It's rare to find African-Americans in the rodeo world, but Khalilah Smith has always been one for bucking the odds.
Khalilah Smith talks to horses and they talk back – in a way. It’s a conversation without words, a subtle exchange that can easily be felt and seen. When she’s in a bad mood, Smith’s horse, Blue, pushes her around a bit in an effort to cheer her up. It usually works. “It kinda brings you out of that mood,” Smith, 20, says. “If they can feel that something’s wrong, maybe I need to change something. Sometimes you won’t even know something’s wrong until you get pushed around by a horse – and then you start laughing, and you feel yourself get calm.”
It was a love of horses that brought a girl from the west side of Detroit diagnosed with ADHD – at age 10 – some peace of mind and something to aim for. That girl ended up winning the 2018 Spartan Stampede Rodeo up in Lansing this February, making her MSU’s first black Miss Michigan State Rodeo Queen. “I loved that even though I am not the typical ‘rodeo queen,’ I’m not looked at any differently by my peers or other people I come in contact with while I’m in my crown,” Smith says. “I’m just another rodeo queen to them. It’s such a warm feeling to know that I’m changing the sport I love. In a good way.”
Smith’s not just a little bit country – she’s all country, on the inside, at least. She comes from a Southern family, hailing from Alabama. Although Smith and her mother lived in Detroit, they both frequently went back to Alabama, a world where her great-grandmother had chickens, a place where she was “always around farm animals.” One day, a friend of her mother’s invited them to see a horse she owned at Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center in Detroit at Rouge Park and she was utterly committed – she wanted a window seat into those equine enclaves. They started her out cleaning up after the horses, brushing them, just as a volunteer to see if she could take care of them. “I did that for a year and a half – I stuck with it, they were kind of like, ‘OK.’” And she was off.
It wasn’t as if riding horses was anathema to her personal experience. “I’ve always been the tomboy. I didn’t like painted fingernails. My hair didn’t have to be done – I literally went natural. I like my hair all over the place! Now that I’m older, I can put on a dress for an event.” Still, she’d rather wear boots with spurs and a cowgirl hat. As for her ADHD, “Mom basically tried to find anything and everything to get that energy out – boxing, karate, basketball.” She even played football with her brother for a while, she notes. All of that, it turned out, was background noise. “The only thing that actually kept my interest was horses,” Smith says. “It brought my energy down and actually gave me something to look forward to.”
ON TO MICHIGAN STATE
After graduating from Belleville High she enrolled at Michigan State, focused on an animal science/pre-veterinary major in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. There, she also joined the MSU Rodeo Club and has been a member since her freshman year. Smith’s love of horses has expanded to include other animals, so her ultimate goal is to become a wildlife vet. She has plans to complete veterinarian college – and loves outdoor scientific activity.
“Last year, I did an internship with Kellogg Biological Station in Battle Creek, and I worked at a micro bio lab looking at soils,” Smith says. “I don’t want to be a scientist indoors – I like the outdoor feel. This summer, I got invited to do an internship with the DNR, I’m working on policies within the archery program, (teaching children) how to shoot a bow and arrow.” Smith claiming the title of Miss Michigan State Rodeo Queen came as a surprise to those who knew her as a shy person. “I kinda stayed in my shell,” she says, “but I ran for the title last year to see what it was about – that’s when I literally shocked everyone, to say I was running for a pageant.”
In the competition, she delivered a speech, modeled and, of course, showed off her horsemanship, all while sporting an on-point Western look. “It just wasn’t my style,” says Smith of the skirt-and-makeup business. “I just went along with it. … That’s what I learned: It’s OK to be uncomfortable.” Hearing her name announced as the winner that day felt unreal. “It really didn’t hit me till 2 a.m. – and I cried,” Smith recalls. “The emotions can’t be put into words.”
‘A PLACE YOU LOVE'
During the remainder of the rodeo season, Smith will take on a variety of queenly “duties” – she plans to speak and organize rodeo demos at a few Detroit schools, to start. With school, internships, riding and training also keeping her busy, Smith sees all her accomplishments as part of a larger picture. It’s about the resilience of being a Detroiter. “Even though stuff knocks you down, we don’t take no for answer,” she says. “Another thing is family – I have a huge support system, blood and not blood. I’m trying to empower young black women in Detroit, young black women around Michigan, period. A huge portion of that is support.”
Smith admits that, “especially up north,” there are few black people, “let alone black females who ride horses” – and this goes back to her originality. To be a pioneering black person in a certain field, a key, Smith notes, is going in the opposite direction of a crowd, if you’re so inclined. “Just get out there and do something different – don’t try to follow what everyone else is doing – do what makes you happy,” Smith says. “When you go out to find that job you want or career, it won’t feel like a job. It’ll be like you’re going to a place you love.”