When Brianna Noble rode her horse, Dapper Dan, through downtown Oakland ahead of protests condemning the killing of George Floyd in police custody, she wanted to make a statement.
“You can’t ignore a big, old pretty horse with a black woman on it,” says Noble, a professional horse trainer and riding instructor who was born in the Bay Area.
Leading protesters along city streets, one fist raised high above the “Black Lives Matter” sign she’d strung across Dapper Dan’s flank, the 25-year-old says she found the moment humbling.
“I thought that I didn’t have any power in this issue. I thought that there was no hope that I would be able to make a difference. I was so wrong,” she says.
Watching the video of Floyd’s last moments with her fiance, Adolfo Gutierrez, with whom she has a 2-year-old, Noble felt hopeless.
She was angry that black people were dying, and that the media was focused on the negatives — looting, burning cars, smashed windows — instead of what people were protesting against: police brutality.
“I made the decision to see if I could change the narrative,” she says.
When Noble arrived downtown — two hours before the protests were scheduled to start — she wove slowly across the front line to ensure they weren’t overtaken or surrounded. Noble had spent two years training him for parades and community outreach — they had walked the same streets in February as part of the Black Joy Parade — but still left before the protests officially started to ensure Dapper Dan was safe.
Since she brought Dapper Dan to downtown Oakland on May 29, she’s inspired black cowboys and cowgirls throughout the country to join protests.
It’s rare to see a horse along a city street, especially one ridden by a black woman. Noble was used to people staring at her because she looked different. She’s already spent her life in the white-male-dominated equine world.
Noble fell in love with horses during childhood summers spent trailing her older sister to riding lessons. From an early age, Noble aspired to be the first black Olympic show jumper. She rescued her first horse, an abused off-track thoroughbred she named Midnight Affair, when she was 15-years-old. But in the horse world, you need to be talented and have money. Noble was unable to accept job offers from trainers who had seen her in the saddle because of a lack of financial backing. Despite working two jobs, Noble wasn’t able compete in multiday dressage, cross-country and show jumping competitions and still make her car payments.
“Just the helmet on people's head cost more than a horse I’d bought a lot of times,” says Noble.
At 19, Noble quit her 9-to-5 as a veterinarian tech to focus on colt starting and training unwanted or problem horses — whether they were wild, feral, neglected or abused — so they could find a good home.
Noble says she hopes to create opportunities for young, underserved people of color to gain experience with her horses.
“There’s very limited opportunities for people that look like me. It can be very hostile,” she says.
She says Dapper Dan was a “problem” horse she’d bought in 2018: He came with a low price tag of $500 and a warning that he’d severed a nerve in his ear while tearing down a barn. Noble wasn’t put off — she’d often get horses cheap with problems she knew she could fix — but that first month after getting Dapper Dan home, she called every mentor she had in tears.
“Oh my God. This horse was terrible, terrible, terrible. He was a real sweet guy on the ground, but just impossible to train. It was so hard,” she says.
But slowly, he became a solid, reliable horse. Even when Gutierrez urged her to sell him to recoup some money, Noble refused. She had a sense Dapper Dan could help her do something other horses couldn’t.
“He’s just a really special guy. I had the feeling that this is what he was meant to do — carry me through this situation. And he provided me with this platform,” says Noble, adding that she doesn’t encourage others to ride horses in protests.
Within a week of their protest ride, Noble and Dapper became the centerpiece of a revolution-themed mural, painted outside bar-lounge Luka’s Taphouse, six blocks from where the protest got underway.
“I was blown up by her presence, her bravery and beauty. She inspired all of us,” says Pancho Pescador, one of the artists.
Noble is determined to use the visibility generated by her ride in support of Black Lives Matter and to offer young people of color the opportunity to care for and ride horses.
“I’m not going to waste money on my dream. It's more important to try to change the next generation because those are the kids that are going to stop killings from happening. Those are the kids that are going to change it and make the world better for my daughter,” she says.
“I proved — in just one moment with one person on one horse — how big of a difference horses can make and how much change horses can inspire.”