How I Earned My Stripes | Kay Victoria


Black with white stripes or white with black stripes, scientists have studied zebras for years and still can’t definitively say which is true. The one thing they do know is that their stripes are all unique to the individual zebra just like fingerprints. With each passing year, I learn how my stripes make me unique and how they now truly serve as reminders of the strength I never knew I had. I’d love to share the story of how I got a few of my stripes. I hope that it encourages you to see any trials you may face as an opportunity to overcome and gain beautiful stripes.

5 years ago, my then fiance who loves the outdoors and has his own landscaping company told me that I needed to get a hobby so that I could enjoy the sun and fresh air like he did daily. During this time I was battling serious bouts of anxiety and depression, so finding something that I was passionate about that could get me out of the house wasn’t a bad idea. Little did we know that I was about to get more than a hobby or a passion, I was headed toward a full-blown obsession! 

  It was that same summer a friend of mine who grew up doing something I always dreamed of doing reached out to me to invite me to join him and his partner on a trail ride. My first answer was “absolutely not,” to be honest, I was afraid. It wasn't until I had a moment to reconsider my first encounter with a horse that I changed my mind. It had been so long ago that I had forgotten how much I wanted to have a horse of my own. You could imagine the reservations of someone who had spent the latter part of her life only encountering horses in parades and seeing the occasional horse-drawn carriage in Downtown Memphis. My first ride did not take place that weekend with Sadie at Shelby Farms but in fact, it took place years before at my AAU basketball coach’s home.

It was a tradition for us to have an end-of-season slumber party and this year it would be at their home in Unincorporated TN. The drive was almost as memorable as the party itself. As we drove down the rural roads that had fields and crops for miles, my mother fumbled with the now ancient road map in the time before Google. I began to get nervous. As a city girl, I’d never seen so much land, there were no street lights, no business, just land. The roads were winding and narrow, we came to what was supposed to be the house of my coach but there was only a mailbox in view. We began the 3-minute journey down the tree-lined driveway, the end of the drive revealed a beautiful home with a white fence, a barn, and three horses. I was in awe… I’d never seen anything like it. While there, my coach gave us all pony rides on one of the horses. At that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted that year for Christmas. 

Even at such a young age, I knew that horses weren’t cheap, so it was a good thing I’d informed my parents of my Christmas request in August, giving “Santa” more than enough time to work his magic. Now in hindsight, I probably should have asked for horseback riding lessons instead of an actual horse, because living in the city I’m sure my parents were considering boarding and all the other expenses that come with horse ownership. My parents let me down gently by reminding me of all the other competitive sports I was already involved in. As time passed my interest in horses soon dwindled to an appreciation of the majestic animals. 

It's funny how as adults we so easily forget things that were once so important to us as children. That is exactly what I was thinking that summer on the trail ride with my friends. On that ride, my fear soon turned to laughter thanks to the trail horse “Sweet” Sadie. I’d go on to find out that she was a retired barrel racing horse, who had speed, but no desire to go fast towards anything except a bucket of feed. I learned a lot on that first ride, from the trail guides as well as other customers. I also learned from Sadie that horses choose to listen to their riders, made evident by the many trees that I attempted to steer around, but instead walked right through because Sadie wanted a quick snack. By the time we finished the ride and returned to the barn my feeling of fear had gone from fun to a great sense of accomplishment. I got home from the ride and could not wait to share what I did that day with my fiance. I spent the latter part of the evening replaying in my mind the ride I had that day with “Sweet” Sadie. 

Coincidentally, we lived at the time less than 5 minutes away from the barn. I passed the pastures daily. The next day as I was headed home from running errands I found myself turning back into the park and pulling back up to the barn. I was greeted at the window by Blair, one of the guides who took me on the trail ride the day before. Blair was an outspoken hard-working horse-lover, who would go on to become one of my closest friends. I was ecstatic to learn that she was one of the instructors for their private lessons and that her lesson for the day had been canceled. Before I knew it I'd signed up for private lessons and was headed to Target to buy boots to ride in. 

My first lesson was a success. When I finally made it home from the errands that I left to run that morning my husband was surprised to see me in rain boots covered in dust from head to toe with a huge smile on my face. It had only been about a month since he told me that I needed to find a hobby. He’d seen the look I had on my face many times before so he knew that lesson would be the first of many. After taking lessons for a year with Blair I began volunteering at the barn. I was still a novice rider so I helped with the barn chores and when I was lucky I got to tag along in the back of the trail rides. I found myself going to the barn whenever I had free time. Sometimes I’d go multiple times a day! I continued my lessons and though I was progressing, there was one thing I just couldn’t master. I had walked down and I even had sitting and rising trot mastered. However, sitting a lope simply availed me. I’d gone through three different instructors, by the end of that year, one English Show Jumper, one barrel racer, and one self-taught rider. They’d all tried to teach me how to sit in a lope and explained that it was a feeling and once I caught the movement, I’d have it down. Well, remember the barrel racer I just mentioned, he had the best seat I’ve ever seen, he made riding a lope look as simple as inhaling fresh air. To help me find the “feeling” he told me to lean back like I was in a recliner, hold the horn and ride it out until I could find the “feeling.” Needless to say, I still couldn’t find my seat, however, I did find a really bad habit of always holding the horn. Aside from this minor setback, I was able to do all of the other basics, so the time had come for me to be a lead trail guide. I reveled in being able to accompany people as they encountered these magnificent creatures, some for the first time and some as a revival of an old love. 


My 1st Trail Ride with Sadie

Stripe 1

The more I volunteered at the barn the more I longed for a horse of my own. Little did I know, finding a horse to partner with is much easier said than done. Cinderella or Cindy for short helped me learn this fact the hard way. Cindy was a beautiful palomino Haflinger, with a beautiful long mane and tail. I was so obsessed with her. She’d been purchased as a lesson horse for the barn. There was only one little problem that the sellers forgot or neglected to tell us. Cindy was not a fan of horseflies, at all. If one even landed on her she would freak out and bolt or buck. Me being the naive newly self-proclaimed equestrian thought it would be a good idea to have Cindy be my main horse to take on trail rides as I continued to learn the ropes as a lead guide. I’d soon live to regret that idea. 

One evening while taking out a private evening ride, a horsefly landed on Cindy’s butt as they naturally do in July, and I got to experience my first rodeo. I mean I’d attended Bill Picket’s Rodeo, but I had only ever been a spectator, I was living the action this time. My heart stopped, we were at the top of a steep hill that was muddy from the rain earlier that day, and all I could think of was her bucking and taking one wrong step and us going tumbling down the hill head first. I managed to ride it out but hopped off at the first chance I got. To say as a new rider I was shaken would be an understatement. Luckily there was another guide on the ride to finish the trails with the cute couple. I didn’t want to ruin the couple's ride, so I did not continue with the group. I also did not get back on Cindy! Yes… I walked back to the barn on foot, working hard to not be seen by the ride, but also to beat them back, so that I could help close out the day. Not an easy feat as horseflies do in July kept biting Cindy, who kept trying to bolt and buck! Before you even think it, yes she had both fly spray and swat all over her.

On the walk back, as I reflected on my choices, I’d made up my mind that I’d never ride Cindy again. Little did I know, my barn friends were not going to let that happen. I’d become fast friends with one of the veteran volunteers that I nicknamed LoLo. We both lived at the barn, she was ecstatic about my love for horses and was determined to get me back on Cindy. As we usually did, we made plans to ride after work, to my surprise I arrived at the barn to find Cindy was the horse that had been left up for me to ride that night. Against my better judgment, I gave in to the peer pressure. I talked myself into it because, if I started to feel uncomfortable I could just hop off and walk back again… Right? While on the ride, I was getting increasingly uneasy, but managed to stay calm enough to keep going. I refused however to go deep into the woods to avoid the horseflies. My plan was working, there had been no major problems, and I was finally starting to breathe and focus on what was about to be a beautiful sunset. As we started back toward the barn, it began getting dark fast. We were almost back, but we had to close the gate. As Cindy and I waited, LoLo attempted to close the gate without getting off of her horse, nothing that we hadn’t done before. Only this time, I was on Cindy, who I now know is not only not a fan of horse flies, but she is also hugely opposed to plastic bags. Cindy was becoming increasingly antsy as we waited. I wanted to get off, cause I could just hop off and walk back again… Right? LoLo assured me that she’d get the gate shut on her fifth try. I tried turning Cindy in small circles a few times to keep her feet moving as we waited, but after the 6th failed attempt at closing the gate, the sun was now almost completely gone and Cindy was over waiting. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. That was it, I had been brave enough for one day. It was time to hop off and just walk the rest of the way back. I could see the barn now, so yeah my mission was accomplished and I’d survived. I got Cindy to stop, I took a deep breath and took my right foot out of the stirrup. But before I could “hop off” as I so brilliantly planned to do, the dreaded plastic bag that I just mentioned decided to attack “poor” Cindy. Just like that, we were off to the races, only Cindy was no thoroughbred, and I was no jockey. Cindy was a strong Haflinger and I was a novice rider, who couldn't sit a lope with both stirrups let alone with only one! I tried to do “nose to toes”, but anybody who knows horses knows how strong Haflinger is. At that moment I had two choices, continue to try to ride it out, which I didn’t know how to do, or let Jesus take the “hypothetical” wheel and bale. At that time I’d only been riding for about a year, but I’d known Jesus since I was 7. So, I decided to do as I've done a hundred times before, “Let Go and Let God”. As I tried to remember not to tense up as I went barreling toward the ground, I remember briefly thanking God for having on a helmet, then instantly feeling the sting of the gravel as I tumbled to a stop. The first deep breath I managed was followed by what I can only describe as a “wale.” I was in a full-blown panic attack because I wasn’t hurt, but I was so overwhelmed by how badly that could have ended that panic was the only emotion I could obtain at that moment.     


Before My Last Ride on Cinderella

I’d started riding horses to help me overcome my anxiety and depression and they were starting to be just that, but Ms. Cindy had just caused a major setback. After having two very scary experiences with Cindy riding had become a new stimulus for my anxiety. Every ride ended with me walking back on foot and in a full-blown panic attack. Overcoming my anxiety would prove to be one of the hardest things I’d ever do. I refused to let it take me away from my new love. For over a year I spent my time at the barn doing pretty much everything with the horses except riding. My barn family was so patient with me. They still included me in everything, and while giving up on horses was never an option I had considered being around them and not riding. But that was not helping my depression, and riding during that time wasn’t helping my anxiety. I was stuck in limbo. I was advised by one of the girls at the barn to try taking English lessons at a barn that specializes in equine therapy to work on getting my confidence back and overcoming my riding anxiety. I took her advice and started taking lessons that winter when things had slowed down at the barn. I spent most of the time in my lessons in tears being ponied around on a horse named RED. He was a sweet, gentle old man, but he was a grumpy grouch in the crossties, which did nothing to help ease my anxiety. I’d become positive that any sign of attitude meant the horse was going to buck or bolt with me. No matter how much I tried to tell myself how irrational I was being, and that these horses that were used for literal therapy wouldn't do anything to harm me, I just couldn’t shake it. I took about five lessons there before I was too ashamed to ever return. I mean there was a 6-year-old cantering around jumping over cross rails while I sometimes was too scared to even throw my leg over the horse. 

That winter passed quickly and it was time to add to the herd at the barn in preparation for the busy spring and summer months. We were getting new horses almost every week. By the time Spring break had rolled around, we had a new palomino, two paints, two appaloosas, several quarter horses, and that wasn’t including the horses from the Arkansas Prison Auction. They were all beautiful, and all had finished training and were in the lineup for customers in no time. I spent that Spring and Summer helping out around the barn with chores but still wasn’t back in the saddle. This was my first Spring at the barn so I got to encounter the barn’s weekly polo matches. I loved watching and helping wrangle the ball when it went out of bounds. While I loved being at the barn to work with the horses, I was beginning to get a bit envious of my barn friends and how effortlessly they could ride and be carefree doing what they loved. Why couldn’t I just snap out of it? Cindy had gone to her new home to work as a cattle horse, and all subsequent rides had been uneventful on the horses’ part. I was riding horses at the barn that were safe for first-time riders and children but still couldn’t shake my feelings of imminent dread and panic attacks.

That summer went by so fast, maybe because the summers were filled with camps and pony parties that it all just became a blur. It was now the time to thin the herd for winter, each year the horses who were found to require retirement, or who proved to be unable to handle the Memphis summer heat were sold to new loving homes. My friend LoLo was the resident saleswoman, I mean she could sell sand at the beach. As she worked to rehome each horse, she approached me about an idea she’d been pondering over, but was unsure of how much faith I’d have in her after the Cinderella debacle. She suggested I give the old blue-eyed paint, who was a retired ranch horse from Colorado a try. I wasn’t very hopeful, but after a year of trying everything I could, I had nothing to lose. This time I had the owner’s girlfriend give him a ride in the arena, I wasn’t making the same mistake twice. He did everything she asked, the first time she asked so I figured it was worth a try. 

I saddled him up, grabbed a helmet, and said a silent prayer before throwing my leg over the saddle. As we began our ride down the lane toward the trails, me on the old ranch horse and three of my friends on their horses for moral support, I focused on my breathing working hard to keep the panic attack I felt looming at bay. With a sigh of relief, we’d made it… to the top of the hill from the barn. The girls were talking to try and keep my mind off of my nerves, but I could only focus on what each step meant, would he trip, would he buck or bolt, I was looking around at every possible thing that could cause an “issue”, would there be another plastic bag, a horsefly or a deer popping up out of the trees? No, no it was going to be… a plastic water bottle. This was not a drill, in my mind I thought, okay pull back say whoa, and get off, this isn’t going to end well. My friends insisted I see it through. They assured me everything was going to be fine. In my extreme focus on trying to steer around the bottle and avoid it completely, I inadvertently steered him right to it. As he stepped down my heart stopped as the bottle crinkled under his hoof, I dug my heels down, shortened my reins, and grabbed the horn for dear life. I even closed my eyes in preparation for what was to come next, but to my surprise, the old man kept right on down the hill not phased at all, not even by my tense hands and legs and my anxiety that I'm sure he could sense. When I opened my eyes my friends were laughing and so was I. It was the first time I’d smiled on a horse in over a year. That ride was the first of many that I’d take on My Blue Eyed Old Man. I’d bought my first horse and he was worth his weight in gold, in no time Skip helped me regain my confidence. I was taking out trail rides alone, going out on solo rides to open and close gates, riding bareback and I’d even finally found my seat in the lope! Everything was going so well, we were forming the perfect partnership. I was learning to cope with my anxiety and my depression was now being managed with daily vitamin D and exercise. 


First Ride on Skip

Stripe 2

The months continued to fly by and the cold weather of February was not enough to stop me from going to the barn every day after work to see my handsome old man. That Wednesday had started like all the rest, my school was having its end-of-quarter awards program, so I was all dressed up. The program was a success and it was my day to cover cafeteria duty, but midway through the second lunch, I started not to feel so well. I sat down for a moment to try and pull myself together. I had a second wind so I stood to begin lunch dismissal. As the teachers began to take out their scholars, I reached for the 6th-grade math teacher, but before I could say anything, I was out cold. I tried to come to, I could hear the commotion around me but couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes. The school nurse tried testing my vitals but when I told her the year was 1992, she gave the word to call 911. I did not want the hefty ambulance bill, so I tried even harder to pull myself together.The EMTs were there in what seemed like seconds, I had managed to open my eyes, they sat me up in a chair and I gave my best ‘I’m okay” impression. That didn’t last long because before I knew it I was out cold again. They loaded me onto the stretcher and wheeled me out to the ambulance. I was in such rough condition that once I arrived at the ER I went straight to triage and bypassed the waiting room. They loaded me up with IV fluids and I waited to see the doctor. I was in and out of consciousness for a while until about the third bag of fluids. My now husband and mother were there and we continued to wait on the doctor, but he never came. Instead, the nurse came to tell me that I was being admitted and I’d be moved to a room shortly. We were all in shock, besides I was kinda feeling a bit better. I tried bargaining with the nurse seeing if I could go home and just come back the next day. “Absolutely not,” she said as she flipped through my labs on her clipboard. You see, my blood work had shown that my Hemoglobin was 4. Just for context, normal hemoglobin for a woman is between 12 and 15. I was at risk of having my heart stop. So of course with this new insight, I complied and stayed. We finally saw the doctor early the next morning. He came in and asked me three very strange questions. Do you like to eat ice? My husband beat me to the answer “Yes, she eats a Sonic cup of ice every day." As he scribbled down on his notes he asked, “Do you have abnormally heavy bleeding during your periods?” I took a second and answered, “not really.” “How often do you change on your heaviest day of flow?” My answer amazed him. I was going through almost two boxes of ultra-flow tampons and overnight pads in seven days. He looked at me over his glasses and said “You have uterine fibroids.” I knew exactly what those were because both my mother and grandmother had undergone hysterectomies because of them. The difference was I was not in my 40s and I still wanted to have children. It turns out, that I had 12 of them, ranging in size from grapefruits to large grapes, there were two of each size. My uterus was measuring at a 17-week pregnancy and so of course they had to come out. 

I had to have two blood transfusions before I could go home from the hospital. They immediately started me on birth control to help slow the bleeding until I could have my procedure. This was just great, I’d finally overcome my fear of riding and now I was about to be unable to ride for 10 weeks. Those were the longest weeks of my life. My husband could see that I was getting cabin fever, so he snuck me out of the house when my mom was away and took me to the barn to see Skip. It was just what I needed. I spent most of my time during recovery watching horseback riding youtube videos. I was worried I’d lost everything I’d learned, I was so unsure of myself. I had to learn to do everything again. My core muscles were mush and my leg muscles were none existent. I couldn’t waste more time, I wanted to get my riding mojo back fast, so I bought a Groupon for an English Showjumping Barn. I’d watched enough youtube videos of riders cantering around with no stirrups and no hands to know that this was just what I needed to kick start my return to riding. That was the best $60 I ever spent. The owner of Southwind Stables was about to be my new instructor, and Emma was about to help me take my riding to the next level. She pushes me to new limits literally, there were times my legs would just stop working and I loved every second of the burn. She took me back to the basics, I started developing muscles I didn't ever use before. I was so excited about the progress I was making with Emma that I started taking lessons twice a week. I grew so much as a rider. Before I knew it a year had gone by and little did I know that I was about to earn another stripe. ​​


First Full course at the cantor on Nike

Stripe 3

There is something about life that likes to throw curveballs when you finally figure out how to manage the fast ones. One month before my 36th birthday, I started feeling faint at work. I’d eaten breakfast and hadn't done anything out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, I called my mom to take me to my primary care physician. I knew something was wrong when I saw my doctor come into the room instead of the nurse practitioner. My blood pressure was 80 over 50, we had no idea why. They loaded me up with H2O packets and told me to drink lots of fluids and take it easy until I could get in to see my hematologist. When I got in to see my doctor one week later my hemoglobin was down to 10.2, and while I was constantly on the verge of passing out and in jeopardy of my blood pressure bottoming out I had to wait until my hemoglobin dropped lower for the $10,000 Iron infusions to be covered by insurance. We had to aggressively monitor my levels so, I scheduled a follow-up appointment for two weeks later. Sure enough at my follow-up, my hemoglobin was down to 8.6. In just two weeks, I noticed that I'd started craving ice again and I was sleeping with my heated blanket every night, and the most telling thing was that I hadn’t been going to the barn. I just had no energy and couldn’t risk riding while I was feeling so ill. I couldn’t wait to get my infusions, I knew the benefit of them, and that they would help get me back to the barn. I had to do two iron infusion sessions to get the needed amount to get my levels back up. I arrived at my appointment to see a few familiar faces. I’d been trying my best to hydrate before my appointment because I was no stranger to how hard my veins were to stick when I was dehydrated. When I arrived my stats were taken again, my BP was still low and as a result, I had to be stuck over 6 times by three different nurses to get a vein. They just kept blowing, but there was finally a strong enough vein and I was halfway through the infusion when my vein blew again. They spent 30 minutes trying to find a new vein, they even questioned whether I needed a PICC line since they feared I’d have the same issue when I’d return for my second session in two weeks.

As they were debating, I was tossing back Electrolyte water and apple juice, and praying that they wouldn’t have to take that route. They worked so long trying to find my vein, that it was time for a shift change, and lucky for me because one of the new nurses had spent 15 years working on the neonatal floor. She assured me that she’d be able to find a working vein for me and that she did. The next session was the week of my birthday. This time my blood pressure was normal and my hemoglobin was back up to a 10, I was one infusion away from a normal rating. I was well hydrated and the neonatal nurse was there to start my IV. She found a good strong vein and my infusion took half the time of the first one without all of the hiccups. I was curled up with my warm blanket and my AirPods ready to nap for the last 20 minutes while I finished up. Only, I started getting short of breath, I shrugged it off and tried to drift into sleep, but my chest began feeling like I had lightning radiating through my lungs every time I tried to inhale. I wanted it to pass, but when it didn’t I called for the nurse, and before I knew it I was surrounded by all of the nursing staff. One giving oxygen, another taking my blood pressure, and another calling my husband. He was unable to sit with me due to covid protocols. Turns out I was the 1 in 1000 who had the side effect of muscle spasms that affected my heart and lungs. It caused me to be hypotensive and experience respiratory distress. They flushed my system with Saline to help the spasms pass. Luckily I was more alert by the time my husband arrived and was able to go home. While I was now on track to getting my hemoglobin back up, we still didn’t know why.

It had been less than two years since my myomectomy, so we never imagined that the fibroids could be back, well I was wrong. After several visits to the doctor and countless tests, I finally got my answer. This time there was only one. It was much smaller than the largest one from the last time, it currently measures 4.25cms. We thought that was good news. The problem is, that it is in my uterus and even at 1cm would have to be removed. In the past year, my husband and I have seen numerous specialists for fertility, and I’ve had countless tests run to help identify why we had been unable to conceive. This one fibroid is causing more trouble than the other 12. I am well on my way to earning my next stripe as my husband and I embark on our journey to start a family. Every time someone asks me what my husband and I are waiting on to start a family I am reminded of the journey we still have ahead as well as what we’ve already overcome. I know people don’t mean any harm, but now that our government has made a women’s womb everybody's business but their own, this journey has become more treacherous and unpredictable. I am so glad to have my herd to help see me through this journey.

When Forest asked me to join the Herd and share my story in a blog I was so excited. Of course, I could write a blog, I was an English major, and being a writer is actually what I wanted to do after college. I had no idea the mental and emotional preparation I’d need to tell the story of how I acquired some of my many stripes would take. I am so grateful for Forest and the grace she’s shown as the delivery of my blog dragged on. I am also grateful for the benefits of me taking time to reflect on my past and be reminded that there is life on the other side of our trials that is beautiful and our added appreciation for that beauty is only present due to the peaks and valleys on the trail we took to get there.

I was 30 when I finally found my passion, I was 33 when my Heart Horse found me, 34 when my body tried to give up on me, and 36 when I decided to share my story of how I earned my stripes. Life gave me my stripes, but horses gave me the courage to wear them with honor and the opportunity to share my story. As an equestrian and a woman of color being able to share more stories with others has reminded me of how far I’ve come.