Ebony Billings racing Sunny at the Clallam County Fair 4-H games show in 2017. (Karen Griffiths/for Peninsula Daily News)

Ebony Billings racing Sunny at the Clallam County Fair 4-H games show in 2017. (Karen Griffiths/for Peninsula Daily News)

Black equestrians on the North Olympic Peninsula

AS I SCROLLED though Facebook posts, a photo of a Black cowgirl — fist held high — on her horse, followed by a line of protesters bearing signs saying “Black Lives Matter” as they marched through downtown Oakland, Calif., on May 29 caught my eye.

Without it, I doubt I would have read the accompanying article, “Brianna Noble Addresses Inclusivity, Socioeconomics and Racism in Equestrian Sport,” published online June 15 at www. chronofhorse.com.

Through her eyes I saw more of what it was like to be a lone Black equestrian in a sport filled with predominately white, affluent equestrians.

Frequently, she’ll get inappropriate, personal questions. At times she’s felt like a zoo animal, as wherever she goes, people stop what they’re doing to gawk at her. Occasionally she’ll hear a derogatory comment or someone saying they’ve never seen a Black person competing, or worse, some will come up to her and start petting her hair.

I was struck by the utter disregard for her personal space and feelings.

Locally, I’ve rarely seen a Black person riding a horse, and only two who competed in equestrian sports.

Mishel Arthur

One is Mishel Arthur (now Galaway). She was the same age and on the same Sequim High School equestrian team as my niece, Brooke Stromberg, back in 2009 and 2010.

As I recall, Mishel loved dancing and horses, was well-liked and seemed to fit right in with the team.

I consider her a friend today, so I didn’t hesitate to call her up to ask what it felt like to be the only Black girl on the team, and what it was like traveling to the team’s competitions, where she was the only Black rider.

She said she wasn’t really aware of the difference in skin color until she got older and started to notice people staring at her.

“I haven’t run into a whole lot of prejudice around here, maybe occasionally, but not a lot,” she said. “The area we live in is pretty good.”

She said she’s become “kind of used to people staring. If I have my hair out, my fro out, I get a lot of looks.”

Normally she’s able to ignore it, until she see’s someone following her around. She’s had several people, strangers, approach her to ask where she’s from. They seem surprised when she answers, “Oh, I was born here.” Right in Port Angeles, in fact.

When she was traveling out of town to attend horse shows, especially in the Tacoma area, she found she was much more relaxed, because there were more Black people around and she was able to just blend in with the crowds whenever she went out.

Laughingly, she said she found it both odd and amusing when a close friend went to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas — known as the largest and most prestigious with more than 120 of the top competitors in the nation — and brought home for her an autograph from the only Black cowboy in the competition.

“She thought it’d be cool, because we were both Black and rode horses,” she said, adding it wasn’t not uncommon for someone to ask if she knows so-and-so, a Black person who may live in Port Townsend or Forks.

Ebony Billings

It was at the 2017 Clallam County Fair when I first saw Ebony Billings. I was standing in the arena taking photos of the 4-H barrel racing competitors and couldn’t help but notice how striking this young Black girl looked as she raced toward the barrel atop her sleek palomino mare.

They were totally in sync as they turned and burned around that barrel. Like Mishel, she was also on her high school equestrian team and competed in Patterned Speed Horse game shows.

Recently, I called her up to asked her what it felt like to be the only Black rider on the Port Angeles equestrian team and if she ever felt any prejudice directed at her while riding or living on the North Olympic Peninsula in general.

“I never experienced anyone being mean while I was on the team, but I definitely stood out,” she said. “I definitely felt like I had a lot more attention on me, and people were watching me more closely than the other competitors.”

She said it felt a bit weird at times, because at shows, “I would be the only African American there. It was a strange feeling. I kind of felt alone in a way, even though I wasn’t alone.

“I’ve never lived or traveled to an area where I haven’t stood out because of the color of my skin, or any other way really,” she said.

And while it’s odd enough being stared at, she finds it unsettling when people come up to her and ask to touch her hair, which she politely declines.

I tried to imagine what it would feel like to walk in her shoes, to never be anonymous, to always have people watching my every move when I did something as benign as pumping gas, grocery shopping or even going out to eat at a restaurant. I’d hate it.

After graduating high school, Ebony says she got too busy to ride. She went to school and is now working full time as a dental assistant.

“I love my job,” she said. “ My boss is wonderful, my co-workers are wonderful, it’s great!”

She didn’t like the idea of her horse sitting idle, so she and her father, Greg Billings, gave her horse to the Sequim High School equestrian team coach Katie Newton.

As it turned out her horse, Sunny, proved too strong and fast for novice gaming students, and the more advanced had their own. So Newton gave Sunny to my niece.

Ever since Sunny, now age 22, has been living here, in my pasture, along with my own beautiful palomino and retired champion barrel racer, Lacey, now 28.

It’s a small, mostly peaceful world we have, those of us living on the Peninsula. Let’s hope it stays that way — that we don’t tolerate racial injustice, and we continue to show hospitality, support and kindness to all people regardless of their skin color — or other differences.

And please don’t ask anyone if you can touch his or her hair. That’s just plain rude.

________

Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.

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