By Lyssette Williams
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
Most riders are introduced to horses at a young age through a parent or relative. This was not the case for the Harris sisters, 22-year-old Emily and 16-year-old Sarah.
While their father, Tim Harris, grew up in the country, their mother, Julie Harris, grew up in the city, and neither had experience with horses or equestrian sports. The love of horses was not in Emily and Sarah’s blood — it was stamped on their souls.
“When I was very young, I started bugging my parents for a horse out of the blue one day,” Emily said. “Our parents didn’t relent until after Sarah was born. Sarah’s first word was ‘Hoy hoy’ and she requested a horse-themed birthday party and toys every year.”
“Our parents didn’t understand where this unlikely request was coming from,” Sarah added. “We had no examples of Black equestrians in our lives, and the history of Black involvement with horses wasn’t in the mainstream.”
With no equestrians in their family or immediate friend group, the Harrises didn’t have the opportunity of gently dipping a toe in the horse world. Instead, they jumped in feet first with the purchase of Allie, a docile 18-year-old Quarter Horse mare, a gift to Sarah on her 8th birthday.
Emily and Sarah would spend every day bonding and caring for Allie at their 11-acre home in Lynch Station, Virginia.
“As first-generation horse owners, we made every beginner mistake in the book,” Sarah said. “We learned by doing and provided Allie with a home filled with love. Thankfully, she was a very kind and forgiving mare.”
While their first horse, Allie, was Sarah’s, the two sisters shared her before Emily got one of her own, a 12-year-old grade chestnut pinto mare named Amazing Grace, who would be her all-around mount.
“With a horse for each of us, we needed to find someone who could teach us at home,” Emily said. “Our mother eventually found a local trainer, Joanne Lopez-Valerio. Ms. Joanne gave us lessons three days a week for several months, giving us a great foundation in riding.”
Bridging the Gap
The sisters’ voracious appetite for information sent them on a path seeking additional knowledge from books and videos. Their parents were with them every step of the way, supporting them and learning alongside them.
“While watching some of our favorite videos, we noticed that there weren’t any YouTubers that looked like us,” Emily said. “Our mom suggested that we collaborate and pioneer the effort. We loved that idea, and it was something else we could share as sisters!”
As young Black equestrians, the sisters began paving a path, raising the visibility of the Black community in the equestrian space, and effectively providing a leg up to those that will come after them.
“There’s an informational gap between those who have access to horses and those who don’t,” Emily said. “Our family believes in giving back to the community, and we aim to share our knowledge through our videos. We want to reach not only the Black and other communities of color, but the wider non-equestrian world as well. Horses have had such a positive impact on our lives, and we want to share that with everyone!”
Sisters Horsing Around
After living through the trials and tribulations of being first generation horse owners the Harris sisters found their niche in the digital space — as empowered role models.
Brainstorming with their mother about a name, they came up with Sisters Horsing Around. Their logo, which is emblazoned on their website, videos and clothes, is comprised of two horse heads forming a heart in purple and blue. Each sister is represented by one of the horses, and the heart represents their unshakeable sisterly bond and their shared love of horses.
In their videos, Emily and Sarah provide fun, educational and engaging material for non-horse people and horse people alike. The videos encompass everything from their riding clinics and lessons, to product reviews, book reviews and attending prestigious horse shows like the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) and the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), providing a window into their lives as Black equestrians.
“The year 2020 was going to be a big one for Sisters Horsing Around,” Emily said. “In January we attended WEF as spectators for a week, followed by participating in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. peace parade in Washington, D.C. Every month something big was planned — from attending every leg of the Triple Crown, going to BreyerFest and Equitana to seeing the Chincoteague Pony Swim. The coronavirus pandemic put all those plans on hold, but we’re hopeful that we’ll go next year.”
Sisters Horsing Around has also provided the Harris sisters with opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. Last year, one of the sisters’ greatest equestrian role models, trainer Stacia Klein Madden, invited the sisters to bring their horses to Beacon Hill Stables in Colts Neck, New Jersey, to take lessons for the weekend.
“It was a dream come true,” Sarah said. “Ms. Stacia helped us with our flatwork and jumping. Ms. Stacia is a first-generation equestrian, and we could relate to that. Her work ethic, career achievements, and kindness were inspiring!”
Emily and Sarah’s passion for all things horses is woven tightly into their sisterly bond. This bond grew when they first explored the horse world, moving from 4-H to Pony Club. They made new friends and faced new challenges, but it also meant trying new and varied things with the sisters’ horses! “Our dad says we have too many,” Emily said. “Currently we own two each and share a pony named Promise.”
“I have a 17-year-old Quarter Horse/paint cross gelding named Rowdy,” Sarah said. “He was ugly when we got him — sway back, ewe neck and tough for me to ride. But my mother encouraged me to keep working on the basics, and he truly blossomed.”
Sarah also owns a 6-year-old Irish cob mare named Genesis, whom Sarah originally wanted to jump. The mare preferred Western, so Sarah trains her in gymkhana events like pole bending and barrel racing.
“Genesis is very smart; I don’t need to drill her on any training concepts,” Sarah said. “She’s a bit of a diva, preferring certain brushes and treats. She’s also quite the escape artist! She stands at 13.3 hands; we’ve seen her army crawl under our pasture fence, and have had to replace fencing to keep her in.”
Emily still owns Amazing Grace, who is now 17-years-old, and a 13-year-old Hanoverian mare named Stella.
“Stella showed on the ‘A’ hunter circuit when she was younger but suffered a collateral ligament injury,” Emily said. “She took a break to rehabilitate and is now jumping again with me.”
While Promise the pony is shared, Emily spends the most time working with her. “She doesn’t enjoy being ridden and was very sour,” Emily said. “We always want to make sure our horses are happy in their work, so I changed things up and tried ground driving her. Her demeanor completely changed for the better.”
Their drive to expand their knowledge and skills in equestrian sports has led the sisters to trying a variety of disciplines. Through Pony Club, Emily has earned her C2 in Horse Management, C1 in Western, D3 in dressage, D2 in Hunt Seat and D1 in eventing.
“My goal is to get an A level certification in every discipline,” Emily said. “I am currently on my regional Youth Council and am hoping the pandemic doesn’t foil my plans to be on the National Youth Council before I turn 23.”
Under the tutelage of their new teacher, eventing trainer Amelia ‘Muffin’ Pantaze, Sarah was bit by the eventing bug. “I’m working on taking my D3 or C1 certification soon but hoping to get my A level certification one day, “Sarah said. “I currently have my C1 in Horse management, D3 in Western and D2 in dressage.”
With the pandemic putting their event plans in limbo, both Emily and Sarah have created more content focused on their lives at home. They’re also using their virtual platform to amplify a message of unity and understanding — hoping to bridge the racial divide in equestrian sports.
“Representation and visibility matters — every race of person would like to see themselves in the sports they’re are interested in, whether it’s horses, golf or football,” Emily said “By embracing diversity and inclusion, the equestrian community will be stronger. The world of horses is amazing and there is room for all of us in it!”
For more information, visit sistershorsingaround.com and follow them on their YouTube channel Sisters Horsing Around.
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com, @sasequinephotography