By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Mankind’s relationship with horses dates back millennia to when a horse’s ability to carry a human was first discovered. This use of horses has had a tremendous impact on their relationships with man on an individual level, and on humanity’s progress as a whole. Horses have been used throughout history as assistants in hunting, building, and traveling. They were valued for their immense power in the past; in our current day and age they are valued mainly for their role in sports and offer of companionship. Additionally, riding a horse has traditionally been viewed as a status symbol and the privilege of riding has been known to often be restricted to the ruling elite in some areas. However, even though owning horses and horseback riding are thought of as leisurely pastimes of the elite, many people utilize horses in ways that contradict those assumptions—specifically through protest.
Over a century ago, horses were ridden during the women’s suffrage movement. In an age when women were thought to be lower in status than their male counterparts, this use of a horse was ingenious. Although today, many picture horse-riding as primarily a women’s sport (think of the often-used stereotype of a “horse girl”), during the time when men were the ones with all the power, riding horses was mostly a man’s game. By taking the reins into their own hands, however, women were able to change the narrative, elevating themselves not only upon the backs of their gentle beasts, but in the eyes of society as a whole.
In 1967, the civil rights movement in America was in full swing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., known as the face of the movement, travelled to Louisville, Kentucky in the spring of 1967. Protesters there and elsewhere across the United States were calling for the institution of a law that would make it illegal to refuse to sell or rent property based on race. Housing discrimination was a huge part of the racial divide taking place in Louisville, and the people affected by unfair laws desired change. Their protests and demands for equality happened to coincide with the Kentucky Derby that year—an event of great renown that attracted people from around the nation.
Protesters organized marches throughout the city, and, eventually, they decided to interrupt the Kentucky Derby itself. In the week leading up to the main race, riders were blocked by protesters, some of whom actually made their way on to one of the tracks during a race, forcing jockeys to bring their horses to a stop. On the day of the big race, Proud Clarion, a horse that had never won a stakes race in his two years of racing, and with odds of winning 30-1, rode to victory. Looking back on this event, one may consider an interesting parallel—an unexpected win took place at the Derby, and for the protesters and residents of Kentucky, less than a year later the Fair Housing Act was passed into law. By using an event like the Kentucky Derby, the civil rights activists were able to take a huge step forward in the fight against racism.
Even today, horses are being used in protests to fight against injustice, particularly in the Black Lives Matter movement. As people all across the country (and across the world) took to their feet to demand justice for the death of George Floyd, the Houston Non-Stop Riderz took to their steeds to make a difference and demonstrate their desire for change. Cassandra Johnson, known as the “first lady” of the Non-Stop Riderz trail riding group, knew Floyd personally and wanted to take action in a different way. The group of riders went viral on Twitter as they rode through downtown Houston during a peaceful protest. Another woman, Brianna Noble, took to the streets in Oakland with her horse Dapper Dan to demonstrate her solidarity with the movement. Both of these instances of horses used during the Black Lives Matter protests are extremely powerful, especially when one considers the history of the black cowboys that were an integral part of American history in the West. Although, unfortunately, many have forgotten the impact of black cowboys, groups like the Non-Stop Riderz and activists including Brianna Noble have taken it upon themselves to utilize this historical narrative to evoke change in the present. Riding high in the face of oppression takes tremendous courage, and these people are devoted to educating Americans while also demanding justice in a unique and powerful manner.
Change is not immediate—it requires a powerful message and voice in order to enact it. Horses, known for so long as man’s trustworthy companion, undoubtedly have and will continue to have a role in changing the world.