Dannielle Brown says that if her son was into basketball, football, soccer -- or even golf -- she'd know what to do.
But Jamal Brown doesn't like any of those sports. His dream is to be a show jumper and ride for the U.S. Equestrian Team. What's Dannielle supposed to do with that? It's not something many people would expect of a 16-year-old African American kid from Northeast Washington.
"We thought it was cute," Dannielle said of the obsession Jamal has had since he was a toddler, when he used to gravitate to picture books about horses. " 'Oh, he likes horses,' like any child would like a dog or dinosaurs. But it just never went away."
Back then, the family was living in Southern Maryland, and at 6, Jamal started taking riding lessons.
"When he got on the horse, the instructor was blown away," Dannielle said. "She was like, 'This boy literally taught himself how to ride through all the books that he read.' "
Books can only do so much, though, and when the family moved back to the District, Jamal started going to the stables at Rock Creek Park.
Then his mother got him a scholarship to the Barrie School. The Silver Spring private school has a dozen horses and ponies in its stables and a program that encourages students to ride them. Jamal is on Barrie's JV equestrian team this year and will move up to varsity next year. A box full of first-place ribbons attests to his skill in equitation, an event in which riders are judged on how good they look on a horse.
"A lot of guys when they ride, they don't love their horse," Paige Dunn, the Barrie coach, told me. "Jamal loves his horses. He gives them big pats and hugs. He treats them like they're more than just a vehicle," unlike most boy riders. "I think if he keeps this up, he'll go as far as he wants to."
But, really, how far can he go? He doesn't own a horse. While others ride every day, he's in the saddle only a few times a week. Dannielle said some people have told her it's unfair to let Jamal spend so much time dreaming of horses. They ask, Why encourage him?
"Who am I to tell him not do that?" she said.
"It's a rich white girl's sport," Kathy Clark told me.
Kathy should know. A rich white girl herself, she grew up riding. She lives in Oakton and co-founded a high-tech company, Landmark Systems. She heard about Jamal through a friend of a friend and saw something in the polite, gentle boy who loves horses. She has helped pick up the expense of his riding lessons and last summer leased a horse named Chester for Jamal to ride regularly.