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London Gladney has Talent – and Will -to Become First Black Barrel Racing NFR Champion

By: Keith Ryan Cartight

London Gladney was only 12 when she found the big grey horse. The moment she saw him on the Internet, she knew he was the horse she was looking for.

Gladney messaged the owner asking for a video and another photograph. Then she wanted pictures of his legs. She even asked if she could see his feet. She was definitely interested, but only if she could see a video clip of him trotting.

Neither of her parents, Shavon Jones and Dihigi Gladney, were involved at this point.

It was all her.

By the time Jones talked with the owner, he said, “You have a special girl on your hands. This girl knows what she wants, and she knows what she’s looking at.”

Indeed.

Her dad – a world-class jockey and thoroughbred horse trainer – taught her well.

Like father, like daughter. Her understanding of horses has been something of an inherent birthright. London has been around horses since the day her mother left the hospital with her third-born child and first daughter.

And like her dad, when in the saddle, she knows how to go fast.

“Her dad is very knowledgeable, and he has taught her,” Jones said. “Without him, I don’t know what we would do. He is very smart when it comes to these horses, and I’m glad that London is learning.”

Dihigi Gladney was born in 1975 and spent almost every day of his childhood with his grandfather, John Davis, at the famous El Fig Stables in Los Angeles.

He grew up idolizing Charlie Sampson and was only seven years old when Sampson became the first African American to win a PRCA world title. Like Sampson, Dihigi was an undersized bull rider with a big personality.

When he was not working at the stables, where he learned caring for horses was an all-day, every-day responsibility, Dihigi rode steers and eventually bulls, but he would eventually spend more time at the racetrack than in the rodeo arena.

As a professional jockey, Dihigi amassed more than 300 career wins. Beyond that, he’s perhaps best known throughout the thoroughbred community as the former exercise trainer for Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome.

Chrome was big and strong and ornery.

Fans were certainly enamored with the horse, but his previous trainers had all been intimidated to work with him, much less ride Chrome every day—sometimes twice a day. Truth be told, around the stables, that damn horse had a reputation for being a hard-to-handle, hardnosed sonofabitch.

But not for Dihigi.

As a former bull rider, he was unfazed.

Nowadays, Dihigi divides his time between training other horses at a stable outside of San Diego and back up in Los Angeles, working on developing London as a barrel racer and teaching her everything he knows about horses.

Her passion for all things related to horses was evident from day one.

Within days of her birth on May 18, 2007, Dihigi was cradling London in his lap while sitting on the back of a horse. Now 13, she has no memory of not being able to ride ponies and even full-sized horses on her own. In fact, she was 6 or 7 when her dad began teaching her the basics—how to post, how to stand up, and learning how to ride.

As a baby, she would cry if her mom did not let her see the horses up close when they would drop her older brother off at the stable to work with Dihigi. As a toddler, she would cry even more if they did not let her sit up on one of the horses.

“I felt relaxed with horses,” London said.

Before long, London wanted to ride by herself, but initially her dad said she wasn’t ready. Whenever she sat in the saddle with him, he never believed she was focused enough. As a matter of fact, both her parents thought London was too busy watching and listening to what other people were doing.

Dihigi did not hesitate to get after her.

If he wasn’t chirping “stop being so nosey,” he would be telling her to “pay attention to what you’re doing, or you’re not going to ride.”

“Those tears would be just coming down her face,” recalled Jones, whose daughter does not cry about anything else. But tell her she cannot ride and, well, London is going to shed some tears.

That said, she learned how to ride and care for a horse on her own before she knew how to even ride a bicycle. By the time she started grade school, London was not just riding on her own—she loved the adrenaline of going fast. Really fast.

She started racing on a mare named Fantasia.

“Sometimes she would just take off really fast,” said London, who was quickly drawn to the thrill of winning. “I (would) just check her every now and then and tell her, ‘Hey, you’re going too fast (for me). You need to slow down.”

That was another early lesson.

Her dad, Dihigi, obviously knows more about horses — namely fast horses — than most other parents with their daughters entered in barrel races, but he never put his daughter on a horse she was not skilled enough and capable of handling.

They followed up Fantasia with a pony named Asia, and then came Big Red. She was in fifth grade the first time she ran barrels with Big Red. They’re still running together today, while London, now 13, works on developing a rapport with Chrome, the grey horse she found online before the pandemic.

Chrome’s legal documents refer to him as “Dutch a New Express.” He was coincidentally renamed Chrome by his previous owner in Tennessee, though Dihigi thinks it was too much of a coincidence and that it was part of the sales pitch.

Anyway, London’s big grey horse is powerful and, truthfully, sometimes she feels as though he’s trying to take over, so her dad has them doing a lot of work together in which London is on the ground and they’re walking together. It’s slow, but they’re bonding.

In the meantime, London has already amassed a wall full of trophies and ribbons and a resume littered with an impressive list of accomplishments.

In 2017 and again in 2018, London was a pole and barrel state finalist in the California High School Rodeo Association. She qualified for the barrels two more times in 2019 and 2020, and in ’19 was the reserve barrel champion. That same year, she won the second round of the Junior World Finals. Last year, in 2020, she was a junior barrel qualifier for the Vegas Tuffest Rodeo and the junior barrel champion at the California Junior Rodeo Association.

“I’m really competitive like my dad,” said London, which is not surprising for a girl who ran barrels alongside women at her first-ever event that happened to be a Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Los Angeles.

“Ever since I’ve been able to ride on my own, my dad’s always put me in the open, which is any age,” she said. “And sometimes I’ll run in the youth, but he wants me to run in the open to see where I can place with all the older people.”

Ultimately, her dad is pushing her to reach her own expectations.

“It’s crazy because him and London, they are identical, but London don’t talk as much as him,” Jones said. “She’s not shy, but she thinks about what she’s going to say. Dihigi just talks, and it all just rolls off his tongue.

“They speak their mind.”

Whether she has a good run or not, Jones will post all of London’s video clips on her Facebook page. Viewers can usually hear fellow spectators cackling as Dihigi yells the entire time.

In a recent video, London hit a couple of poles back-to-back, and Dihigi, who does cheer for London and all the other young barrel racers, can be heard yelling, “Go ahead and knock ‘em all down while out there.” London heard him, and when she got back to the trailer, she shook her head and rolled her eyes at him.

“They know he’s not serious. That’s just him, and they think it’s funny,” said Jones, who added, “But don’t let London fool you. She got that crazy side, too.”

London will not even be a freshman in high school until this coming fall.

But her long-term goals are to win a national championship in college — she is already looking at schools in Arizona and Texas — and to become the first Black female to win a gold buckle at the National Finals Rodeo.

“As an African American, that is a really big deal to make it to the NFR,” said London, who is well aware no one of color has even qualified for the barrel racing, much less won a world championship in the discipline. “It would be a really, really exciting accomplishment for my community and for my parents and family.”

That last part of that statement —her awareness of the historical significance of a goal she’s had ever since she started running barrels — says more about London as a person than her success on the back of a horse.

London understands there is a much bigger picture than her own trophy case.

That maturity — she turns 14 in May — comes from both parents.

Her dad taught her everything when it comes to horses, while her mom has taught her how to be a young professional cowgirl.

When they arrive at a rodeo, London spends upwards of 90 percent of her time at their trailer taking care of her horses, said Jones. In that regard, London is noticeably more responsible than most girls her own age and, in large part, it’s why she is capable of competing alongside women twice her age or older.

“We (are) not here to play,” said Jones, who looks forward to seeing London enter some upcoming Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeos once COVID-19 restrictions allow for the events to be scheduled. “We (are) here to take care of business, and that’s to rodeo.”

When she’s back home in Ontario — located 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles — London rides every day.

Her mom is with her every day, while Dihigi is with her part of the time. When he’s gone, he leaves her instructions regarding how much time to spend on each of the horses they have at the stable.

London can hear him, even when he’s not there: “You need to ride this horse. You need to ride that horse. You need to start riding different horses that have different feelings. That way, you’re not used to just one horse.”

After school, she’s there a minimum of two hours and, in the summertime, she will spend 12 to 15 hours with her dad. She does not spend the entire time riding. She has a complete understanding of what goes into caring for a horse, from cleaning stalls to grooming and feeding them — and, as Jones points out, how to be a responsible horse owner.

London is clearly experienced beyond her years, and it is not just her parents saying it.

Others have recognized her maturity as well as her vast potential.

“A lot of them are not Black people that say it,” said Jones of the compliments London receives at rodeos as well as online through social media. “It makes me feel really good because it is noticeable. It’s noticeable to a lot of people, and they see that she’s capable of doing what her ultimate goal is.”

That ultimate goal is ambitious – winning a college championship and historic NFR gold.

But success in this sport is as much in the head and the heart, and if this talented, determined and mature young athlete stays the course, there doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of accomplishing.

Keith Ryan Cartwright, a former editorial director and senior writer for PBR.com, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West,” which will be released wherever books are sold Nov. 1. Cartwright is contributing an ongoing series featuring Black cowboys and cowgirls throughout the 2021 season.

In addition to this contribution to our Women’s History Month focus, PBR is planning a one-hour panel discussion showcasing key women who help to make the sport possible and allowing them to share their incredible stories. The free-to-attend panel is scheduled for March 30 at 8 p.m. ET. You can go here to register: PBR.com/panel

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