By Britney Grover
Portraits by Kristin Lee
Two years ago, the last place Kimberly Harrison would have imagined herself was sitting ringside at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center watching a horse show. Kimberly’s career is in television in Burbank, California: She knew nothing about horses. Even now she sits off to the side of the ring, “to avoid the dirt because Lord knows when I’ll see Rolanda—that’s my beautician,” Kimberly wrote in a personal essay entitled “1500lb Pill.” “Also, because there’s a fear in my eyes that I never want my kids to see.”
Kimberly braves the fear (and the dirt) at the ring to watch her two boys, 10-year-old Cameron and 13-year-old Julian—boys that, two years ago, were completely different. That was before the pandemic; more importantly, it was before trading six little ADHD amphetamine pills for one “1500lb pill”—horses.
Kimberly is a television writer, executive producer and showrunner—she’s written for shows including “Criminal Minds,” “Law and Order: Organized Crime” and “STAR.” In September, she signed an overall deal to work with 20th Television, a division of Disney Television Studios. She says that while she’s spent most of her time writing for entertainment, she’s now sharing a bit of her own life in hopes that it may inspire other mothers and young children battling with ADHD. “Yes, we traded those pink pills for a 1,500-pound animal that ultimately became the best form of therapy they’ve ever had,” she wrote. “My children have an unexplained connection to these horses and I may not fully understand it, but I’m along for the ride. These gentle giants unlocked a piece of my childrens’ brains that not even Ritalin could get to.”
Both Cameron and Julian had always struggled in school, with high energy and a hard time staying focused. Their school district had been trying to get the boys on ADHD medication for a year before they began taking Ritalin. “I had to force them to eat,” Kimberly said. “I remember driving 50 miles to Disneyland, racing down the freeway to Goofy’s Kitchen, trying to get breakfast before their medicine kicked in and took away their appetites. They also had a hard time keeping a routine and we often had to wing it. The medication suppressed their personality in a way, which I felt was the most heartbreaking.”
A year later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Harrison family indoors—but Kimberly and her partner, Doris, saw it as an opportunity. “What if we could turn those six pills a day into zero?” Kimberly wrote. She began weaning the boys off the medication, including getting them up at 4:30 a.m. to spend an hour on the treadmill burning off excess energy, but something was still missing.
“Los Angeles County was still in lockdown and the only sport option was to sign them up for Zoom basketball. I thought to myself, There is no way the boys would be playing basketball in my kitchen! So there I was: Two kids with ADHD and no outlet,” Kimberly said. “The boys had been getting really creative with how they played, and I had posted multiple photos of them pretending to be horses and riders. A friend reached out to me and suggested Ever Wood Stables and a few days later the boys were saddling up on horses.”
“I was excited because it was the first time we had been out of the house since COVID, and I had never been that close to a horse before,” Julian said.
“I thought it was cool, but I was also nervous and scared,” Cameron admitted. “My brother and I would play horses before, but this was a lot different than riding on Julian’s back! I had also never been that close to a horse, especially one that big.”
The boys began training with Ginny Plancke of Ever Wood Stables, hoping to find an outlet to help with their ADHD that did not require medication. Sometimes, getting new results requires a totally new journey. “Our family has always been into team sports—basketball, soccer and baseball. We knew nothing about horses before we started,” Kimberly said. “Needless to say, it’s been a huge learning curve!”
Ginny, who has trained many students to major national finals following her own successful career on the East Coast, has been involved with the boys’ journey from their first moments on horses. “They were real beginners, but eager—very eager, and very interested,” she said. “They actually started at a great time, because being homeschooled during COVID gave them a wonderful opportunity to just be at the barn, take their lessons in the middle of the day and really focus on riding. It’s been a very interesting experiment, watching two young beginners take to it in a very short period of time. They’ve really progressed.”
As Julian and Cameron took lessons, they began to bicker over their riding techniques. Eager to put an end to the arguments once and for all, Doris began taking lessons as well. “I grew up riding horses, but in a wild way. So, the moment I jumped up on the horse was an awakening moment for me,” Doris said. “I felt connected back to my country. It reminded me of my childhood and brought me back to my home town of Esquipulas, Nicaragua.”
While Doris, who runs a physical and massage therapy business, found she enjoys the constant discipline and learning that riding offers, perhaps the thing she enjoys the most is what riding has done for the boys. “They are like night and day compared to when they first started and got off their ADHD medication,” she said. “It’s been a collective effort between the boys, Kim and I, and Ginny.”
Both horses and Ginny’s program proved to be the perfect fit for the boys. “I like her patience, her kindness and her understanding,” Doris said. “She’s not just a horse whisperer, but she’s also a people whisperer. She has a way of communicating with people, and kids in particular. I love Ginny’s philosophy that nothing comes easy: You want it, you earn it.”
More than just learning how to ride, Cameron and Julian have been learning how to focus, think steps ahead and establish a routine, all while taking ownership of their lives in and out of the saddle. “Horses have helped me focus and concentrate, especially having to get up and be in the ring by 7 a.m.—something I’ve always struggled with,” Julian shared. “At first my focus was just with the horses, but now I use that same focus at school and at home.”
“Horses have helped me focus more and don’t allow my brain to wander,” Cameron added. “When I’m in the ring, I can block out everything and just focus on what Ginny is teaching me.”
“Riding has helped them find other pathways to think, remember and focus,” Ginny said. “I really feel that benefits them in their day-to-day lives, and also gives them confidence—‘I can do so much with a horse, going into a building at a new school with people I don’t know, I can do that. I can go to horse shows and talk to people I don’t know, and make new friends’—it’s just been a little microcosm of what the real world is.”
The Best Medicine
Both of the boys have enjoyed competing, demonstrating their newfound focus skills as they navigate jumper courses learned just before entering the ring. Cameron’s current goal is to become a better jumper and do well at his competitions on the horse he rides, Buttons. “She’s super-fast and she always takes care of me,” he said. “Buttons has a strong personality and is very sassy because she knows exactly what she’s doing. I can tell she’s always thinking ahead, which is something she’s taught me to do as a rider.”
Cameron’s favorite thing about riding is cantering. “I like to feel the wind in my face—it makes me feel like I’m flying,” he said. And while he does like to go fast, he knows there’s a time and a place.
“When Cameron first started with the horses, he was like the Energizer Bunny in the barn—he would walk out of the barn really fast, he’d walk back in the barn really fast,” Ginny said. “You’d say, ‘OK, it’s time to put your tack away,’ and he’d run back and forth. Now, he’s just slowed everything down—you don’t have to tell him, ‘you’re walking too fast’ or ‘please don’t run anymore.’ His whole wavelength, how he is as a being, has changed. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
Cameron is working on earning his tall boots—in Ginny’s barn, that requires things like showing good judgement when riding, understanding how to groom, noticing abnormalities in their horses and bringing them to someone’s attention—in other words, good horsemanship.
With Cameron close behind, Julian has already earned his tall boots. “My favorite thing about riding is actually grooming the horse, because it makes me feel relaxed, but it also shows them how much I care about them,” Julian said. His goal is to compete at Thermal this year riding Chesapeake, aka Chess. “He’s a great jumper and has a beautiful tail. Chess and I are at the same skill level, so we’re learning everything together, which helps me.”
“They both love—love spelled with capital letters—horses,” Ginny summarized. “I have a picture of Julian standing with a horse in the crossties, his hand on the horse’s forehead, and was just having a transcendental moment—the horse’s eyes were closed, his eyes were closed, he was just silently communicating with the horse. They’ve both had moments like that. They truly do love horses, and I think that is the best medicine.”
A New Start
While Kimberly may stay away from the actual horses, she is all over what they’re doing for her sons. “Since the horses, the boys have taken ownership of their lives—establishing a routine, focusing on their school work,” she said. “They have two distinct personalities and at times, even remind me about our routines! With the ADHD managed, I feel like we have the opportunity to start a new journey all over again—but this time, we’re learning together.”
In her essay, Kimberly shared how proud she is to be helping her boys learn to write their own narrative rather than simply accept society’s representation of themselves—whether that’s with ADHD, as Black equestrians or with anything else in their lives. “I ask myself, Have they stumbled into a potential career?” she wrote. “Time will tell, but the opportunities seem endless.”
In the meantime, horses are now a permanent part of the Harrison family lifestyle and Kimberly’s advice to other parents of kids with ADHD is simple. “Listen to your kids as much as you listen to doctors,” she said. “Everyone has a different issue with ADHD and the cure is never one size fits all. Sometimes I feel like without the pandemic, I couldn’t have done this. COVID was horrible, but it gave me an opportunity to get my children back.”
For Kimberly, the journey has been well worth it. She’ll continue to sit ringside and watch her boys thrive—even if it means a few extra visits to Rolanda.
Photos by Kristin Lee, www.kristinleephotography.com