The night before thousands flocked to Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, California, on May 29, to protest George Floyd’s murder, Brianna Noble was at home with her husband, Adolfo Gutierrez, venting about how little had changed since she protested police brutality on that same square 11 years earlier.
Noble was barely in high school when Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man, was killed by police officers at the now infamous Fruitvale Station. She organized a youth town hall forum on police brutality in response and attended protests after his death. Now 25, a mother, and a woman with greater perspective, Noble wanted to make an unforgettable statement at the protest, so she rode in on horseback.
“I never feel powerful,” said Noble, “especially through all of these different causes we’ve supported. You feel like nothing you do is going to make a change; you’re just this tiny speck of dust. It doesn’t matter what you do, how much you yell. What’s the chance you’re going to make a change?
“Where I feel powerful is on my horse,” she added. “Walking him through to that protest and getting there and [having all] those people follow me, I’m like, this is powerful. This is something that I can do that’s good. This is where I can be big, and this is where I can make a difference. It’s a really deep thing.”
Noble parked her horse trailer at Lake Merritt, and she rode Dapper Dan, her 7-year-old Appaloosa gelding, to the Plaza. She protested for two hours and made an early exit before the crowds became overwhelming that night.
“When I rode to the protest, everybody’s honking their horns, and people were slowing down to take videos,” said Noble, who trains students and develops green horses for sale at her Mulatto Meadows in Martinez, California. “Everybody is sticking their fist up in solidarity. Everybody is screaming and cheering, ‘Yeah, black lives matter.’ ”
People were surprised by the number of black equestrians who participated in the Compton Cowboys’ “Peace Ride,” held June 8 in Compton, California. What did you think of the reactions?
People don’t see us because most of us don’t have money, and that’s just what it is. I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a barn, and you get people who are blatantly racist, but the majority of people are just surprised to see a black person there at all. I’ve met affluent people that have never seen a black person before. I’ve had people try to pet me. I’ve been asked if I’m black all over. I get asked questions like, “Why are the palms of your hands white?” We’re honestly a curiosity, and I think that’s what this is at this point.
[Riding is] completely inaccessible to a lot of people of color. The prices are so sky-high that, of course, we’re a curiosity because nobody really sees us. It’s kind of like—it doesn’t matter if somebody has a business degree and they have all the knowledge in the world, all the drive to go out and get a job. If that person can’t afford a suit to be able to go to that job interview to showcase those skills, it doesn’t matter what they have behind it; you’re never going to be able to make it there. You can’t even walk through the front door of a business like that, and that’s what it’s like for a good majority of black people wanting to get into horses.
When it comes to accessibility, what role does socioeconomics play in differentiating equestrian from other sports?
We can’t even get in the door to go to riding lessons. We can’t even talk about the show world or the “A” circuit when people don’t have enough disposable income to send their kid to lessons twice a week to even learn how to post the trot.
You can’t go out and just buy a basketball and a pair of tennis shoes and dribble the ball and hope to get good at it. In other sports, there are all of these programs that help kids that don’t have the money to buy the shoes or basketball. They have camps and programs. There are scholarships. I don’t think anybody is asking for a handout, but the chance to be able to work to prove your worth is really what I want to give people because there doesn’t seem like there’s any help.
As a child, how cognizant were you of your skin color?
I was very aware that I was black. I remember going to my mom and being like, “Why can’t I just be like everybody else?” I just made it, these last couple of years, to a place where it’s like, I’m not going to make myself smaller. I’m not going to try to make myself speak differently or try my hardest to look like everybody else because at the end of the day I’m not.
But it’s a really hard thing as a little girl to know, no matter where you go, people stare at you, and I wish it was just because of your race. I don’t look like everyone else, yes, because I’m black, but also because I can’t afford the clothes.
I have two pairs of breeches. One pair of boots. My monoflap saddle that I’ve had to repair 10 times because I can’t afford the super expensive CWD, and I can’t afford the nice helmet. So you look different for a multitude of reasons. There’s no way you can fit in, and that is something made apparent to you as a black person if you don’t have money, from the day you can understand what a stare means. It’s definitely hard to watch the kids that probably ride for two years and are done with it; they run around in equipment that you could only ever hope to own.
Can you describe the encounters you’ve had with those in our industry who are unexposed to black people?
I feel like I am a zoo animal when I go to barns. How am I supposed to be professional when somebody, in the middle of a COVID pandemic, walks up to me and is like, “Oh my gosh, I love your hair so much,” [and then] reaches out and goes to pet you?
What kills me about it is they go, “Wow. You speak so well. You’re not like the other black people,” or, “What kind of black are you?” It seems like they don’t expect us to be intelligent. So the fact that I’m intelligent and professional and can ride and am a decent human being seem to be traits that are strange for a black person. They don’t even realize that those questions are offensive.
In a regular 9-5 job, that would be a hostile work environment. I can understand why black kids don’t want to come up in this. It shouldn’t be hard for other people to understand how hard it is when you’re treated like that. You’re basically in a hostile work environment every single day of your life wherever you go, and if you want to be a part of the world, you just have to deal with it, and it shouldn’t be like that.
What access did you have to horses growing up?
We were very low middle class. My parents did just fine, but they definitely did not have disposable income, so for them to send me to lessons once a week, twice a week—that’s kind of a big deal. I made a deal with them as a young teenager that, “If I get a 3.6 GPA in school, will you let me [lease] a horse so that I can actually do things?” And they said, “Yes, that sounds great.”
At one point, I had a 4.2 GPA because I was taking extra classes. I remember going to my parents and being like, “Can I do this?” and they didn’t have the money. Horses are the driving force, the reason why I do everything, and at that point it’s like, it doesn’t matter how hard I try, I still get left behind. From that point, my parents had zero control over me. I don’t care; I’m going to do whatever I need to do to ride.
We had this huge fight. I ended up at a not-so-great, back-of-the-woods barn, and I didn’t care what I rode. My parents, at that point, didn’t know what was going on with me. They thought I was doing a lot of bad things, and my mom thought I was on drugs at one point, but even to this day, I’ve never smoked a cigarette. So, that wasn’t the case; it was actually just because I wanted to ride horses.
How old were you when you set the intention of becoming the first African American woman to show jump at the Olympics?
I was probably 5 or 6 years old, and I remember watching Beezie Madden; I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I’m like, “I want to be like this lady. I want to go out, and I want to do that, and I’m going to go to the Olympics.” I don’t even want to call it a goal because goals—you put things in place to reach them at some point, but I am fully aware that that’s completely unattainable.
You met Marlene Fultz when you moved from Oakland to the Central Valley to study veterinary technology at Modesto Junior College. Why do you refer to her as the most influential horsewoman in your life?
When I moved there, I was a working student, had different jobs riding horses as well as being a vet tech, and I rode anything I could in my free time. I was basically on a bare budget going, “Hey, I’m going to the Olympics,” with my $900 paycheck every other week. That was my dream, and [Marlene] watched me work like that, and she was like, “Girl, you’re crazy.”
She made me really mad at first, and she was like, “Sorry, I’m going to tell you that you can’t do this. That’s not how this world works. If you don’t have money, you will never ever be able to do it.” She was like, “You might as well do something that makes you money. You’re going to come work for me, and you’re going to make this horse for me, and we’re going to make some money.”
My dream to go to the Olympics is one that’s not going to happen; it’s a cute little childhood dream. I don’t have money like that, and I never will, but [Marlene] gave me a way to just eat because at the end of the day, I don’t really care what I do in the horse world. I just like horses, and I like doing right by the horses, and she really made me realize that dreams don’t matter, the horses really do, and I have a way to basically do what I love and afford a living, so I’m forever grateful for that woman.
How did your perspective shift once you stopped riding towards a goal?
Once I got out of riding for a goal in mind and rode in a way that made the horse want to be with me, I was like, “This is what I want to do.” I don’t care what discipline I’m in; I don’t care if I ever achieve my silly goals. I love making horses want to be my partner.
There are lots of people who can ride, and maybe I’ll never be a really good rider, but one thing I pride myself in is that the horses I work with want to work with me. Horses don’t lie, so you can have a really great ride, but at the end of the day, I’m looking at that horse’s body language to see if he’s calm; that’s my reward. I don’t want to be a big trainer. What makes me feel really good is when that horse drops his head and sighs, and his ears are kind of floppy, and he’s just calm.
What were your thoughts on the column “Sometimes You Have To Read Between The Lines”?
I’m not surprised at all; I wish I was. What was surprising is how many people spoke out against it. I’m just glad that people can’t pretend to be unaware at this point. I almost think people are going to have to pick sides. All the companies and sponsors and big people in the industry are either with this or against it.
Horses are like mirrors. This is putting up a mirror for people to look at themselves and show them that their opinions are going to affect their jobs. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me saying, “I’ve never thought about this before. What can I do?” And that statement is the amazing thing that’s coming out of this. That’s where the real dialogue begins.
What do you hope to accomplish with Humble, your grassroots program that will foster opportunity for underprivileged riders?
I want to get inner-city youth on horses free of charge, and it’s something I’ve been trying to figure out how to do properly for the last five years or so. Going to that protest and getting all this press has really given me the chance to start. Horses are life-changing for anyone. Any time you tell someone that you ride horses, they have to tell you about the time they rode a horse 15 years ago on a trail ride.
I’m one woman on one horse and see what a difference that made. I want to find the kids like me who don’t have a support system, are passionate about horses, and give them an opportunity to work, to ride, to learn. As they get older, hopefully, foster relationships with bigger trainers.