On May 29, Brianna Noble was one of thousands of people who attended an Oakland, California, protest in honor of George Floyd, who’d been killed by a white Minneapolis police officer four days earlier. But unlike the other protesters, Noble hadn’t come on foot. Instead, she held her fist high as she rode through downtown on the back of her horse, Dapper Dan. A cardboard sign that read “Black Lives Matter” hung off Dapper Dan’s flank. Without even knowing it, Noble says, the crowd started following her, and drivers stopped in their cars to honk and stick their fists out in solidarity. Where she went, they went. Where she stopped, they stopped.
In one already-iconic photo from that day, Noble wears an expression of solemn tranquility as she and Dapper Dan lead the crowd. Behind her, protesters raise their signs and fists high. Local street artists have since memorialized this visual on a boarded-up storefront in the center of the city.
Noble, 25, is the owner and founder of Mulatto Meadows, an equestrian business where she trains and sells horses and teaches beginner riding lessons. This wasn’t her first time standing up against police brutality—at age 14, she organized youth town halls to discuss the issue in response to the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer in her hometown. But May 29 was her first time protesting on horseback, and the image sent a striking message. “If you look at a textbook, you usually see someone leading an entire army into war with a horse,” she says, “and I think me standing at the front of that protest was just a revamping of those images in our textbooks.”
As protests against police violence swept through all 50 states and more than 60 countries, Noble wasn’t the only one to show up on horseback. On June 2, at least 30 members of NonStop Riderz, an urban trail-riding group for Black equestrians in Texas, joined a protest in Houston. On June 7, the Compton Cowboys, a collective of Black cowboys in Southern California, organized and led a march of thousands through their hometown. In all, more than a hundred Black equestrians have joined protests in the U.S. in the past month, emerging as a powerful force in the fight against police brutality.
A few days before Noble rode Dapper Dan through Oakland, Adam Hollingsworth, who calls himself the Dreadhead Cowboy, drove his horse from Chicago to Minneapolis to ride in the streets with others in solidarity. Hollingsworth witnessed police officers teargassing and shooting rubber bullets at protesters, he says, but as he entered the sea of 3,000 people in front of a Minneapolis police station, everyone stopped what they were doing. People cleared out the walkway, made a circle around him, and gave him a bullhorn. It was as if he had been leading the protest all along.
Hollingsworth’s nickname, the Dreadhead Cowboy, is a nod to the Black cowboys who’ve played an important role in American history. Black trail-riding groups have existed for centuries as a way for Black equestrians to subvert their exclusion from White cowboy culture; in south Louisiana, they trace their roots back to the 1700s. After the Civil War, herding was one of relatively few job options available to recently freed Black people, and ranchers badly needed their skills. Historians estimate that one in four 19th-century cowboys were Black.
Despite this history, Black cowboys have often been left out of popular media narratives of the Wild West. Before he started riding in his early thirties, Hollingsworth, like many other residents in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, had only ever seen a horse at a circus, in a movie, or with a police officer seated on top. During the Minneapolis and Chicago protests that Hollingsworth attended, children and adults alike stopped him to ask whether he owns his horse and why he decided to buy one. In the past, he’s even been asked if he was a cop.
In Chicago, mounted police patrol the city daily. Their horses, labeled Ambassadors of Good Will by the police department, are used to make officers look more approachable to the public. But mounted police also have a dark history of racial injustice, one that’s often ignored in the TV shows and films that lionize forces like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, known as the Mounties, and the Texas Rangers.
“Rangers and Mounties were thought of as a way to wrest control of portions of the plains from their native inhabitants and were used to police people of mixed ancestry,” says historian Andrew Graybill, author of a book about those two police forces. Rangers in particular have a long history of racial animus and violence. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they murdered hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, hunted enslaved people who had run away, refused to investigate lynchings, and tried to force the NAACP out of Texas. “It was an open secret that an untold number of Rangers held Klan sympathies, if not memberships,” reporter Doug Swanson writes in Cult of Glory, an account of the Rangers that came out earlier this month.
Most mounted forces have a more ceremonial role today, but they’re also used to break up civil unrest. Since Floyd’s death, officers on horseback have shown up at protests in several cities, charging at civilians and dividing crowds. In both London and Houston, police horses even trampled protesters, leaving people hurt and scared.
The shift in power dynamics is not lost on protesters, as Black equestrians join their ranks in the fight against police brutality. They’re sending a message that, as Hollingsworth says, “y’all aren’t the only ones with horses out here.”
Hollingsworth says riding on horseback also allowed him to protect his fellow protesters. At the Chicago demonstration he attended, officers seemed to be taking extra care not to harm his horse, so he stood in front of the crowd to shield others from rubber bullets and tear gas and used his position to de-escalate situations. “I stopped a lot of people from getting hurt that night,” Hollingsworth says. “My horse is Batman, and I’m Robin.”
In the days since those initial protests, Noble and Hollingsworth have received a flood of attention, and their images have circulated all over the internet. Recognized trainers have even reached out to Noble, asking her how they can help Mulatto Meadows. Emboldened by the outpouring of support, Noble and Hollingsworth both want to train youth of color to hold the power that comes from mounting a horse. “From a very young age, I had two dreams—I wanted to be the first Black woman to jump in the Olympics, and I wanted to have a program to help inner-city people of color get into this sport,” Noble says. Beyond the fact that riding is often associated with White people, the costs associated with it can be astronomically high, making equestrian sports out of reach for many.
Noble grew up riding horses, a rare hobby for a Black girl in Oakland, she says. When she and her sister were young, they worked at stables to help pay for lessons at a United States Pony Club. At 14, she adopted a horse who’d been abused, persuading his owners to give him away for free. Noble would travel three hours each way by BART, bus, and on foot to reach the barn where she kept him and spent what little money she had dragging bales of hay onto public transportation to take to her horse.
After making so many sacrifices just to be around horses, she wants to crack the gates open for young kids of color and help close the income gap in the equestrian world. “There are low-income programs just to help kids get into basketball, but there’s nothing like that in the horse world in my community. I could only go so far, because I didn’t have the money to sponsor a horse,” Noble says.
Through Mulatto Meadows, she is now developing Humble, a project that will open a fully-funded training program for kids from marginalized communities. Noble says she’s inspired by the success of other nonprofit programs that provide free equestrian programming for urban youth, such as the Compton Jr. Posse, run by the Compton Cowboys, and Detroit Horse Power. She’s currently raising money for the initiative on GoFundMe. For his part, Hollingsworth has been training kids from the barn outside Chicago where he stables his horses, and he hopes to eventually open his own barn in the city.
Noble knows that system-wide upheaval doesn’t happen overnight.
“What’s the chance that I’m going to be able to change the fact that police unjustly kill us?” she says. “It’s a huge issue, and it’s a systemic problem, but I am going to change what I can control, and horses are my thing. Maybe one of these kids will be able to change the world because we were able to change their story and their lives through these horses.”