Interview with budding rodeo star Naeemah Muhammad: "Handling horses is like handling people, each one is different"

(Blogger's Note: I don't know any Black women competing in professional horse riding. Do you? Well, now we both will! Meet Naeemah Muhammad of Houston. She's a budding rodeo star. I recently went one-on-one with her about her college major, the science of rearing a horse and much more.)

Brother Jesse Muhammad (BJ): What are you presently studying in college and what do you plan to do with your degree upon graduation? 

Naeemah Muhammad (NM): I am currently attending Houston Community College and in May 2012 I will obtain an associate in science. Following that I am looking forward to going to Prairie View A&M University to attain a bachelor in animal science with the intentions of pursuing a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University.

BJ: In November, you had the opportunity to play a key role with the Nation of Islam Student Association in organizing the Prairie View A&M University S.P.I.T. Knowledge event featuring the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. What did you learn in terms of organizing skills leading up to that event? 

NM: Being able to be a part of such a historical event was phenomenal. It was an experience I will never forget. I learned that you must have more than one game plan because if something goes wrong you’ll still have a few more tricks under your sleeve. Regardless of what you want to happen, things don’t always go according to plan but you need to set a goal and work like everything depends on you but have faith and pray like everything depends on Allah (God).

Overall I think Minister Louis Farrakhan’s lecture had a very positive impact on the students. Unfortunately the educational system is not what it should be and our people are suffering from it but with the statistics and facts the Minister spoke of, I highly doubt that the students that were able to hear that powerful message will ever be the same.

BJ: I have to be honest, I've never been on one horse in my lifetime. (smile) How in the world did you get into competing in horseback riding? 

NM: Well, when I was 15 my father told me that I had been asking for a horse ever since I was 5 years old, of course I don’t remember that but what I do remember was my first riding lesson when I was 12 years old, it was the most invigorating experience that I had ever had. I fell in love! (smiles) I would take lessons in both English and Western disciplines as much as I could, but it wasn’t that often. With the help of my mother I was able to volunteer at different ranches and riding stables, two of which included Southern Breeze Equestrian and Molly Stevenson’s Ranch. Mrs. Stevenson then referred us to the now late Mr. Smitty Johnson who held youth rodeos in Fresno, Texas. It was then that I met Mr. Hatfield, my first barrel racing trainer. Initially, I went there only with the intentions of riding horses just for the fun of it. I never thought about competing, although I had seen barrel racing on television before. I never dreamed that would be me one day.

BJ: What is the name of your horse and how much work did it take to train it to fit your style of riding? 

NM: I am currently riding Molly, she is a 10 year old quarter horse and I have been riding her for a little over a year. It took one year of 4-5 hour practices, 4-5 times a week to get to where I am now and it was not easy, but with the help of my current trainer, Mr. Carl Mills, we are coming along. Mr. Carl is teaching me not only how to ride horses but the science behind it; basically he is teaching me how to master a horse. Molly wasn’t necessarily trained to fit my style of riding, because I didn’t know how to ride. Initially, I was being trained to fit the horse’s style. The way I ride Molly isn’t the same way I ride my other two horses (Star and Skyline) because each horse has their own style. For example, Molly needs to be handled a lot more than my three year old, Star. Since Star is just starting out I do not have to handle her too much because if I do it would confuse her, which would lead to a nonresponsive horse since she does not understand and does not need the extra handle I usually use on Molly. It’s like sending both of your children to their room when one was innocent in their actions. The one that is innocent is wondering why they are being handled as though they were the one that was in the wrong. Horses don’t think quite like that but the concept is still the same. Handling horses is like handling people, each one is different and you have to handle them accordingly.

BJ: When was your first competition and how did you do? Were you nervous? 

NM: My first competition was June 2010, in Fairfield, Texas and I was very nervous. I was so nervous that I got sick but I was able to pull myself together and was still able compete. At the time I had only been practicing barrel racing for three months. Looking back on it, that was too soon for me to start competing and I say that because barrel racing is not just about making a horse go around the barrels to get a fast time, you have to have your foundation first and that was a key component that I lacked. I had to learn how to be patient with myself and the horse because it takes time to become a winner, it doesn’t happen overnight. Although everything was new to me I expected a lot from myself even though at the time I didn’t have the knowledge to do so. I had to understand the basics of how a horse thinks, why a horse responds the way it responds, what my role is and what the horse’s role is. Most importantly, I had to exercise control. When I say control, I not only mean control of the horse but I had to learn to control myself because there are times when I get frustrated and I just want to say forget it but that’s where perseverance and the love of the sport comes in. Saying all of that to say, I did not do well at my first rodeo at all. The horse did something out of the ordinary and I was not prepared for it but in my mind it was my fault and I could’ve done better. Needless to say, I was highly upset. It was my first rodeo and I didn’t make the cut but I didn’t let that stop me, I kept going and kept learning and I can honestly say that there is no end in sight.

BJ: Since your first competition, what other rodeos have you competed in? How did you place? 

NM: Since my first rodeo, I have competed in many rodeos, too many to count, but it has been over 20 rodeos. Some of which included the All American Youth Rodeo Series (AAYRA) in Fresno, Texas, Gulf Coast Barrel Racing Association Series (GCBRA), and many more. The AAYRA hosts rodeos every year from June to December with 2-3 rodeos a month on Friday’s. The GCBRA holds jackpots every year from January to October with 3-4 jackpots each month. A jackpot is a competition where there are only one or two events, for example, GCBRA has barrel racing and pole bending events. AAYRA is a rodeo that includes all of the events, bull riding, pole bending, barrel racing, roping, etc. I compete in rodeos but I mainly do jackpots. The most recent jackpot I went to was December 17, 2011 in Liberty, Texas. I rode a horse by the name of Miss, which is my trainer’s horse, Carl Mills. That was her 3rd competition, so she is very new to the sport of barrel racing, but she did very well and I won 2nd place with a time of 17.133 seconds. Unfortunately, I did not do as good on Molly but fortunately I walked away with a great learning experience.

BJ: How do you prepare yourself mentally and physically before a competition? 

NM: Before a competition I always listen to music while I think about how I will make my run, it helps get me in the zone. Although what you plan to do doesn’t always go according to plan it keeps me focused and keeps my head in the game. It does not take much for me to get focused on a competition because I am very competitive. I get it from my father. I don’t necessarily compete with the other girls even though it does feel good to win but for the most part I compete against myself. I always push myself to do better than I did the last time. As far as the physical part of barrel racing, I practice 3-4 times a week for about 3-4 hours sometimes even 5 hours, the time is divided up between 2-3 horses. Even though barrel racing is a workout within itself I must stay in tip top shape just like the horses do. I do cardio, leg strengthening, ab workouts, and pushups for the arms.

BJ: Do you see a lot of Black women competing in these rodeos? Is it a lucrative career? 

NM: On the professional level, I do not see any black women at the rodeos or jackpots. The only ones that I have seen stay at the black rodeos, they don’t venture out to other big rodeos or jackpots that just so happens to be 100% white. When I go to the different jackpots I am literally the only black person that competes with them. I have no idea why that is but I don’t worry about it because I know what my goal is and I know what I have to do to get it and that is exactly what I’m going to do. Barrel racing is a very rewarding sport. At the professional level you are able to win anywhere from $10,000-$50,000 depending on where you place and if it’s a rodeo or a jackpot. The rodeos can only have so many competitors because of the other events they hold, but jackpots can have as many as 1,000 competitors maybe even more, not all jackpots are that big though. I have competed with as many as 1,000 plus competitors and as few as 6 competitors. At the local jackpots that have about 100-400 competitors you can win $50-$500 depending on how many people compete and how many places are paid.

BJ: I've watched some of the footage of you riding and I always tend to hear your mother's voice cheering you on. How important is parental support to a child when they are pursuing their dreams?  

NM: It is critical to have a good support system when pursuing your dreams. I would like to thank Allah (God) for blessing my father with the means to take care of the household, which allows my mother to be there with me every step of the way. She has helped me a lot in finding my passion by supporting me, spending hours on end at practice, taking me to the veterinary hospitals that I volunteered at, the ranches, and so much more. My father is also very supportive, he travels a lot so he isn’t always able to make it but I appreciate everything he is doing and has done for the family. I remember last year when I was competing in Waco, Texas he drove three hours from Missouri City, Texas just to see me ride for 16 seconds and went back home because he had work to do. That is unconditional love at its finest.

BJ: What are your goals for 2012? Big plans? 

NM: I plan to do it big in 2012! Starting January 7th I will begin the GCBRA jackpot series, hopefully with my upcoming barrel racing horse, Star along with Molly and Miss. In May, I will graduate from Houston Community College with an associates in science and the week after that I will travel to Oklahoma to compete in a jackpot over the course of three days. I am very excited for next year and after that I am in this for the long haul. Please visit my website www.naeemahzaakirah.com

BJ: Thank you!

(Follow Naeemah Muhammad on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/SistaClassified)