Equestrian Allies, It's Time to Speak Up
My obsession with horses started years ago when my parents would tote me around the racetrack in Barbados when I was only months old. When I moved to the United States, I was two and horses were no longer a part of my life.
I was nine years old when the Saddle Club aired in 2001. The leader of the Saddle Club - Carole Hanson - was the most knowledgeable about horsemanship and riding, and she had smooth brown skin and kinky hair. I remember forcing my mom to watch reruns and telling her that I was going to be just like Carole. That was the first time I saw a girl who looked like me riding and working with horses. I became obsessed with the Saddle Club and anything else horse-related.
I grew up in an urban neighbourhood in Massachusetts, so barns were not easily accessible to me. After watching the Saddle Club, I asked my mom to let me ride and she signed me up for lessons. I stopped after a few months due to the long commute and expenses related to riding, and that's when my story with horses hit pause.
She had smooth brown skin and kinky hair... That was the first time I saw a girl who looked like me riding and working with horses. I became obsessed with the Saddle Club and anything else horse-related.
For my 25th birthday, my husband booked a trail ride at a barn about 30 minutes away from our house. From the moment I swung one leg over my trail horse, I was hooked again – I signed up for weekly lessons before we drove out of the yard. Entering this sport as an adult has been difficult, but entering as a black adult has been even tougher. I have faced my fair share of racism in this sport. I've been kicked out of a lesson program because of my ethnicity, I have had other riders make racist remarks, including using the n-word and jokes, and I have been flat out ignored and refused to be spoken to. I have been fortunate to make friends in the equine industry who couldn't care that my skin is brown or that I am not riding a five-figure horse – they are just happy to connect with someone else who loves horses and riding. My love of horses and my love of riding outweigh the negativity I face, and while I have no plans to quit this sport, being brave in the face of racism does take its toll.
Related: What Do You Do When Your Safe Place Isn't Safe?
Horses are my safe space, the root of my mental clarity. Having a partnership with these animals that we as riders work to establish is a privilege and an experience that I do not take for granted. Horses demand our dedication, our focus, and our respect. They require that we carry ourselves with a gentle confidence. We have to earn their trust and partnership, which while not an easy task, is always rewarding. Our love of horses is what ties equestrians together, and it is a love that only equestrians understand. We are advocates for the horses that we work with. We understand what it is to be an ally and an advocate who does everything to ensure our horses - our partners - are loved, comfortable, and happy. Equestrians of colour deserve the same level of ally-ship. Equestrians of colour deserve to be accepted, welcomed, and treated fairly in this sport.
When I created my blog theblackequestrian.com, my goal was to bring attention to riders of colour in this sport. I thought that I was a unicorn, one of few. Over the past few months, I have connected with more riders of colour than I ever imagined existed, and it has blown my mind. After realizing that there are so many riders of colour in this sport, I understand how much representation matters. Seeing other riders who share in some of the unique experiences that I face as a rider of colour creates comfort and familiarity. It made me feel less like a unicorn or one in a million and more like I belonged.
We are advocates for the horses that we work with. We understand what it is to be an ally and an advocate who does everything to ensure our horses - our partners - are loved, comfortable, and happy. Equestrians of colour deserve the same level of ally-ship. Equestrians of colour deserve to be accepted, welcomed, and treated fairly in this sport.
When I flip through a Dover Saddlery catalogue, I rarely see anyone that looks like me; This is not because riders of colour are not interested in being represented, it is because they are not considered. Seeing someone that looks like you doing something that you also love to do makes the dream feel like it could be a reality. Representation and inclusion are such significant actions that unify us and make riders of colour feel welcomed and accepted in a historically excluded sport. Dedication is a concept that all equestrians understand, and eradicating racism in this sport deserves the same level of commitment that we give to furthering our riding every day. Being allies and advocates for riders of colour is essential to making this a more inclusive sport.
So how can you be a better ally? Speak up in instances of racial injustices, speak up when your barn friends make hurtful comments or jokes, and speak up when professionals in this sport - whether it be trainers, judges, or peers abuse their power to encourage racial injustices. In addition to leveraging your voice, getting involved in organizations that promote diversity and accessibility is another essential way to be an ally.
Educating yourself to be actively anti-racist is fundamentally crucial. Taking the time to understand issues that may not be your reality is vital to understanding your peers' experiences and having the knowledge to help make effective and lasting cultural change. No one should be denied the opportunity to experience all of the joys of working with horses. Racism has no place in a sport that places such strong emphasis on the importance of a partnership between two different beings. As equestrians, it is our duty - regardless of race, sexual orientation, class, or background - to advocate for those who are discriminated against and to be the driving force to change a long-standing culture of racism and discrimination in horse sport.
Read this next: There Is No Such Thing As a Silent Ally
Written by Shaq Blake
Shaq Blake is an adult amateur who climbed back into the saddle after a 20-year break from riding. To address a lack of representation, diversity and inclusion in horse sport, she created her blog theblackequestrian with the goal of creating a space to explore and celebrate riders of all ethnicities and backgrounds. To learn more, visit her on instagram @theblackequestrian.