karen armstead

In for the Ride of Her Life:

Teen Equestrian from Chicago’s South Side an Olympic Hopeful.


By Nadia Sellers  | Contributing Writer | Edited by Olivia Ewing

Karyn Armstead is not your ordinary teen, she’s actually quite extraordinary. Unlike most young ladies her age, Karyn already has her life planned out. In fact, she dreams of one day becoming an Olympic equestrian champion. Equestrianism is known as the sport of the privileged or as one writer puts it, “A sport for the young, rich and beautiful” - which typically boasts the likes of an Onassis, Gates or Johnson. There are very few African Americans in the sport; most equestrians are children of billionaire parents, able to afford the world’s most beautiful of horses and some of the best trainers and training facilities. 

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When Karyn was just seven years old, her aunt Maria took her to the former Windy Isles Barn, in Peoton, IL, where Maria owned a horse named Theo. The plan was to take Karyn along for the ride, just as a little outing, but Maria put Karyn on a pony - and then on Theo, a horse Kayrn was afraid of for about 15 minutes before becoming relaxed and calm. Then the calm turned to peace, and then peace to passion. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Karyn to fall head over heels in love with the big horse.

At first, her mom thought nothing of Karyn’s newfound love, but it became obvious Karyn couldn’t think of anything else. Playing with Barbie dolls or watching cartoons soon took a backseat to her wanting to be around horses every moment she could. Karyn would continue to visit Theo, learning how to ride and make little jumps, bonding with him and developing her skills in hopes to one day compete. In 2010 her dreams came true, when after years of training she entered her first competition at the age of ten. By age twelve she received Spencer, her first of many horses.

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Karyn attended De La Salle High School. If you listen to the news, gossip on the streets or social media, with one mention of Chicago’s South Side, you’ll also hear within the same sentence words such as ‘murder’, ‘violence’, ‘poverty’ and ‘crime’; the list goes on and on. But this is not the case with Karyn, she loves her community and still dreams of one day going to college and teaching inner-city kids about horses and that it’s not impossible to become an Olympic champion.

Karyn is an A-B student, who in 2017 had to leave De La Salle High School to commute between Chicago and Florida to train. Leaving her family and friends in Chicago and taking online classes while training, sometimes up to six hours a day wasn’t easy, but Karyn knew she was the underdog in the sport and if she wanted to be taken seriously, she had to work very hard. Going to Florida to train was also one of her dreams, which began in December with competitions from January to April. Karyn would arrive at the training facility early in the morning with her headphones on listening to everything from classical music, country, hip-hop and her favorite off all “Drake”. She wasn’t alone in her love for music, her horse Twinkie also had his favorites like “Queen B”. Music helped Karyn relax as she got ready for her day, even when she knew many in the sport thought she didn’t belong. Determined not to let anything deter her, she instead used the negativity to drive her to work even harder. She has already beat the odds,

winning several competitions. However, in 2015 while going into her last jump, Karyn and her horse suffered a bad fall that landed her in the hospital with a broken clavicle. Karyn bounced back with even more tenacity, this tough and fearless Southside girl from Chicago got back up and kept on riding. She was determined to continue her love of competitive horseback riding.

Not far behind ice hockey, equestrianism is the second most expensive sport for kids, but doesn’t even make the top five most popular sport amongst kids surveyed. When several inner-city athletes, between age 10 and 16 were asked about the sport, all but one of them said they didn’t know much about it and that they were afraid of horses.

Not surprisingly, some consider that the title of Equestrian is one rarely to be held by African Americans and that they simply don’t belong in the sport; especially a girl from the South Side of Chicago, and much less one with blue-collar parents who could barely afford to attend their daughter’s competitions, which could take place anywhere from Florida to Ohio to the Carolinas. Unfortunately for Karyn, the sport she fell in love with can be pretty lonely, as competitions can be won or loss with no one there to cheer her on. So how does this 5’7” soft-spoken, smart, beautiful, brown girl with smiling eyes and a petite frame from Chicago’s South Side dare to dream of being an Olympian equestrian? Through determination, hard work, grit, guts, passion, prayer and hope – and with your help.

Karyn and her family are looking for sponsors. If you’d like to learn more about future Olympian and Equestrian, Karyn Armstead, please email us at Nadia@hautemgmt.com.

Images courtesy of the Armstead family.