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 Episode 23.5

Young Black Equestrians the Podcast – Uncover Raven Benjamin

by | Jun 16, 2020 | Bonus, Guest | 0 comments

It’s not the responsibility of EOC to teach us how to create a welcoming industry. It’s our responsibility as white equestrians to educate ourselves, be more intentional, and create an environment that everyone feels welcome in. ⁣

Young Black Equestrians the Podcast – Uncover Raven Benjamin

Welcome to Young Black Equestrians the Podcast with hosts Caitlin and Abriana. In this episode they sit down with Raven Benjamin, winner of the 2019 National Cutting Horse Association amateur world title. 

These wonderful ladies have been kind enough to let us share this episode with you as we work to become better black allies, and create a more welcoming space for black equestrians in our industry. Enjoy!

Raven Benjamin has not been riding cutting horses very long. She’s originally from California, and now resides in Hartsville, Colorado. With less than a couple hundred residents, and sitting at 9000 feet in elevation it’s a quiet solitary life.

Raven gets to wake up every day with her horses sitting right outside. So yeah, I show ponies however, don’t live here. Her show ponies however, live in Arizona or Texas, depending on where she needs them for her next show. 

An Early Love for Horses

Raven’s grandfather rode and rodeod before he went into the Navy. The horse gene skipped Raven’s mom, but when she got pregnant with Raven she adopted an off the track thoroughbred. 

She never rode the horse, just kept the stall clean and groomed it and that was the first horse Raven can remember. Raven’s father was into horses, and her Grandfather had his roots in ranching so there was a long line of horse people waiting to bring Raven along.

Raven started her riding career in Western Ranching, competing in gymkhanas and can chasing. When she got a little older she lived in Europe for a number of years and competed in dressage and jumping there.

When she got back to the US Raven attended Feather River College to further her knowledge. That’s when she realized being a horse trainer wasn’t for her, but she loved riding and could connect with the horses in a way that offers a lot to the horse industry. 

She started a few mountain colts at her ranch and sold them to packing outfits. She would go to the occasional show, but in 2019 she decided to get serious about being a competitive rider. 

Saddling Up

Raven decided to check out the cutting horse industry. She just got in her truck and set out to find someone to give her a cutting horse lesson. It turns out, that didn’t exist. You have to buy a cutting horse if you want to take a lesson. That was so strange to Raven coming from jumpers. 

If you want to jump, you can go take a lesson on a jumper and decide if you like jumping or not.. If you’re really into it, you can buy a lesson package or a jumping horse. Raven trained her own jumping horse and jumped for a number of years and had a great time doing it.

Cutting is different. It’s not a straight line discipline, it’s a lateral discipline, going right to the left with your hand down. There’s not a lot you can fix going right and left.  When you’re going straight like in dressage there is. 

Raven really wanted to take a lesson and learn more about cutting. She couldn’t find anybody in Colorado or California who would put her on a finished cutting horse. She got on the internet, did a search and Leon Harrel’s name came up.

She took a change and gave Leon a call. The multi open world championship and futurity winner invited Raven down to Texas to ride his World Champion Horses. Recognizing an opportunity she wouldn’t find anywhere else, Raven hopped in her truck and headed for Texas.

It had been years since anyone outside of her small town in Colorado had offered Raven feedback on her riding. She was nervous to go all the way down to Texas and potentially be told she wasn’t good enough but Leon was awesome. They met at a local cafe and his kind and easy to be around nature instantly put Raven at ease. 

Leon brought Raven back to his barn and started putting her on horses. She had a blast. He put her on one horse, two horses, three horses, giggled and laugh, and finally a few more horses into it said, “I think I finally out horsed you. I think you should get a cutting horse. I think this is your game.” 

Raven’s interest was piqued, she asked Leon what getting a cutting horse entails. Nobody talks about what these horses cost and she figured it would be something substantial to be able to put your hand down and do what they do. She’d seen enough disciplines to know what she was riding was going to be more of purchasing a truck than purchasing a piece of furniture for your house.

Leon was really honest. He told her if she wanted a horse athletic enough to match her potential, she was looking at $35,000 and above. She could probably find a $10,000-$20,000 cutter, but she would end up putting an additional $15,000-$20,000 into training. 

Raven decided to think it over and told Leon if he found her a horse to give her a call. At the end of the week she went to Dallas to see some family. She was having dinner and Leon called her and told her he found her a horse. 

Getting back in her truck, Raven went out and rode Bobby Cakes, who would become her fist cutting horse. She had no idea what she was looking for, Bobby felt like the other horses. Raven trusted Leon to know it was a good fit and it was. Unfortunately, Raven got injured and she and Bobby had to take a year off. 

Getting Back in the Saddle

The injury affected Raven’s nervous system and the lower part of her spinal cord. She couldn’t really feel her legs or pelvic area. She just wanted to ride, she couldn’t sit around and do nothing, she wanted a reason to get up and go. Leon invited Raven to go back to Texas and just ride with him. That’s pretty stinking special. Anybody else would not have agreed with Raven getting on Bobby in her condition. 

Truck and trailer and tow, Raven headed down to Texas. She had some troubles riding. Leon tied the reins into her hands to keep her from dropping them and told her to just get up there and ride. 

Not long after she was back in the saddle Raven decided to head to a cutting show in Scottsdale, Arizona. She had a boarding facility out there and decided to haul out there and go to the show. 

She didn’t know about trainers, turn backs, herd health, and all the things that went into having a full team to be able to cut. She’d only gone to a couple shows and watched. Raven thought to herself, “If I have a reason to wake up, I have a reason to go.”

Kathy Unfried at the Arizona Cutting Horse Association fielded about 100 phone calls from Raven the day of the show. (It was the t$1,00 limit class. It wasn’t even a sanctioned NCAA class.) “What time should I be there?” “Where do I park?” “How does this work?” 

Raven could walk and everything, but she really couldn’t feel her legs. As she pulled in she wondered if she was making the right decision. Jade Keller had been recommended to Raven as a trainer through Al Dunning. They couldn’t connect before the show. When it was time to go in the ring Raven introduced herself and asked if he could help her out. 

He said, “okay.” and that was that he started training her. She went in and cut her cow. It went really fast and Raven didn’t take a breath the whole time. They marked a 68, which is definitely not an ideal score to win any money but she didn’t zero out, she stayed in the middle of her horse, and she got the run. 

Jade told her to come earlier the next day so they could practice a bit before she went in. By the end of the week he was the trainer that she was using out of Arizona. He stuck with her and helped her through it even though she was injured. He never discouranted her. 

It’s really important to have a home base like that. A good support system that just encourages you going forward. From that show on, Bobby and Raven won a check at every show they went to. At the end of 2019, she had only shown him the $1000. Her goal for 2019 was to show him the $2000. 

The first show of 2019 was in Tucson, Arizona. Outback Cutting put on a phenomenal show. Raven and her horse placed well in the 15th amateur, won a good amount of money in the $2000 and ended the show a half point away from winning the saddle shootout.

That’s when it started to feel real.

Going for Gold

Once you’re a horse girl that’s it. There’s no changing that. It’s in your blood. Raven and her horses were learning on the fly. The horses had to get used to hauling and quickly adapting to different trainers and climates. Raven’s biggest challenge was slowing down, staying in the middle and waiting. She naturally does everything about 1000 miles a minute. She doesn’t have a lot of patience. 

Raven is sure Jade rammed his head into the wall about 1000 times trying to get her to slow down and wait. You’re waiting for your horse, making sure your timing is correct, and practicing over and over again. 

About halfway through 2019 Raven needed to haul to places that Jade Keller Performance Horses wasn’t going. Between Jade and Leon, Raven was ready to take off on her own. People were amazed that she would show up to shows without a trainer. Her approach of being fully involved in the training process gave her the confidence and skill to succeed at shows by herself.

At this point Raven set her sights on the top 15. In a cutting competition, you and your horse sort out the herd. You push one cow up out of the herd and you have four people sitting in the corners that keep everything settled. They make sure the herd stays behind and your cow stays up in the front.

While you push that cow out of the herd (your herd work), you are judged on how well you steer your horse and how quiet it stays and your working relationship with your horse. Once you lock onto the cow you’ve chosen, hopefully in the center pen, you put your hand down. Your hand stays down until your horse breaks down that cow.

The cow goes back and forth and you try to keep it in the middle third of the pen until it stops moving. Once it stops moving, you can tag off and go back into the herd and get another cow. You can do that up to three times.

The point values are the toughest thing to understand about cutting to understand. Some of it is really opinion, how well you and your horse are handling yourself. Once you put your hand down, your horse is judged. Is it staying with that cow? Are you out of position? Every single time that you’re out of position, you’re too far away from a cow, you get docked points. 

A 70 is a clean score. You’ve gone out, you’ve done your job. You don’t have any penalties. You can also earn pluses that give you additional points. It’s pretty hard to earn a check off of just a 70. Raven has earned lots of checks off the 70s because it’s been a hard day for people, but in general a 70 won’t get you a check. On the other hand, she’s had days where she marked a 74 and didn’t land in the money. 

Cutting can get pretty competitive, especially when the cows are good and cooperating. You’re really competing against you and your horse against the cow, not so much against a competitor. Your time with that cow is your make or break moment. If you’re getting pluses or minuses adding points to your 70 are taken away from your 70 can make the difference of a check or not. 

Looking to the Future

Raven used two horses to win her world title and maintain the top 15 in 2019. It takes so much work to just make the top 15. Her horse needed a break. They ran really hard and the hauling was tremendous going from California, Missouri and countless places in between. She switched to my second horse from Leon to get some fresh legs underneath her.

Raven’s horses always come first. She knew she’d have to run in the 15 amateur to get enough money to get Rookie of the Year. It was the first time someone from the Arizona Cutting Horse Association had won Rookie of the Year for the National Cutting Horse Association. She also won Rookie of the Year in the Arizona Cutting Horse Association, the year end finals, and the year end 15 amateur. She was reserved for the $2000 limit rider in the Arizona Association, and the $2000 Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association. 

Winning those titles took quite a bit of hauling. Raven really wanted to come home and recharge. She had only been home 4 times in 2019, and she missed her five hunting dogs and her other horses.

Some of her fellow competitors that were at the world finals jumped right back into showing. Raven tipped her hat to them as she slowed down and enjoyed life a little bit. But, Raven is nowhere near done. She plans to make another run for the top 15. She now has five cutting horses that she plans to use. 

She left them at Leon’s with plans to compete on there and haul one horse to California and leave her in California to cut down on hauling fatigue. 

The Advantage of Experience

Year one had some challenges for Raven that she is excited to leave behind. When you’re not only new in cutting, and you really don’t know anybody, and you’re hauling down the road by yourself, just getting from location to location can be exhausting.

A smile goes a long way when walking into new arenas. Raven always tries to cheer for her competitors if she sees someone having a bad day. Everyone has their ups and downs and the cutting industry is there for one another. They are all going through it together.  

Year 2 brings a different set of challenges. Raven wants to be a better rider and showman for her horses and that starts with being more calm in the middle. She wants to make the top 15 again and go farther than she did in 2019.

Raven says if we’re not elevating, then we’re sitting in the same spot and she doesn’t want to do that at this point. She wants to keep climbing. 2019 was incredible and humbling and left her hungry for more. 

The Culture of Cutting

You can be winning in one second and not in the next. You can have a sound horse one day and not the next. Everyone in cutting has good days and bad days and nothing is guaranteed. Raven is thankful to have so many good horses underneath her so she can keep doing this for a second year. 

Brandis Langston is a trainer, super talented with the young horses. He was at the same show as Raven and everybody assumed the two riders were friends. In reality, not all black people know each other, but Brandon is an awesome dude and Raven enjoyed getting to know him. 

Raven met her fair share of obstacles as a black cowgirl. She was very nervous about getting into cutting because it’s rooted in ranching. Sometimes she was met with open arms and other times it felt obvious that she did not fit in. 

Raven has her hair locked, they are Sisterlocks. Not everybody’s super receptive to that. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about locks. When Raven got her hair locked a lot of people within her own community told her they liked her hair better straight. As she got her in her truck and drove to Arizona by herself to attend her first cutting show, Raven second guessed her decision to lock her hair.

Arizona’s association never let that be an issue. She had one incident where someone wasn’t kind and the entire association was blown away by it. They made it clear that that was not acceptable and not what the cutting family is about. In the cutting world everyone is there to ride and anyone who isn’t kind to the other riders is not welcome. That’s a great thing about the cutting industry in different disciplines that doesn’t always happen.

Traveling Alone

The last show of 2019 was in Missouri. Raven had more anxiety going somewhere new than she had experienced in 20 years. She asked her friend to drive with her as she went 

Missouri is the South. She had to drive through the bible belt and she was worried about getting out of her rig to get fuel. Raven was once approached by a guy at a gas station at the border of California and Arizona. He asked her whose horses were in the trailer.

Raven told him it was her rig. He replied by saying he was going to stand there until the owner of the rig returned. She warned him that he would be standing there holding his breath for a LONG time. When Raven finished filling up the man moved to stand in front of her door.

A grown man thought she was stealing because she doesn’t look like someone that drives that rig. Raven looked at him, squared off, and told him she was willing to do what’s necessary to protect her horses. He moved a little and hesitated, her dog was inside, ready to pounce. He backed down saying, “I’m sorry. It looks like the dog knows you. I just didn’t want someone messing with someone’s rig.”

When Raven joined the Arizona Cutting Horse Association she was just so blown away at how zero racism existed. Same with Leon Harrell, that man told Raven she could win a world championship the first week she met him. There was no doubt in his mind about her challenges being injured or her being a black cowgirl. He told her to go out and do it. 

Driving to Missouri was the first time Raven second guessed her entrance to the cutting world. The people in cutting were amazing. They supported her from the day she showed up to the day she won. 

Sometimes prejudice has a way of making people act in defence. They say no, or stay home, or act out before anyone has a change to hurt them. Raven is thrilled she didn’t let this happen in her cutting career. People were welcoming, kind, and a LOT more worried about Raven approving of the dirt in the arena than anything else.

Advice for Aspiring Cowgirls

Raven is a horsewomen first and foremost. She puts her horses first on a level that some people think is insane. If her horse doesn’t feel good in the middle of a show, she leaves, no questions asked. 

She competes for the buckles, the check, and the thrill of the ride. Her horses compete because they know Raven has a pocket full of treats at the end of the ride. She always tries to keep a level head about that. If you love the horse first and the competition second, you’ll always make the right decisions. 

Find a trainer. Cutting is a different sport. It’s a team sport. The more you know the people around you the more at ease you will be during your ride. Having a trainer or a coach helps a TON with that process. 

When your horse gives you feedback they are not criticizing you as a person, they are helping you become a better rider. Living remotely limits Ravens opportunities to work with trainers so she cherishes the time she got to spend with Leon and Jade. 

The black community often has a fear of being seen in a group because of how that is perceived. Raven experienced some of that but always worked to break down those barriers. She’s approached black and white competitors alike, just being honest and human and offering to be a supporter and a friend. 

Once Raven was approached by a group of little girls at a gas station. There was one black girl in the group. She shyly told Raven that she had seen her on Instagram but was afraid of horses. Raven brought all the girls around back of the trailer and opened the doors. She let each girl pet and feed the horses. 

It’s so important for our next generation to know that being a cowgirl is okay for all colors and walks of life. Horses can bring us all together in a way that we’ve never fathomed before. It’s an opportunity and a platform to show that there is something different from MLK Blvd. 

When Raven worked as a Paramedic in Oakland she would load her horse up and go to an inner city school, unload right on the pavement and show the kids what horses are. It’s so important to know that anyone can aspire to be a horse person. Not every mom is going to go by an OTTB like Raven’s did, but that doesn’t mean not every kid can get into horses. 

When a kid touches a horse for the first time. It helps with everything from confidence to depression. If you put a little girl who has no control over anything else in her life on a horse, you give her wings. If we don’t take time to foster a love of horses in our next generation they won’t have it. 

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