How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Honestly, I’d describe myself ‘wild as Pecos Bill’ lol. No, in all seriousness I’d describe myself as a horse whisperer.
It doesn’t matter how trained or untrained the horse is; whether it is wild or domestic. I want to see it, touch it, and talk to it. I work with all breeds of horses and of all ages. I even spend time on vacations looking for wild horses just to be in their presence.
If I could, I’d rescue all horses and give them so much love. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it gets a bit dangerous with certain horses depending on their past, or if they’ve had any human contact at all, but I give it my best, open my heart, and listen to them. I pride myself on the relationships I have with my own horses. Also, the ease of understanding outside horses. I can spend my entire day talking to horses and their bodies and eyes will talk back to me.
How did you get involved with horses?
I got involved with horses thanks to my dad. He grew up around horses and when I came along he introduced me to them and I fell in love instantly. To let him tell it, the student has surpassed the teacher. He’ll often say that I must have been a horse in my past life because he’s never seen someone handle horses the way I do.
Horses have always been my life; I’ve raised them, bought them, and rescued them. I had a horse named Cody who was literally a year older than me, and he taught me so much throughout the years. Sadly we laid him to rest in May last year. Now, I’ve brought my wife, Dietra, into horses and they are her life as well.
What role do horses currently play in your life?
Horses currently play a major role in my life. See my wife and I own and operate Heart of Her Riding Ranch (HHRR), where we center daily activities around horses. We offer many services like leisure riding, riding lessons, pony rides, therapy activities, kids riding camp, seasoned barn sessions, and veterans therapy activities. Our goal is to keep the cowboy culture alive. We literally make horse dreams come true.
We also tell the untold story of the black cowboy with help from older cowboys. We are raising a new generation of black cowboys and cowgirls. We create a truly Texan experience for all to enjoy and memories to last a lifetime when they visit the ranch. We’d like to think we are healing lives through horses.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
Here in Houston, Texas, we have a culture with a rich history that was built on family and fun. We have these cowboy and rodeo events – we call it ‘trail riding’ – but it’s a big parade-style event that’s filled with horses, ATVs, party wagons, music, and more. It definitely is fun at times. But growing up I was raised on a more horse-driven culture, which somehow along the way that aspect has been a bit lost today. With that being said, I am deeply rooted in this culture and it has influenced my life’s goal to pass on the knowledge and values of what trail riding was and can still be. Some folks called it ‘ancient’ and ‘old style’ but I call it my life. I was definitely country when country wasn’t cool.
HHRR started in 2018 when my wife first asked to learn how to ride a horse. I realized I enjoyed teaching her everything I know – and learning with her along the way. Once she saw the other side of trail riding and saw the cowboy lifestyle, she told me I should teach others about the cowboy culture.
So as time went on we shared a post about it and then another lady from our trail ride community contacted me about helping her refresh her riding skills and the rest is history. We started out doing riding lessons here and there. Then I shared a TikTok video and it was like the Big Bang! People from all over just wanted to ride. We’ve had visitors from as far east as Washington, DC to west as Los Angeles, CA and even Dubai.
HHRR is keeping the culture alive for the young black youth. A lot of the elders of the cowboy scene are passing on and there aren’t many people around to keep the culture alive. We are making sure it does not die out by passing on the traditions to the younger generation.
My wife and I both grew up in Houston, so we know some of the challenges that the community faces. Also, this culture is my life and it’s a blessing to be able to share the cowboy ways, values, and to make things that aren’t normally available to folks who look like us accessible right here in the heart of Houston. This is where the name Heart of Her came from – Houston is our city and we love her.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
One challenge I’ve faced as an EOC is that in this business, I’ve found that my counterparts have set the bar so high that someone who looks like me actually can’t compete with it.
Luckily I have taken it upon myself to set my own standards and pave my own path. At times it does get overwhelming due to feeling like there’s not enough time in the day. But I’m thankful for the outpouring of support to help me and the ranch overcome whatever obstacles and barriers may arise.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
My words of encouragement are Dream It, Believe It, and Do It. Never be afraid of what’s ahead. Also, TRUST YOUR HORSE.
Never stop learning and never stop being teachable. You’ll never really know all there is to horses and that’s okay, just never stop chasing your dream. Lastly, believe in yourself.
Horse breed: Quarter Horse, hands down.
Horse color: Dapple grey.
Discipline: That would have to be Cowboy Mounted Shooting.
Treat to give: Fresh carrots.
Place to ride: A place called The Hills not too far from the ranch, the view is amazing.
Kelly Russo is a dog and equine photographer based in Houston, Texas. Specializing in natural light, outdoor photography, Kelly’s passion is using photography to celebrate the love story between people and their four-legged companions.