, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with magical worlds where badass women rode around shooting people with arrows, where unicorns sprinkled magic dust (or something like that), where indigenous people rode across the plains with complete freedom and a one-ness with their mounts, and where ladies with giant poofy skirts got horses to pull them around in carriages. I think kid-me really liked the romance of a simpler, more magical time.
(Kid-me also had no idea yet that black people weren’t counted among these elite horse-riding folk, but I still had a good time imagining myself in these scenarios.)
My parents let me go to horse camp, and I was immediately hooked. I didn’t see that the people surrounding this sport were rich white people and their spoiled children: I just saw big brown liquid eyes and what looked like the softest noses in the world.
When I got home from this one-week experience, I somehow convinced my parents of my hatred for flute, gymnastics, soccer, piano etc., and that there was NOTHING better for me than riding horses. Of course, finances never entered my mind—$25 a week is a LOT of money when you have two kids and a mortgage, says adult-me. But my parents somehow made it work, for which I am eternally grateful.
Because, for an introverted kid who hated team activities and performances, horseback riding was the perfect sport. I felt like nobody was watching me at all, and if they were watching I didn’t care. Because one wrong move could mean a painful fall, and I was focused on making sure that didn’t happen. And because building a silent relationship with another, larger creature was a wonderfully empowering thing for a quiet kid.
I visited the barn at least three times a week, sometimes more. I didn’t fit into the little clique the barn owner’s daughters created, with girls rich enough to own their horses, but I didn’t care. I stayed on the “poor” side of the barn with the barn owner’s “lesson horses.” I memorized each of their names and personalities. I knew which ones bit and kicked, which ones had allergies, and which ones were hyper and unruly. (Midge liked to escape from the pasture by shimmying under the fence. And Pumpkin hated small children and people, but tolerated me.) I loved each and every one of them.
It didn’t really bother me that the people there treated me like I didn’t belong. They wouldn’t let me into their little club and confused me with the only other biracial girl there on a daily basis. I wasn’t invited to barn sleepovers and I couldn’t afford horse camps or extra lessons. And when I DID attend events or shows, the white people spent ages trying to fit my wild hair under a helmet mostly by burning (I mean, “straightening” it) to a crisp. But despite this, I built meaningful relationships with the horses there.
Annabelle “Annie” was my first horse love. We just fit together with her strong, powerful gait and her wild personality. As a recovering race horse, she loved to go fast. I felt mighty and talented on Annie’s back, like I could literally jump the highest fences and win the shiniest blue ribbons. If I had the means, I would have purchased her and earned a place in the boarder barn once and for all.
But a spoiled rich white girl with a few horses to her name eventually bought Annabelle and broke my heart. I cried over Annie like she had died, mourning the loss of a silent best friend who didn’t want anything from me but an apple and a cold bath after a hard day’s work.
Years later, I met Arctic or “Art.” I poured my time, effort, and talent into rehabilitating a horse who hadn’t been ridden in five years because he’d been recovering from a fractured knee. (The fact that he wasn’t put down was a miracle.) We had similar injuries on the same sides of our bodies that plagued both of us with achy joints and bouts of unexplained swelling that made us both limp.
I was never afraid of Art, even when his hooves scrapped the air near my face. Even when he yanked at the lunge line and gave me wicked rope burns that immediately blistered both my palms. Even when he tried to run away with me because he was triggered by something scary nearby. He came to trust and respect me.
I taught him what it meant to fly through the air again. And together, we healed each other’s trauma. I hugged his neck and sobbed on bad days. On good ones, I laughed when he untied the slip knots I used to keep him still for bath time—he only wanted to steal a couple mouthfuls of grass. And when he limped, I treated his knee just like I would my own. I wrapped him up, fed him some pain killers, and held ice to the swollen, knobby knee until it felt better.
But I never owned Art either. When his rich, white owner sold him, I broke a little inside. Here I was, having worked with Art as a labor of love, and here she was selling him as a commodity, as if that love and care had no meaning. And that loss was even harder than the first.
After Art, I never really rode much again. I’m not one for meditating, but riding a horse was pretty close to it for me. I’ve gone trail riding here and there and have tried to find a barn to call home. But it’s a little weird for a solitary adult (a black one at that) to try to enter these spaces. I now feel uncomfortable trying to “join the club” and win white people’s trust. I have no credentials to offer, no piece of paper that certifies me to work with horses.
But I know I need to find a little piece of silence and belonging again.
Saddle underneath me.
Forest trail ahead of me.