Heels Down Fists Up Ride Brings Equestrians Together To Support Black Lives Matter

Jun 24, 2020 - 7:58 AM

I love being a member of the horse community. I’ve competed in eventing since I was 12, and I grew up riding and showing in Area VI, mainly in California.

I’ve always loved the sense of community in eventing. People care about each other; we all go out of our way to help each other. It’s much more than a sport; it becomes your whole world. If you’re in it long enough, the people you ride and show with become like a second family.

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The equestrian community is a strong one, and on June 20 horses and riders came together to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement in Oakland, Calif. Ellie Leonard Photos

The harsh reality of the world we live in becomes easy to escape, for some of us. For others, harsh realities are faced on a daily basis. Harsh reality becomes their whole world.

I am Asian American. I’ve always felt comfortable and accepted in the horse world, and I’m lucky because I live in a very progressive state. That being said, I’ve always been aware that I am different. It’s funny, I have always thought of myself as Ellie. Just Ellie. If I had to describe myself, I would talk about horses, or the music I like, or maybe even “The Office.” (It’s a great show). But I’ve realized that most people see you for your differences.

I had a friend ask me if I had bought a new car a few weeks ago because they saw an Asian girl in a blue Prius drive past the barn. It was an innocent comment, but it was frustrating. I don’t think of myself as Asian. I am just myself. I’ve had people tell me they thought I was the same person as another Asian girl who I was friends with, and they didn’t realize we were two different people. I’ve had people tell me I look like Lucy Liu when I put my hair in a ponytail. These comments weren’t intended to be hurtful, but they did hurt. They made me feel like I had no identity, that all the things that made me who I am weren’t important.

But I am lucky because the way I look doesn’t put me in danger. I have never feared for my life because of the color of my skin. I can walk my dog in a nice neighborhood or go running in the morning or park my car by a drive-thru without fearing for my life. I can sleep in my own bed and trust I will wake up in the morning.

I know how it feels to be different, and I think it’s important that those of us who have a voice, use it. Horse people are tough and compassionate, and we have the ability to make an impact.

I attended Brianna Noble’s Heels Down Fists Up protest in Oakland, California, on June 20 with the desire to document what I believe to be history in the making.

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Protest organizer Brianna Noble (left) led horses and riders to the East Bay Skyline National Trail.

I have always enjoyed art and photography, and through photography I have met so many incredible people. The best way I know how to use my voice is through a lens, so with my camera and my dog Chase I drove to Oakland with the hope that people would show up, with the hope that the horse community’s presence would be a strong one.

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Chase marched with two signs. The other sign read “Paws Up for BLM.”

I remember feeling concerned that no one would show up at all. I needn’t have worried. When I arrived at the Anthony Chabot Regional Park at 10:30 in the morning, the Clyde Woolridge staging area was already packed with trailers, RVs and cars. The parking lot is a long road reaching up into the hills, and horse trailers were parked along the sides, a lot of them with handwritten Black Lives Matter signs taped to the sides.

TrailerSignsEllieLeonard
Everyone decorated their trailers and cars to support the movement and show solidarity. Many carried signs and wore shirts with supportive messages.

The road was filled with horses, cute ponies with children, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. There were western, English and endurance saddles, and several brave riders riding bareback. A broad diversity of riders converged, a mix I would love to see within every aspect of the sport. The common theme was that every rider was happy to be there. Everyone was smiling, laughing with each other. There was a hum of excitement and a sense of belonging.

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Horses can be a platform for change.

At one point, a rider asked Brianna Noble, the organizer of the protest and founder of Humble, if she had to ride her horse or if she could lead the horse instead. Brianna’s reply stuck with me. “Whatever you need to do, whatever makes you comfortable,” she said loudly, as she addressed the entire crowd. “We’re a community. Talk to each other, make friends. We are a community.”

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Musician Prince Damons and his horse Apollo.

Brianna led the group of 55 horses to the East Bay Skyline National Trail, and everyone gathered about a mile away from the parking area to stand in solidarity with their right hands raised in a fist. For 10 seconds they chanted, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!”

HorseBlaceprotestEllieLeonardAnd then there was quiet.

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This was one of my favorite pictures, as it represents the media attention surrounding Black Lives Matter.

The ride lasted about an hour. I witnessed so many people of completely different backgrounds talking to each other and helping each other. I have never been prouder of our community for stepping up to be the change.


Ellie Leonard, 20, was born in Redwood City, California, and has lived in the East Bay for most of her life, except for one year spent in Northern Virginia. An avid eventer and photographer, Ellie groomed for a couple of her trainers and started making video montages of the shows she attended with them. “My favorite moments to document were not the action shots, although those were exciting, but rather the quiet moments between horse and rider after a good round, or the supportive moments between friends in warm-up,” she says. Ellie is currently enrolled in community college and is interested in studying criminal justice.

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