On the day of the orange sky, Brianna Noble — like so many others in California — thought it was still night when her alarm woke her up.
But soon enough, she realized it was actually morning. There were ashes falling from the sky like snowflakes. Noble needed to take her two-year-old to daycare, but after one look outside, her daughter started pulling Noble back indoors. “No, mommy, no! It’s nighttime!”
“I didn’t know what to tell her,” Noble says. She was also petrified, but she needed to hurry to check on her horses. You might have seen a picture of Noble back in June, when she took her Appaloosa gelding, Dapper Dan, to downtown Oakland. An image of her riding through the streets, with a Black Lives Matter sign hanging beside her saddle while protests were rising across the country after the killing of George Floyd, went viral.
“A Black woman with dreadlocks on a horse leading a group of people is not generally [a picture] that you would see in history books,” Noble says. “You see the white man, the white conqueror, sitting on his horse, with his sword raised, going to conquer the land.”
However, while it’s long been dominated by the white and wealthy, Noble has a far more inclusive vision of equestrianism. Noble runs Mulatto Meadows, a ranch in Martinez, Calif., that’s home to Humble, a program where low-income kids learn how to ride.
And so, after images of her sitting proudly atop Dapper Dan disrupted ideas about who can and should ride horses, Noble seized on the opportunity, and used the momentum to raise money for Humble, hoping it would minimize barriers for inner city youth and low-income kids of color in the Bay Area.
“I really argue that horses inspire positive futures,” Noble says, explaining that horse riding can be transformative and healing for children who struggle to find safe spaces, especially during a pandemic. When COVID-19 had people backed into a corner, struggling to find respite safely, Humble provided a refuge: a lower-risk activity where you could find calm in the world amid all the catastrophe.
But then, as the wildfires grew and as air quality levels reached unhealthy — and later, hazardous — heights, the Bay Area lost one of its final saving graces: the outdoors. Noble closed Humble temporarily out of safety concerns for the children and the staff.
“It’s the one last thing people have,” Noble says of the Humble participants. “And now, we’ve shut down too.”
Noble worried about the kids who lost that safe space, and the staff volunteers who relied on Humble for their own emotional well-being too. But she was also stressed for her horses, who could not shelter inside with an air purifier.
“They are impacted the same way we are by this. They feel uncomfortable. They have a hard time breathing this in,” Noble says. “The difference is: We can go inside, we can wear masks. But there’s not really anything I can do for them.”
Noble strapped fly masks over the horses’ faces, hoping that it would at least shield their eyes from the falling ash, which coated their backs and necks in a thin film. She changed their water frequently, trying to keep it as clean as possible.
All the while, Noble was ever mindful about the possibility of evacuation. Currently, large parts of the Bay Area — including Martinez — is under a red flag warning because of dry conditions and strong winds. “I have my truck and trailer ready at a moment’s notice,” Noble says. If there is a fire approaching, she has a plan. Her husband will evacuate with their two-year-old daughter, and she will take the truck to the ranch. There’s only one road in and out of Mulatto Meadows, but Noble is prepared to rescue her horses should a disaster strike.
It’s a nightmarish scenario. Noble can’t help but also worry about the horses that live on the ranches surrounding Mulatto Meadows. She estimates there are around 500. Noble herself can reach her stable in less than 10 minutes, but the same can’t be said of all the other horse owners.
“It’s just a really scary thought,” Noble says. “If a wildfire really is coming and we have to evacuate, how much can we actually do to help? How many horses are we actually going to be able to save?”
The animals themselves have been feeling this nervous energy too, Noble says, explaining that horses are non-judgemental mirrors that reflect the energy of the rider — emotions of anxiety, fear, or peace, will be mutual for all parties involved. That’s actually how kids practice emotional care through Humble. They need to feel calm and safe in order for the horses to feel calm and safe as well.
But Noble’s horses have been sensing the shift in the climate — it’d be hard not to. One 10-year-old American Quarter named Butter started cribbing. Cribbing is a stress-induced stable vice: a horse bites a hard object and sucks in air. Some assume that it’s to release endorphins, but cribbing can be detrimental to a horse’s health. That’s why when Noble first took Butter in, she worked hard to keep him happy so he would drop his cribbing habit.
But during wildfire season, the stable vice returned.
“He barely has any teeth left,” Noble says. “He’s not an old horse, but he’s worn his teeth down from biting on surfaces.”
It’s clearly a stressful time for everyone, but Noble is trying to keep positive.
“God, it’s hard,” she says. Every time it feels like it can’t get worse, it does. “2020’s like, ‘Hey. Hold my beer.’”
Even then, Noble feels bad about voicing her concerns. “It’s hard to hear myself talk about that and complain because there’s so many people around the state — and states — that have lost so much.”
Instead, she’s going to keep pushing forward. Noble believes she can do good, and bring more positive experiences for others in the world through her passion for horses. “Now that I’m getting all this attention and fame, I feel really responsible to make sure I use this for good, and I do as much as I can to make a change.”
That’s all anyone can really do, according to Noble, who’s funneling her efforts into Humble, keeping the program alive and running when it’s safe to do so. She hopes that by trying to make a difference — big or small — she and others will make it through this era of constant disaster.
“We will,” Noble says. “We will speak things into existence.”
Mulatto Meadows, 1151 Bear Creek Road, Martinez