The Kituwah Equestrian Program is revitalizing Kituwah horse culture

by Oct 21, 2023COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments


One Feather Reporter


CANTON, N.C.— Natalie Smith is the founder and director of the Kituwah Equestrian Program (KEP), a nonprofit organization for equine education rooted in Kituwah cultural values. The name “Kituwah” comes from the ancient name of the of the Cherokee mother town. The Cherokee people are AniKituwah, the people of Kituwah. Smith believes there are ancient principles held by AniKituwah that can inform the relationship between Cherokee people and their horses.

Natalie Smith with her gelding, Stanley (BROOKLYN BROWN/One Feather photos)

Smith, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was born on the Qualla Boundary where she first discovered her love of her horses. She was raised around her grandparents’ horses, and her uncle raised Appaloosas. Smith sat on her first horse when was 2-years-old.

She grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she had to get inventive in finding horses to spend time with. “I would beg to go for rides every single time I came up here. I have really great memories of doing that occasionally, but my cousins who lived here got to do it more often than me. I had horse on the brain my entire life, but we couldn’t afford access to horses in Chapel Hill,” she said. “I found horses in the woods around me. I would find horses in the woods in different people’s barns. I found a Shetland pony that was all alone. I found a whole herd of horses, and because my uncle gifted me a tap box with brushes, I was just in the barn, an eight or nine-year-old little girl, brushing these strangers’ horses with no permission whatsoever.”

Smith began her college career at East Carolina University but came home to the mountains to be with her maternal grandfather who sadly passed away. She received her Bachelor of Science in art education from Western Carolina University, locking her love of horses away for a while to pursue a career and start a family. She owned and operated Tribal Grounds for eight years, before experiencing the recession of 2008, as many small businesses did, and being forced to reexamine where her real passion lied: in her childhood dream of horses.

“Horses were like a reminder that the world can be still, the world can be peaceful, and the world can be loving. I didn’t have horses of my own, but my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, did. He had this property, where KEP is now, and he was boarding horses here in this pasture,” she said. “At the time we were dating, I was working with my uncle’s horses helping him take care of them. He was in his seventies, and he was slowing down. He had four horses, and I was living here, and I asked my boyfriend, ‘Can I put horses here?’”

Smith put two of her uncle’s horses on what is now KEP’s farm in Canton, N.C. Powder, a blind horse with a brilliant white coat, is the last living relative of the Appaloosa herd that Smith’s grandfather helped her uncle start.

KEP currently houses three horses, Powder, Juniper and Stanley, all of whom are rescue horses utilized specifically for their therapeutic value. Smith, and her founding partners including Tabitha Bradley, Donna Long, Sheila Sutton, and Beverly VanHook Shrey, founded KEP with the mission and vision of researching and implementing Kituwah horse culture.

Natalie Smith grooms her mare, Juniper.

Smith uses the philosophy of Benny Smith, a member of the Cherokee Nation, to explain what Kituwah horse culture means. “Someone shared a video with me of Benny Smith speaking about Cherokee horsemanship being a special kind of horsemanship. He said he was taught by his father in the old way that you must approach horses carefully and slowly. He spoke a principle in Cherokee language: ‘Quiet yourself’ is what the core of it was,” she said.

“Quieting yourself is to observe with a cautious approach. He said it’s the same thing you do with human beings. He was taught the Cherokee way of being a horseman, and that is exactly what I was looking for. What we want to learn how to do as humans is earn their membership into their herd, but maintain ourselves as peaceful, gentle, effective leaders.”

Smith explained that Kituwah horse culture is not just a practice of culture, it’s a practice of safety.

“It’s just a basic, scientific fact that you can’t be distracted and be safe around horses. You can’t be angry and be safe. You can’t be frustrated and be safe around them. To be uniquely Kituwah in our approach, whenever we do a program, the first thing we do when we arrive on the farm is a mental check,” she said. “We have a youth program, and we help them verbalize and regulate their emotions in order to be safe with the horses. Learning those skills is very healing and fortifying.”

Juniper, a mare, climbs the hill of her pasture in Canton, N.C.

KEP operates out of Canton but wants the Qualla Boundary to know that the program is tribally-focused. “We want to serve all of western North Carolia. We serve Swain County, Jackson County, the Qualla Boundary, Haywood. I want to emphasize the significance of being off-Boundary, but still in your home. Horses don’t have boundaries unless we place them there. If I took away these fences, they would go, they would survive, and they can adapt. That is what we did as AniKituwah. We didn’t have boundaries lines. We established them socially over time, and horses do the same thing,” she said.

Smith believes there is a cultural benefit to KEP existing off-Boundary. “Do you ever feel limited in your own home by the fact that there are lines now? I’m a tribal member and this where I live. I’m still in our home. All this land is our home. I want that conversation more. I want people to feel like those mental shackles can fall away,” she said.

Smith also believes in the therapeutic benefit of her program, particularly for some of the darker contemporary issues plaguing tribal communities. “One of the reasons we purposely described in our mission statement that we want to have therapeutic sessions off the boundary is for purposeful, therapeutic programs that are pointed to help tribal members with substance use disorders, victims of domestic violence, victim of sexual assault, and we want to have those programs take place away from the boundary, out of your normal routine, out of the normal faces and places that you have built all of your social intelligence on. We want to get you out of that pattern.”

KEP is currently working on a Cherokee language and history research project. “I realized early in the development of this program that the horse related section of our culture is rapidly going extinct. There are only two men that I know of as Cherokee fluent speakers who work with horses. My uncle is a tribal member who knows everything about horses, but Cherokee is not his first language,” she said.

“We were given a small grant from the Center for Native Health for language research and documentation. I’m curious about vocabulary. What did we call this part of the horse? Did we call the ears anything different? There are so many things about horse anatomy and equine science that provide new ways to learn Cherokee.”

KEP recently held a fundraiser on Oct. 14. Smith’s dream for the program is to have a U.S. Pony Club with EBCI competitors at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, N.C.  For now, Smith is attending Isothermal Community College to pursue a certificate in animal assisted interactions in the equine science program, where she also obtained her certificate in equine business. Once she finishes her current studies, she will perform a proctored exam to be certified internationally for equine mental health and learning.

To learn more about the Kituwah Equestrian Program, visit Kituwah Equestrian Program | Equine Education | Western North Carolina, NC, USA