KK Brinson, a Black Cowgirl from Oakland, Gets Ready for Her Comeback

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KK Brinson poses for a portrait with one of her horses, Kairo, after participating in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley, CA. It was Kairo's first rodeo and Brinson worked with him every week to prepare. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

KK Brinson was just nine years old when she rode her first horse. “I was just a girl that rode, and was a trail rider that would go down to the beach all the time in Daly City, California and, you know, just ride her horse recklessly,” Brinson says with a laugh, “but it taught me well.”

After that first ride—and thanks to her grandmother, who nurtured her passion—Brinson never looked back. Today, she’s a barrel racer who has won various competitions throughout Northern California. (Barrel racing, on a professional level, is an all-women rodeo event in which cowgirls have to race around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. The fastest rider wins.)

Last weekend on July 9 and 10, Brinson competed at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR). William “Bill” Pickett was born in 1870 in Taylor, Texas. He invented the specialty rodeo event “bulldogging,” also known as steer wrestling, and is one of the most well known Black cowboys in American history. The touring event named in his honor celebrates Black cowboy culture around the country.

Participating in another BPIR feels like a homecoming for Brinson, making it even more important to “show up and show out.”

“When I was 13, that was the first rodeo I ever started with. That was the first rodeo I’ve ever seen. That was the first rodeo that I was ever welcome to,” Brinson says.

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Excitement filled the air at Rowell Ranch Rodeo in Castro Valley this Sunday, where the BPIR made its 38th return to the Bay Area. After a two-year absence due to the pandemic, this year’s show just so happens to coincide with what Brinson considers her comeback year.

“As far as my comeback year, it’s just like, I’ve done bad in the past and I think this time I have a good chance of winning some money, at least, you know,” Brinson says. “So it’s like, I want to come back for myself. I don’t want to do it for show or for everybody else to prove a point.”

For Brinson, making a comeback is a lot deeper than just winning a barrel racing competition. Building deep bonds with her horses and working with them every day is what matters. Her goal is to turn her two green horses into finished ones who’ve completed their training and are ready to compete. Taking Kairo, a 12-year-old Sorrel American Quarter horse, to actually race for the first time at a rodeo is a win as far as she’s concerned.

KK Brinson runs drills with Kairo on June 16, 2022 in Pleasanton. With all the moving pieces that come with being a cowgirl, Brinson manages stressful moments by giving herself a break from the ranch for a few days before returning. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

Brinson built herself and her horses from the ground up. She never really had lessons or training; it was through YouTube that she even learned about professional barrel racing.

Brinson often describes how she can be wearing a pair of Jordans in Oakland, where she lives, one day, and a pair of cowgirl boots at practice in Pleasanton the next. Balancing city life with country life. She wants this to be a reality for other young Black women.

Having such an iconic rodeo come to the Bay Area is vital because, as Brinson puts it, she’s met some Black people who haven’t been to a Black rodeo, or even a rodeo at all.

“They will take that memory and it will live in their heads all their life,” Brinson explains. “Especially if it’s your first experience.”

KK Brinson rests with Galaxii inbetween practice on June 16, 2022 in Pleasanton. Brinson got Galaxii as a fresh horse with no rodeo training. "He was green, he was fresh. He didn't know anything, he didn't know where his feet was ... he knew his speed but he didn't know how to control it," Brinson says. She has worked with him almost daily since then with the goal of having him finished all by herself. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

It’s evident that people recognize how much time and energy she puts into perfecting her skills. On Sunday after her race, young Black children came up to Brinson for pictures, hugs and autographs. She uses her position to be a role model.

“I feel like it’s a good representation of leadership, being accountable of my doings. It’s a good representation that all Black people are not negative,” says Brinson.

Although Brinson wasn’t thrilled about her run this weekend, finishing with a time of 20.6 seconds on Sunday, she knows that she can’t always win. The important thing was getting her skills down right in unison with Kairo. She took pride in Kairo keeping her safe and doing his best.

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“My [goal], I want to say, is to become the first African American woman to be in the National Finals Rodeo,” Brinson says. “I want to at least say, ‘I did it. I conquered, let’s go get some more.’”

KK Brinson shops for some supplies on June 16, 2022 in Pleasanton. "We pay for dental work, vet bills, clothing, accessories like bits and saddles, the trailer, the truck, all that ... it's a lot, it's expensive. It's not like in your regular city budget," Brinson says. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson shops with her mom for supplies on June 16, 2022 in Pleasanton. "My mom is a single parent who raised me all my life. She's taken care of me, she's taken care of my horses," Brinson says. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson feeds Kairo on June 16, 2022 in Pleasanton. Kairo struggles with anxiety and scares easily. "But he's been improving, you know, been getting close to checks and winning. So, hard work pays off," Brinson says. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson does some maintenance on Kairo's shoes before taking him into the arena to practice on June 16, 2022 in Pleasanton. "Finishing" Kairo is one of Brinson's main goals as a cowgirl and a way for her to build up her legacy. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson rinses Kairo off after a jackpot race at the Rafter D Ranch on May 15, 2022 in Brentwood. Kairo was a healer before becoming Brinson's barrel race horse, so he was considered totally "green." (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson waits with Kairo as he hydrates after a jackpot race at the Rafter D Ranch on May 15, 2022 in Brentwood. A jackpot race, different from the rodeo barrel racing event, is a divisional event with extra added money. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson talks with one of her mentors, Sam Styles, after competing in a jackpot race on May 15, 2022 in Brentwood. Brinson started barrel racing when she was 13 years old. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson rides into the arena with the rest of the cowboys and cowgirls for the Grand Entry of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. The Oakland BPIR is the first rodeo Brinson ever attended, and she's gone back every year since. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson competes in an exhibition barrel race at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson competes in an exhibition barrel race at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. Brinson rode her horse Kairo and they finished with time of 20.6 seconds; the lower the time, the more likely a contestant will win the prize. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
As the Black National Anthem plays, a cowgirl rides around the center arena holding the Pan-African flag at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. This has been a tradition at the BPIR every year. It speaks to the rich history and endless contributions Black people have given to this country, especially within cowboy culture. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
Rodeo fans watch performances at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. BPIR is the only touring Black rodeo in the country, stopping in the East Bay for the past 38 years. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson during the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley, CA. Brinson rode her horse Kairo; it was his first rodeo. (Amaya Edwards)
KK Brinson catches up with family and friends after participating in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. They were thrilled to see her, asking for autographs, photographs and hugs.
KK Brinson poses for photos with rodeo fans and friends after the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson poses for photos with rodeo fans and friends after the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. Brinson shared that her path as a city cowgirl can get lonely sometimes. "But I do like the fact that I am kind of the face of the representation of barrel racing in the Black community, and I will always love to teach one and pass it on," Brinson says. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
KK Brinson poses for a portrait after participating in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo on Jul. 10, 2022 in Castro Valley. "That was the first rodeo I ever started with. That was the first rodeo I've ever seen. That was the first rodeo that I was ever welcome to ... So it's kind of like if you leave home and you come back to home, you know, you gotta show up and show out. Like, I have to go back to that every year," Brinson says. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)