Ride On: Black cowgirl Brianna Noble moves beyond her iconic trot
By Lou Fancher
Two years after rising to prominence as an iconic image on print and social media platforms around the world—a Black cowgirl in downtown Oakland mounted on her statuesque, 17.1 hand Appaloosa gelding, Dapper Dan—Brianna Noble has a whole new ride. Rest assured, although the expert equestrian whose ride during a Black Lives Matter protest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by white police officer Derek Chauvin pushed her beyond momentary notoriety, she still saddles up and takes Dapper Dan out for a regular spin. But these days, instead of parading along city streets, Noble moves astride the Urban Cowgirl Ranch, a 40-acre equestrian business and training center she founded, owns and operates in Castro Valley.
In an interview a week before the two-year anniversary of her now-famous ride, Noble says she has no intention to recreate that moment. “I’m a firm believer in staying in my lane,” she says. “What I did in 2020 was a once in a lifetime thing. It was true to me. It was from my heart. It was not staged with the thought, I’m going to be famous. It was all I could do in that moment. Now, I’ve grown. In the last two years, what we’ve built off of that, I’m so much more than that moment. I’m more than just being a picture. There’s more depth to what we’re doing than just showing up and being the face. I don’t plan to go backwards. I plan to impact community, build tiny (young) humans up, and get people outdoors and healthy.”
Urban Cowgirl Ranch is grounded in Noble’s core mission to expand the equestrian experience to communities that have historically been excluded. Specifically, that means the ranch offers programs and creates partnerships that fund and introduce horsemanship and riding to youth of color and economically disenfranchised populations. From a nucleus of workshops with youths, introductory riding classes, community events and volunteer opportunities to participate in grooming and feeding the horses stabled on the ranch, Noble and her small staff have grown the business, offering “Ride Out with Bri” one day, as well as overnight campfire outings. They have also established a sophisticated, sustainable hydroponic fodder system that allows the ranch to grow high-quality feed and has decreased the feed bill by over 50% after only eight months. A dog boarding service begun during the pandemic when group gatherings were not possible was a life saver.
While that program might continue, the ranch’s greater purpose remains serving its core constituents, involving the local community in meaningful partnerships and expanding a curriculum that links their expertise in animal husbandry, ranch maintenance, agriculture sustainability and the ethical care of livestock to a host of other industries, from hi-tech Silicon Valley startups to arts and social welfare nonprofits to health and lifestyle organizations, mainstream corporations, real estate investors and more. “The ranch is important to me because it’s community, but what we’re doing is pioneering for the West. The New West is going to look different; we want to bring back the time-honored romance, but make it economically viable and socially relevant.”
Reflecting on where she and the country were in 2020 and the thoughts she has had since then, especially during the trials of police officers involved in Floyd’s death and ongoing tragedies involving the shooting of unarmed people of color, Noble deliberately compartmentalizes the enormous topic.
“I honestly don’t pay attention to it. We all wanted to hear the verdict and I checked in, but I purposely didn’t follow every moment. Mentally it’s hard, which doesn’t mean you don’t have to view it. At the same time, for me personally, focusing on the work I’m doing and the positive I can do is more useful. If I was an attorney, maybe it would be my lane, but I’m community, children and horses. That’s where I can have an impact. If the world will ever change, it will only happen if everybody does what I’m doing—do what you do well and align it with the collective, because it takes all kinds of skills to build and lift a community.”
Building on existing skills as an equestrian leader during the pandemic had Noble traveling to an equestrian entrepreneur workshop in Florida. “I learned at the workshop that although I actually felt I was not doing enough, every goal I set in 2020, those goals we had blown to smithereens. My goals weren’t big enough. So I moved from a temporary facility with eight horses to this 40-acre property with 20 horses. We had a lot of victories. By (building) community support, our operation on the ground is completely ranch hand and volunteer-led. The volunteers help us clean, groom the horses and do everything to come together to make this place stand.”
The operating expenses, even without a large paid staff, are astronomical. The immediate hardships Nobel encountered during Covid largely resulted from shifting protocols that forced them to shut down public programs and events. “We’d make plans, then have to cancel. So we stopped trying, instead of wasting time and money. It was hard because all the animals still had to be fed. We had close to 20 horses, vet bills, things that don’t change regardless of donations. It’s like running a dog rescue company, but on a completely different level because you need land and the food is so much more expensive,” says Noble.
The fall-out of what she believes is another economic recession or depression added to the drought and market supply issues means the cost of feed has gone up dramatically. “Before the pandemic, I was paying $12 per bail for hay; now it’s up to $30 a bail. It can bankrupt you. And the quality of the feed is awful. That’s why we started the fodder program. It started as something that was cute and impacted kids. Then I realized it was bigger. I had to attack more issues than just doing things for kids. I had to address issues that make running this kind of operation successfully not feasible. I had to insulate us from the risk of prices going up or of our not having access to feed.”
The ethical treatment of animals is so vital to Noble’s vision that she is working to extend the innovative fodder blueprint to other farms and ranches. Under the new initiative, clients can order shipments of the 100% organic, non-GMO barley on a weekly, monthly or annual subscription basis. Urban Cowgirl Ranch staff can also partner with clients to build their own custom-designed systems capable of feeding anywhere from 5 to 200 horses in converted sheds, stalls or feed containers. They will offer the service locally and nationwide. “Humans are great at using other things for our purposes, but it’s wrong in many cases,” says Noble. “Ethical feeding and treatment is important if we want to partner with animals and not just use them. Creating the fodder business, I’m hoping we can impact agriculture and continue to treat our animals well—and not compromise them in rural settings just because we are located in a city.”
Noble says the feed system crosses over to other animals and can be fed to goats, chickens, pigs, cows and more. “If I can get the fodder business up and running, we could fund our whole ranch and stop scrambling.”
The ranch’s greatest need due to its mission to serve economically disadvantaged youth and communities and the sheer cost of maintaining horses is and always will be money. Although notoriety after appearing in Oakland boosted Noble to high visibility in the industry, she’s still waiting for what many people mistakenly assume has been an inevitable payout. “I’m reinvesting my own money and any donations that don’t go to paying the small staff because I believe in this.” Noble has not taken on any loans and says operating the ranch clear of debt is like playing a game of Tetris, just barely fitting everything into the proper place.
She recently won Cowgirls Magazine’s Cowgirl of the Year award. “They flew me down to Texas to be the first Black woman to ever receive this award. This question about greater acceptance for Black people (in equestrianism) is an impossible issue because Black cowboys and cowgirls have always been here; it’s just what mainstream media chooses to show or not show. Are they showing more of it? Yeah, but I can’t say the industry is changing as a whole when we know that all the companies are putting Black faces on the cover of everything simply because it’s good marketing for them. Personally, I haven’t seen very many dollar signs. There’ve only been two companies that have stepped up and provided any source of funds or paid projects. People can talk, talk, talk all they want. They can put Brown people on the fronts of their magazines, but how many of those Brown people are getting paid? We can fight all we want for something, or we throw their model out and create something new. I don’t care if they want us here or not. I’m not going to fight for what we already have here on the ranch. What I am going to do is pioneer something new because that seems a hell of a lot smarter.”
Noble believes she “can make it into any room in this industry” and there’s no higher status she can seek, nor does she want to. “If I, with the platform I have and the view of the world on me and the equestrian industry saying they are looking for more diversity, can tell you that I have a ranch and I am struggling—where are all those places talking that shit about diversity? Where are they to provide professional help or funds to me? Did they provide a PR person who would donate four hours a week, or a marketing person? No bro. So I’m going to create within my community an organization where everybody has a seat, everybody has a voice if they want to.”
It’s already happening.
The ranch has expanded beyond community members being able to book a lesson. Visitors over the summer will see staff working with a group of young people through the Oakland Unified School District. Abundant Beginnings, a Queer- and Black-led decolonized educational community organization that centers marginalized youth and their families in nature-based programming, will send a majority of the kids. “It’s a forest school that’s activism-based. It’s student-led, all outdoors, active with the horses,” says Noble.
Community based days will feature free, just-for-fun outdoor activities for all ages, including a tug-of-war day. “We’re digging a big ditch for it, and I want to give people the opportunity to come out and be in the environment and just have fun.”
While the intro to horses classes and reduced-cost, subsidized or free day-camping hikes for kids (with cowboy and cowgirl stories told around a campfire at the end of the day) will continue each month, Noble says Ride Out with Bri programs come at higher price points and are marketed to “the tech bros” and people who have more financial resources. “I see them like Robin Hood programs, and they pay the operating budget for our community programming so we can do those without shooting the roof off our overhead.”
The partnership with Abundant Beginnings will soon solidify into a permanent link with education. “They will be home-basing with us here on the property to develop an outdoors-based agriculture and forestry school. I’m excited because our tiny humans are our future. Everything about our current society is about trying to get back to what is natural for humans: all of these things that have come from Covid. We’ve discovered we’re depressed when we’re stacked up and stuck in a box: we’re trying to get back towards nature, towards simple, healthy ingredients, towards what we were originally meant to be in this world. Unfortunately, the only people who can afford to do that right now are not people from marginalized communities. All of the kids that thrived during Covid were doing Waldorf-y outdoor experiences, but most Black and Brown kids, the parents had to work and couldn’t afford that sort of thing.”
Ultimately, it’s difficult when listening to Noble to imagine the Urban Cowgirl Ranch being anything but swarmed by participants—and importantly, attracting financial backers. “Horses are amazing. The science shows the benefits and how it impacts health and education. I posted a reel on Instagram surrounding this one little Black boy at an event we did at Lake Merritt. He came out and was terrified of everything. All the other kids were so excited, and he was sitting in a corner, and didn’t want to talk. He was too cool for school. We do these exercises and he’s jumping back scared, turns, walks away. By the end of it, I have his hand in my hand, feeding the horse. Then he’s grooming the horse, he smiles. It opened up his world. How many people can say in a day they conquered a fear?”