Horses helped Patricia Kelly ride out the racism that threatened to fill her childhood with pain instead of possibilities.
“We were the third black family on the street, and we were catching hell,” said Kelly, now 71, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut.
“But this Jewish grocer — he was a Holocaust survivor — he hated prejudice. He said to me, ‘Little girl, don’t worry about them [racists taunting her].’ …
“He let me ride his horse, and I thought he was Santa Claus.”
Those lessons in riding and resiliency stuck with Kelly.
They stuck with her so much that in 1984 — years after serving in the Marines in Vietnam, attending college on the GI Bill, and getting married and divorced — she got a group of her friends together to form the riding group Ebony Horsewomen Inc.
“I decided that I wanted to get back into riding, and this man — he was called ‘Puddinhead’ — owned a stable, and I asked if I could come out and ride,” Kelly said.
“I started riding his horses, and during that time, an incredible sense of peace came over me.”
Horses had the same effect on the other women Kelly brought with her, as well as her daughter, Heather Lawson.
“I got on a horse for the first time when I was 14 or 15,” said Lawson, now 47.
“I remember my mother saying, ‘I know there must be a lot of [black] women out there like me who would love to ride horses.’
“I was there from the very beginning. … It was fun, and it was crazy. ”
But three years later, Kelly had an experience that jolted her into realizing her organization needed to be about more than a group of black women having fun.
“We were riding through the projects, and the kids gathered around us,” Kelly recalled. “One of them asked, ‘Is that a horse?’ I said, ‘Yes.’
“He turned to the other kids and said, ‘See, I told you.’
“I said, ‘Oh, my, we have to do something about this. …’ ”
Kelly decided that “something” would be to expose inner-city children to equestrianism, an activity that could help many of them survive the poverty and isolation that threatened to hobble their youth in the same way that racism threatened to hobble hers.
“We were like, ‘Hey, we can use these horses to bring a sense of purpose to the lives of these kids,’ ” Lawson recalled.
And Ebony Horsewomen’s something has been, well … something else.
Today, the nonprofit serves around 300 children a year in the Hartford area. It uses horses to help youths work through various traumas through something known as equine-assisted therapy, which is showing positive results in studies aimed at bolstering psychological well-being.
“They don’t think they’re in therapy. They just think they’re there to ride horses,” Kelly said.
The program also uses horses as a conduit to teach youths math, science and various academic and social skills, while its Junior Mounted Patrol trains young African American and Latino men to patrol Hartford’s 693-acre Keney Park, an activity that helps them grasp the notion of community service as they master horseback riding.
And its Young Ladies Dressage Team and Leadership Academy exposes girls to the art of horse dressage and hones their interest in competitive equestrianism.
That’s important, as few girls of color tend to pursue that sport. That’s largely because of a lack of exposure to horseback riding and a lack of access to horses, as well as the notion that equestrianism is only for white, wealthy people.
Cassady Huertas, 18, is defying that notion. When she was 10, she began her riding lessons through Ebony Horsewomen.
“My parents took me to Ebony Horsewomen as a birthday gift,” said Huertas, a Latina who is a member of the dressage team. “Horses have always been my favorite animal.
“I definitely plan on continuing it. The college I’m going to, Becker College [in Worcester, Massachusetts], has a dressage team.
“I plan to join it.”
Kelly’s use of equestrianism as a way to help youths like Huertas, who hails from Hartford’s inner city, also stems from her passion for battling the same kind of unfairness she faced as a child, said Lawson, a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C.
“My mother sat on the Hartford Police Department’s civilian review board, and she would take me to the meetings to listen,” Lawson said.
“I think that at a very early age, I began to understand inequities and people whose grievances and plights were going unheard.”
Ebony Horsewomen has worked to tear down the cultural and structural barriers that discourage people of color from getting on a horse.
“When I formed the Ebony Horsewomen, the first thing we rode in were parades,” Kelly said.
“But when we would ride in our community, we would get all these frowns. …
“I believe that was because at the time, many black people saw horses as tools to be used for plowing, and for work, and that they were part of that rural country image that so many of them wanted to distance themselves from. …
“So whenever we went riding down the street, the faces were like, ‘How dare you?’ ”
However, when Ebony Horsewomen went into white communities, the reaction was far worse than frowns, Kelly said.
In 1990, when Kelly and her group became the first black equestrian team to perform in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, someone spiked their horses — and the trailer where they originally kept the horses was burned down, Kelly said.
And the mostly white crowd, she said, was lukewarm to them.
“The people who were there didn’t want us there because all their lives they had seen the pleasure side of riding horses, and they didn’t think that was something that black women should be doing,” Kelly said.
“So they didn’t want us there.”
Yet, since that time, Kelly’s work has earned her the accolades that she didn’t get from the crowds.
In 2014, she was honored as a CNN Hero for her work with youths, who also travel to and compete in horse shows around the country.
“When I take the kids to the shows, they still get the look because the horse industry is still elite,” Kelly said.
Melvin Cox, a documentary filmmaker and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz whose work has focused on worldwide equestrian events, has experienced the sting of that elitism of which Kelly spoke.
In a 2017 piece that appeared on Eventing Nation, an equestrian enthusiast site, Cox recalled how a white woman mistook him for a bus driver at the 2015 FEI World Cup Finals (Jumping and Dressage) in Las Vegas — although he was in a restricted press area and his press credentials were dangling from his neck.
“My colleagues and I pray for the day when the presence of non-whites will no longer be a rarity in the media center — or on the showgrounds — at horse shows, eventing competitions, endurance rides, drill team events, vaulting competitions or dressage shows across North America and the Western world,” Cox wrote.
Through Ebony Horsewomen, youths like Huerta are working to flip that script. Not only does she plan to participate in dressage in college, she also plans to major in pre-veterinary medicine and minor in equine studies.
Call her inspired.
Yet, just as horses helped Kelly endure a childhood tainted by racism and people telling her that she and her family didn’t belong somewhere, Ebony Horsewomen helps youths like Huerta understand that they do belong. On a horse.
And at the equestrian shows. And in college.
And anyplace in this life where their talents and desires will take them.