BY JESS CLAWSON
Pearl Running Deer knew from a young age that she wanted to make it in the horse showing world, but that the path might not be easy for an indigenous woman in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Running Deer did not grow up on a reservation. Rather, she lived in an area with eight to 10 other Native families who worked together to learn important elements of their culture, including bead work and sewing, and taking trips to the reservation in South Jersey regularly.
Outside that group, life was not always easy for a woman of color who wanted to make it in the show world, even though she had a natural seat and an easy way with the horses.
Her Choctaw father put her on horses before she could walk. “Native tradition,” he told her. She got her start riding on the Atlantic City beach before her father took her to riding academies to further hone her skills. She wound up riding with Maurice Honig, French Equestrian Team member, at Fox Hollow Farm in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. “I learned the old fashioned way,” she says. “And I still teach that way.”
Running Deer got along well with Honig, who appreciated the way she handled horses and how well she could ride bareback or without stirrups over fences. She considered staying on longer, but wanted to go out on her own and go back to Atlantic City.
When she returned to New Jersey, Running Deer began competing regularly on the local show circuit on her first horse, a Morgan she rescued. She paid his bills by working at the race track, and although she was beginning to fulfill her ambitions of competing on her own horse, she also began to run into problems with racism at the local horse show level.
“I had a woman accuse me of taking her daughter’s saddle,” Running Deer says. Fortunately, the farm owner had seen Running Deer mucking stalls. He also saw the child take her own saddle, and the woman finally confessed that she just wanted Running Deer fired because she believed that indigenous people steal.
At another local horse show, Running Deer was told she could compete there, but was not permitted inside the barn to use the bathroom or get water for her horse.
This sort of treatment was especially painful for Running Deer, who stresses that her cultural upbringing heavily emphasizes morality and loyalty. Being accused of theft is hard for anyone, but the racist implications are impossible to ignore.
It didn’t stop Running Deer from wanting to spend her life with horses, though. She made a friend at a show whose father turned out to be an Israeli diplomat. Through that friendship, she met a lot of other people from all walks of life who were as passionate about horses as she was.
Eventually, she was able to attend some A shows, where she says people’s attitudes toward her were completely different. Even though Running Deer says that Native people often keep to themselves in general, including horse shows, her new friends asked her questions about her nationality. They wanted to learn more about her, not accuse her of theft. Running Deer even taught some lessons, and earned a reputation for being trustworthy when the kids would leave expensive items in her car, which she always returned.
Running Deer is proud to have a role in opening doors for other riders of color to come after her. She may even have been the first indigenous rider to compete on the Devon show grounds when she showed in the local hunters there in 1993.
Now, Running Deer’s involvement with horses is about giving back to the community. She is in the process of starting Turtle Island Equestrian, a 501(c)3 non-profit that will rescue horses and give indigenous children access to riding and competing. Running Deer is already working with students, teaching them not just about horses and riding, but about growing vegetables, caring for chickens, and healthy eating and cooking. She travels to different farms to do this work now, but hopes to open a facility in New York to expand their programming.
Running Deer isn’t a relic of history. She is a living, active member of the horse community in Atlantic City who recognizes how important horses are to people, and who wants to make them more accessible to people. To learn more about Turtle Island Equestrian, go here.