Thursday, May. 23, 2024

First-Generation Black Equestrians Make A Splash Online

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When Sarah Harris received a horse for her eighth birthday, she and her older sister Emily, then 14, were immediately smitten with the bay mare, Allie. The girls had been asking for a horse since each of them could speak. One of Sarah’s first words was “hoy-hoy,” her own baby babble for “horse,” and despite the sisters’ six-year age difference they’d bonded over their preference for horse books and toys over just about everything else. 

The only problem: while the girls were horse-obsessed, they had little lived horse experience. The homeschooled sisters were first-generation horse people with supportive, but equally inexperienced parents, Tim and Julie Harris. The girls applied their homeschool-grown, self-starter approach to taking care of Allie, who lived at home on the family’s 11-acre farm in Lynch Station, Virginia.  

“Our mom had really cultivated a love for knowledge in us as kids and I just took off with it,” Emily said. “I loved books, and I got in trouble a few times because I would end up reading instead of doing chores. All of the horse books she got us, I probably have read them all.”

When Sarah Harris received her first horse, Allie, for her eighth birthday, the gift inspired her and sister, Emily Harris, to learn everything they could about horses. Photos Courtesy of Emily and Sarah Harris

Sarah and Emily got to work teaching themselves to care for their new charge. Luckily, Allie was an ideal mare for the two inexperienced owners to learn the ropes. 

“She was absolutely the best first horse ever,” Sarah said. “She was so chill. She was so forgiving, and we literally made every mistake… I mean, when we look back at the pictures, we’re always crying with embarrassment.”

While the Harris sisters still cringe at that early photo evidence of their rocky start, they have come a long way by seeking out mentorship, lessons and doing lots of research. Today Sarah, 19, and Emily, 25, are multi-discipline horsewomen who have U.S. Pony Club experience, teach in clinics and have trained mustangs straight out of the BLM corrals. Allie was the first of about 20 horses who have lived at the family farm in the decade since the sisters started their equestrian journey. 

It was consideration for their younger selves that inspired Sarah and Emily to start Sisters Horsing Around, a project that teaches horsemanship through videos of the Harrises working with their animals at their farm or in clinics, in visits to other barns and ride-alongs to pick up new mustangs. Through their YouTube channel and social media platforms, they’ve become the approachable, knowledgeable voices that they wish they’d had access to as beginners. 

Emily (left) and Sarah Harris bonded over their love of horses, in spite of the sisters’ six-year age gap. They use their online platform to make the horse world more accessible.

A Goal To ‘Be For Others What We Didn’t Have’

Sarah and Emily call themselves “unlikely” horse people. That’s not only because of their own family’s lack of horse background, but also because Black equestrians are generally underrepresented in modern horse sports. 

“When we had first started and we had looked on YouTube, there was nobody—and when I say ‘nobody,’ I mean there weren’t other Black people who had horses on Youtube,” Emily said. “So the goal for Sisters Horsing Around was to be for others what we didn’t have.” 

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The Harrises set out to create videos that horse people would find educational, and that Black viewers might also see as welcoming into an exclusive world.  

That sense of duty was instilled in the girls by their parents shortly after Allie came home. Sarah and Emily remember when their mother, Julie, first called them into her craft room and planted a seed about sharing their privilege as Black equestrians.  

“She was like, ‘You know, you girls are really blessed to have horses,’ ” Emily remembered her mother saying. “Not many Black youth have the opportunity to have a horse at their place, where they’re able to be around them, and see them every single day, and work with them and ride them. So she wanted us to give that opportunity to other Black youth.”

Emily (left) and Sarah Harris didn’t come from an equestrian family, but they sought out learning opportunities. Here, the girls beam at their first U.S. Pony Club rally.

That pivotal conversation inspired the sisters’ mission to bring horses to people who didn’t have the same access. Alongside videos about packing a ring bag for Pony Club, or a vlog about riding in the snow, viewers can find content like their “Legends in Black Equestrian History” series, where they introduce historically influential but often overlooked horse people. 

All the content the sisters create ties back to that early directive from their mother, to give others the opportunity to experience “the joy of horses.” 

“Sisters Horsing Around was our way to bring that seed into fruition,” Emily said. 

While their mother taught them the privilege of being able to share their passion, she also was vigilant for prejudice the girls might encounter while making their way into the very white world of horses. 

“One of the things that our mom has really wanted to do—and has done throughout our equestrian journey, especially when we were younger—she wanted to protect us from negative viewpoints that we could potentially face in the equestrian world coming in as two Black girls,” Emily said. “She was always in our corner trying to speak up for us.” 

While Julie wasn’t familiar with the horse world specifically, she could coach her daughters on situations where they might be the only Black people in a clinic, or have to navigate a micro-aggression from someone unaware they had said something offensive. 

“It was one of those things where she was like, ‘You all could possibly be someone’s first experience of seeing a Black equestrian,’ ” Emily said. “And so she wanted us to do things well, she wanted us to be good representatives and she wanted us to try our best. She was always trying to help us and prepare us and talk to us about what we could face.”

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The Harris sisters say that, for the most part, they’ve felt welcomed by the horse world, and work toward embracing their roles as ambassadors. 

“I see it as an honor to carry this representation instead of a burden,” Emily said. “If I am someone’s first experience of seeing a Black equestrian, I do want it to be a good experience. I want to say, ‘Hey, we love our horses just as much as you love your horses, that we are just as mindful to take care of our horses as you all are. We’re equals in this.’ ” 

Giving A Leg Up

The sisters don’t just share their love of horses through video content. Their boots-on-the-ground outreach includes a partnership with the STAND Foundation, an organization out of Washington, D.C., that gives people living in the inner city opportunities to “gain knowledge, skills and confidence through wellness workshops, horsemanship and horseback riding.”

Emily and Sarah remember a particularly moving experience when they helped a teen girl to mount a horse for the first time in her life. They watched her battle her nerves and gently encouraged her when she finally swung her leg over the horse. 

“I just reassured her, and when she got off, she was just over the moon because she had finally overcome her fear,” Emily recalled. “It was really sweet to be a part of that experience with her and just see all these youth that were really interested in what we had to say about the horses.”

Emily Harris signs an autograph for two young fans of Sisters Horsing Around.

The sisters also get to connect with other horse-obsessed people as they visit equestrian events, like Emily’s recent visit to a wild horse and burro adoption event in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was a clinician teaching horse-gentling methods. (Sarah, she joked, was on horse duty at home, staying back to feed and care for their 12 horses.)

At the event, Emily got to finally meet two of their longtime followers, sisters who are also Black equestrians. They often leave comments on Sisters Horsing Around, she said, so it was special to meet the pair face-to-face. 

“It has been just really sweet to see how this dream and passion of ours has influenced another set of sisters,” Emily said. 

As Emily and Sarah’s online audience continues to grow, they’re building a community as wide-reaching and inclusive as the one they wish had existed when they first brought Allie home all those years ago. 

“People all over the world are watching our videos,” Sarah said. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, little old me? They actually are watching my videos over there?’ ”

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