Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

For a couple of years in college, I spent a few days a month working at the Belmont Stables in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. It’s just a dozen or so stables built in 1936 to house police horses on perhaps an acre of land.

I was under the tutelage of Ike Johnstone, an imposing, grandfatherly, gregarious kind of man who made you work for his respect. Ike, whose son played in the NFL, effectively ran the stables, which were owned by the City of Philadelphia, and operated his Bill Picket Riding Academy — a summer camp for mostly poorer Black kids from North Philadelphia.

Ike, who is Black, hosted horses for a handful of mostly Black families — offering a kind of opportunity and access that always seemed a point of pride for him. Despite that healthy Black riding community he fostered, Belmont Stables was unrelated to the Fletcher Street Riding Club that is most associated with mixing social justice and Black horse riding in Philadelphia.

“Plenty of Black cowboys if you know where to look,” Ike told me once.

When I was introduced to Ike, I told him I grew up in a rural county so I was always a tad embarrassed I never really learned how to ride. I asked if he’d teach me in exchange for service at the stables. He agreed with a wink. Once we became closer, he confided in me that he didn’t expect a 20-year-old to come back at all, let alone for more than year.

I helped with various maintenance projects and small odd jobs. Mostly I cleaned the stables. He once said to me with a squealing laugh: “A white boy shoveling shit for me: If only my granddaddy could see it.”

Over time we developed a friendship across decades of age difference, and he had a bigger influence on my life than he may realize. We told stories and exchanged ideas; He bought me a copy of Tally’s Corner, which still sits on my bookshelf as a tribute.

Each day I worked, he’d give me an hour or so of riding instruction. Small steps, time invested. He taught me to build a relationship with a horse.

“How’d you like someone you’d never met jumping on your back?” Ike would ask. “Depends who’s jumping!” I’d say, and we’d laugh.

A rider must have confidence, he’d say; you won’t always know the answer, but the horse must trust you to find one. Respect the horse, but you must be in control. A horse knows you’re scared before you do.

Over time he started taking me outside of his small corral. Then on a few longer rides. On one of our last, longer rides, we were crossing from one trail to another and were within sight of a parking lot. A nearby car revved its engine suddenly and loudly enough that it scared all of us, horses included. Ike, of course, recovered within a step. Not me.

My horse bolted. I lost grip of the reins, slid to one slide on the saddle and lost one stirrup, dangling for an instant by my legs. The horse, scared as she was, went into full, blind gallup. As these experiences seem to go, it all happened in maybe 10 seconds, but I still feel like I can remember each moment. I lifted myself back up, pulled on the reins firmly and evenly and gave a firm, loud, assertive command.

The horse stopped, with just a small buck. I turned her around and trotted back to Ike, with what I’m sure was a big, stupid grin on my face. Well done, boy, Ike said, which was as effusive praise as I could have ever gotten from him.

“Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you,” Ike said. “After a year of riding, that’s the first time I ever saw you ride.”

Ike patted me on the back. “Good thing, or I woulda had to get someone else to clean the stalls.”

Leave a Reply