Horse Girl, Madeline McMillan

Aug, 20th 2021

Madeline and Ray in Glendale, CA. (Photo by Tyler Haberkorn)
Interview by Diana Ruzova

I’m the opposite of a mixed kid -- a daughter of Soviet-Jewish immigrants -- but I'm fascinated by the mixed race experience in America, which feels so different (and perhaps similar in some ways) to  my own. I met Madeline in the early 2010s in the beige cubicle zoo at the Los Angeles Metro. We quickly became work wives until Madeline left to live in Australia for a year in 2018. I sat down for a picnic with Madeline on a hot day in Silver Lake’s Bellevue Park to talk about her passion for horses,  identity and growing up as a mixed Creole kid in Oakland in the ‘90s, bullying and the shame that follows, what made her want to start horseback riding again, those in between stages in life and the classic animated film Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron. Needless to say I walked away wanting to dig up my old Abercrombie & Fitch gear and sign-up for a trail ride. 

 Diana: What was it like to grow up in Oakland, CA in the early 1990s as a mixed-race kid?
Madeline: I didn’t even notice being mixed at the beginning. It’s a very diverse community. I grew up having friends of all different races. But I guess when I started going to school, most of my class was black. So, I had a lot of close black friends. And as I started identifying myself and becoming a person, I began to identify with that side of me. At my family gatherings there were people of all different shades, so I never thought about it too much, until I started getting older and people would call me out for being mixed or different. That was really the first time that I felt out of place.

D: Did you feel like the identity you chose when you were younger was being questioned?
M: I think it was my first introduction to choosing an identity. When I was younger it was like “I am. We are. This is how it is.” And it wasn’t until later that I felt a bit challenged by people who would say that I’m not black enough.
D: When did you first feel accused of not being black enough?
M: I remember it being around 6th or 7th grade, so middle school.
D: That’s when kids are meanest. When were you first drawn to horses?
M: I’ve loved animals my entire life. I had all the animal things: stuffed animals and beanie babies, you name it. And horses were one of those domesticated animals that you could interact with on rare occasions. Whenever I go horseback riding now, I want more. I imagine that's how I felt when I was a kid.
D: Is there an equestrian community in the Bay Area?
M: Not really, well not one that I was knowledgeable about. I started riding and taking lessons when I was 12. Before that my sister and I would go on rides. I remember going on trail rides for my birthdays.
Madeline and her sister in the ‘90s on not-real horses.
D: What is it about horses that gets you excited and willing to wake up early and ride? What made you want to keep going back?
M: The relationship you have with another being. When you’re riding a horse you’re ultimately not in control. It’s this being that you’re on top of. You build a relationship with them. I guess that’s where I get my adrenaline rush. It’s like what my roommate Ayanna said the other day, “It’s the closest you get to flying.” 
D: Aren’t they like 500 Ibs?
M: Or more!
D: Are you ever afraid?
M: I’ve never felt afraid. I’ve even been kicked by a horse and passed out one time. I think I was 12. It was during one of my riding lessons. My sister and I were tacking up the horses, putting on their saddles and tightening them before getting on. My sister rode this pony, which is smaller than a horse, but very strong and still huge. The pony was always grumpy and nippy so I guess my sister tightened it to something it didn’t like and I was standing maybe 6-feet away and it just reared up its hind leg and kicked me in the thigh. I had a huge bruise and literally passed out from shock. But even with that experience I still wasn’t afraid. 
D: What is it about horses that keeps you going back?
M: I just really love animals. And I know they are powerful, but it’s like you would respect the ocean. The ocean is huge and if you’re not paying attention it will win. But if you respect it, you’re going to be fine, just like with a horse.
D: Can I call you a horse girl? Feels like it’s associated with female whiteness. I Googled the term and that’s all that comes up. How do you feel about that?
A quick Google search of “horse girl”
M: I’ve never been called a horse girl. I’ve looked it up before and I think it had some weird sexual connotation to it at some point. Seems like words tend to morph and change over time. But now I embrace it. Because I did stop horseback riding for a bit, and felt ashamed, now I don’t feel ashamed, so I embrace that term no matter what it means. I would love to be a horse girl and ride horses all the time.

I think “horse girl” is affiliated with female whiteness because 1. The majority of people that are in that field are white. (All the people I trained with and rode with were white.) 2. It’s a very expensive sport. I remember my dad complaining about how expensive it was. 
D: Tell me about your most memorable ride?
M: I remember getting to a certain point in my lessons when I was first able to canter (a slow run/gallop) and then jump. That’s really where my love for riding became a physical experience. During a trot, one or more of the horse's feet are on the ground at all times and it's very bumpy.  In English style riding you have to learn to post, rising and lowering on the horse to match its gait so you’re not flopping all over the place. It’s fun but it requires a certain level of strength and concentration - your inner thighs become really strong! But at a canter, the horse’s hooves hit the ground and then for a moment it is completely suspended in the air. When riding at this speed you are in sync with the horse. And when I began jumping  that feeling intensified 1000%. You know that brief time stopping, wide-eyed silence moment evoked from jumping from somewhere high up? Well imagine that, but you’re connected to an 800lb animal doing the jump for you. 

D: Why did you stop?
M: Now when I look back on it I feel ashamed that I felt shame. I remember I was a freshman in high school and I had been riding for a while at that point. I was in a class and I mentioned that I liked horseback riding and a girl in the class said she liked horseback riding too. So it was cool to meet someone else who did, because I didn’t have any friends who rode. But literally within that same moment, a girl who I knew, who was always kind of a bully and became more of a bully in high school turned around and snickered “oh, you guys ride horses?” With an intonation in her voice that it wasn’t “cool”. I remember them also saying something about how horseback riding was “white people shit”.  At the time, I was struggling with fitting in and making friends and I had this insecurity of wanting to be liked and when someone who was “popular” disliked something, I didn’t want to do it anymore. Also, it’s not that I thought being associated as white was shameful. I loved all sides of my family and knew that they were a part of who I was. But I felt threatened that I wasn’t accepted as being black; another part of me and an identity I never knew I’d have to fight for. It seemed at the time, everything I did was crucial to defend my identity that wasn’t even completely formed. How could I be white with brown skin? And how could I be black when I rode horses? And why did I think I couldn’t be both when I was?
D: What was the conversation with your mom like when you told her you didn’t want to ride anymore?
M: I actually remember it so clearly. I just told her “I don’t want to horseback ride anymore.” Talking to her about it later, she said it actually made her really sad because it seemed to come out of nowhere and was very abrupt and I didn’t give her any explanation. She knew that I loved it. She could tell that it was some outside force.
D: I was also bullied excessively as a child, for my unibrow and lazy eye and big nose, the list goes on, how has childhood/adolescent bullying shaped your adult self? Does the trauma resurface? Or have you gotten to the other side?

M: I’ve gotten to the otherside of bullying, but can see it pop up in certain aspects of my life still. It took me a really long time to think for myself. I remember music was a whole thing. I listened to the same music as everyone else and I forced myself to like it. It’s not that I disliked the music, but I didn’t go outside the box to try to listen to anything else, but now I embrace listening to all types of music. I go to the shows I want to go to. But I see it creep up. Like when I’m DJ/playing music I become self-conscious and wonder if everyone likes what I’m playing. 

D: When did you decide “Fuck it, I’m getting back on that horse”?
M: Haha quite literally...I almost joined a horseback riding club in college, but it was too expensive. After college, when I moved to LA, a friend of mine was moving to London and we decided to do all the things together before she left. She had never been horseback riding before, so I was like let’s go. We decided to go for an hour and a half, which broke us up from all the people there. So it was just me and Janine and the guide. I wasn’t prepared for the guide to let us do what we wanted...we actually got to trot a little bit and even run and I felt that jolt of energy return. And it was actually quite inexpensive to ride, so I was like “oh, i can do this,” so I fell in love with it again.

D: How did it feel to ride again?

M: It felt amazing. Even for just that hour and half. Just like you never forget how to ride a bike. I knew what I was doing. I know how to control the horse, to press my feet down, to not flop all over the place, so it felt very comfortable. 

D: You were still a horse girl. 

M: Always a horse girl.

D: Are you familiar with environmental racism? What does it mean to you?

M: Environmental racism is a very complex issue that disproportionately leaves people of color in often dangerous, health-hazardous living situations from toxins and other environmental pollution. I have been fortunate enough in my life to have  not experienced this personally nor anyone that I have been close to. But, having lived in the Oakland hills next to the Redwood forest and luckily living next to one of the larger parks in LA now, I realize how limited access to nature can be for urban areas, and what effect that can have on populations of people of color. The natural world is ancient and is here for everyone to interact with and it has been sectioned off. You can still see its effects through food deserts and lack of trees for shade and lack of plant diversity in urban areas.

D: Tell me about your experience working with horses in Australia in 2018. I know you were coming out of a toxic relationship, were horses healing?

M: I was feeling very stuck in LA. I wanted a new job and it was really hard to find one. I wasn’t getting any call-backs. I remember looking on Instagram and seeing this girl who was traveling in Australia and I got really jealous and thought “why does she get to do that and I’m stuck here in this matrix?” and then it just clicked. I thought: why am I feeling jealous when I can make this a reality for myself? So I decided to take the leap and go live over there. When I first got there, I traveled up the coast for a few weeks and at this one location there was a horse ranch. It was a tourist thing, but I was like yes, I want to go horseback riding. I was taking myself on horseback riding dates. It was really fun! We got to ride horses in the ocean. I found out that people can live there for free if they volunteer at the barn, so I kept that in the back of my mind. I was moving around alot.
Fast forward, I got into a shitty relationship and at the end of it I need to move. I even thought about leaving Australia early. I knew I needed a fresh start, and so I remembered the horse place. The island was called Magnetic Island and it felt like my safe space. I was very very drawn to it. I contacted them and they let me stay there for five weeks. I worked on the ranch. I was a trail guide. I woke up at 6:30am to feed the horses, clean them and prepare them for the first ride, clean them again and go on the afternoon ride and put them back in the barn. I did that nearly every day. It was the most time I spent with horses since I was a kid and the most time I spent with horses ever. I rode more than I ever had, took them into the ocean, cared for them and really felt happy and at home.
Madeline on a horse, in the ocean.
D: Were the horses everything you remembered them to be? 

M: Oh yeah! I became a better rider. Like horseback riding takes some getting used to. Again, you're with a living being. You have to know what the commands are. You can get a little spooked because unlike a car where you can press on the brake and it will stop, the horse might not stop. It’s something to get used to, and I fell back into it.

D: Do you think it was almost like a metaphor for that stage of life you were in? After the toxic relationship and being unsure about what you wanted to do with your life, you felt more in control of your life by being with horses? 

M: I felt like I had a purpose and a responsibility and that gave me comfort, especially during a time when I felt ungrounded. I was able to find a home when I was so far away from home. Also, the really cool part about being with the horses every day was that I got to learn their personalities and I could see horse friendships. Horses are literally like people and choose other horses to be their friends. 

D: Have you gone riding with your roommate Ayanna? You're both horse girls and mixed kids!

M: We can’t believe that we’ve never gone horseback riding together. She mentioned that she got made fun of too, but she said “fuck you.” I wish I had that strength.

D: What are you up to these days? How often do you ride? Does horseback riding still feel healing to you? 

M: When I have breaks or milestones, I take myself horseback riding. I don’t ride that much at the moment. I haven’t been able to schedule a  private ride during COVID, especially with all these new regulations.. But I am itching to find a place. I’m in another in-between stage in my life, but I don’t feel as ungrounded as before. I’m trying to trust the process and go with my interests. 

I’m currently working at an herbal apothecary, learning about plant medicine and the different energetics of plants and the natural world and how people can connect with them to heal, especially in this world where there is so much money put into big pharma and Western medicine. So many people think you go to the doctor and that’s your only option, but it’s not. It goes back to accessibility. Medicine from plants is the oldest form of medicine, so why are we so disconnected from it? Herbalism in the US has a racial divide where it’s expensive and saturated with whiteness, but it was made for everyone, especially for people of color. And being a certified herbalist is not a thing because it’s not recognized by the FDA, so you can’t give medical recommendations using plants, it’s literally illegal. 
Madeline’s herbalist journey, The Sunny Unknown.
D: What would you tell young mixed kids in America interested in horseback riding or other activities traditionally deemed “white”?

M: I would say, if you have the resources or you can find them, then do it. Be who you are and define yourself, don’t let others define who you are. And if you get into a field that is mostly white, then you are the change. You’re the sprinkle of color that’s coming into that world and making it more colorful. It’s encouragement for others. I remember seeing the other person of color at my school who I knew was horseback riding and I looked at her with awe. She was much older than me and I was very shy so I never really said anything, but it gave me a glimmer of hope seeing her even if I didn’t act on it. I started following the hashtag #blackequestrains on instagram and it brings me so much joy. Riding horses makes you an equestrian and equestrians come in all colors, shapes and sizes.  
D: Were you a fan of Spirit?

M: Oh I loved all the horse movies...Spirit and Black Beauty. I watched Spirit a number of times. That movie was dark though. It was about white people stealing wild horses and burning down Native American villages. The Native Americans used horses because they needed them and they had a symbiotic relationship where they took really good care of them and did not use whips and other tools like the white settlers.

D: Do you feel like the wildness in horses relates to some wildness in you? 

M: I think so. Because when I am riding a horse and it’s running, I feel exhilarated and feel like I’m exactly where I need to be. I feel that same wildness when I’m dancing. When you try to “control” a horse it’s most likely not going to listen to you. It’s like life. You have to let go of some control and it works out. 

Note: Of course, a lot has changed in the equestrian community since the ‘90s and aughts. We see more black people on horses in mainstream media. There’s the Compton Cowboys and Little Nas X’s Old Time Road music video and this article about black protestors on horseback in June 2020, but it is important to look at past experiences of racial bullying in order to appreciate this slow incremental change.
Madeline on horseback in New Zealand.

Madeline McMillan was born and raised in Oakland. Madeline currently lives in Los Angeles where she is a budding herbalist. 

Diana Ruzova was born in Soviet Belarus and raised in Los Angeles. Diana is a writer and MFA candidate at Bennington College.

Tyler Haberkorn is an analog photographer based in Los Angeles, California.

black, equestrian, black equestrian,black horse girl, horse girl, bullying, shame, Spirit, Los Angeles, Oakland, Australia, Magnetic Island