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Keith Johnson Headshot

Life as an Inner-City Cowboy

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I love horses. If I lived in the country or even the suburbs it might be easier for me to pursue my passion -- as a trainer and breeder. I live in the heart of the second-largest city in the country, but I won't let that stand in my way.

I have worked at an inner-city stable as a stable hand and trainer for the past six years. At El Figg Stable -- on 132nd Street in Los Angeles -- my job is to keep everything together and right. I feed the horses and clean up after them. I also train all of them. I take them through a three-month walk process and break them in. I have 17 well-trained horses and I love to ride them. I often take them out on the streets of South L.A. People always stop me and ask where the horses came from and why I am riding them. They tell me that they didn't know there were horses in the city and that it is really cool to see them.

I also ride for a jumping team in Compton called the Compton Junior Posse. We go all over the state and compete against other jumping teams. So far I've won first place in three competitions. These competitions have given me the opportunity to travel around the region.

It gets stressful sometimes. I am a senior in high school so I have a lot of academic work to do and get ready for college. Every day after school I have to go take care of all 17 of my horses and make sure that they have food and water and clean stalls. After that I go practice for the riding team. It is a lot to do and sometimes a challenge to get it all done -- but I like the challenge.

I have broken almost 40 horses on the streets of South Los Angeles which is a much greater challenge. One horse I will always remember breaking in is Little Indian girl. She strides with a four-count stutter step. Her head draws in. Light brown eyes gleam with pride and intensity. A white blaze streaks the front of this two-year-old sorrel's face. Her wide body compares with a four-year-old working horse.

The first time I took her out on the street, we rode out of the stable north on Athens Way, past the park to 120th Street. From there we took Broadway north to Manchester. Broadway is a wide street with grass-covered dividers between the north and southbound lanes. When we got to Manchester we stopped and let the horses rest. I could feel the agitation shaking Little Indian Girl's core. "Easy," I told her. "I'm right here." I stroked her withers and she seemed to calm slightly but every sudden sound spooked her. A flag blowing in the wind. Trees rustling. A plastic bag blowing down the boulevard made her uneasy. Out of nowhere, the revving of a motorcycle engine ripped through the quiet and she jumped and ran away from the other horses.

She cantered out into the street trying to find a way home. Her saddle was loose and I slipped off and hung on for dear life. I screamed out to her, "Whoa, girl. Easy." But she kept going and I kept holding onto her main and riding her sideways, her saddle slipping down her left side. She was in a full gallop now and I had to think fast. There was a trick I knew that might work -- the "pop off." I let go of her main and as soon as my feet touched the ground I jumped as fast and high as I could. I landed on her back, still holding her main, the saddle shifting under my left leg. I felt exhilarated but also still scared. I reached for the rains and realized that she'd broken them when she'd first broken free. I had nothing to stop her with.

I remembered all that training we'd done and how smart she was. She knew the cue to stop so I gave it to her -- sat back, deep in her back. At fist she didn't notice but I leaned more weight on her and she started to slow down. Then she stopped. I hopped down and rubbed her forelock and told her, "Easy, girl. It's okay," until she calmed down. I fixed her saddle and saw the rest of the riders on the rest of the horses about two blocks behind us. As they neared I saw how surprised they were that Little Indian Girl and I were okay. I told them how I had regained control of her and they started calling me "Popcorn." We had some laughs about that but not for long. We were still over two miles from my stable and Indian Girl's rains were broken. I told the other riders to get back on their horses and to box me in so that she couldn't run off again. I tried my best to keep her slow and calm. And when we reached 118th Street and Athens Way, she knew she was almost home and calmed down and walked in with no problem.

The important thing was that I never lost focus, even when it seemed that Indian Girl might bolt into the traffic lanes and get us both killed. I maintained my cool and thought clearly and got Indian Girl to do the same thing. I try to maintain the same focus about my goals and what I need to do to achieve them. This way I can always keep a clear head and be able to think about what I'm doing and what I need to do in order to succeed. I was able to stop my horse with persistence and a strong mind. I never lost my belief in her -- or myself.