We Can Make the Equestrian Community — and the World — a Better Place for Queer People

by Jess Clawson, Ph.D. /

Published on

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ride Month is a time to celebrate queer identities in all their beautiful forms, but also an opportunity to have conversations about how to make progress — socially, legally, in all ways — for queer people.

I use “queer” as a way to encompass the entire LGBTQIA+ community for a few reasons. First, acronyms are imperfect in their inclusion, so I use queer simply as an umbrella term to mean people who are not straight and cis (identify with their gender assigned at birth). I also like it for its political and theoretical implications. Queer, to me, means standing outside of the normal while also denying that such a thing as “normal” exists. Queer draws people in while pushing oppressive narratives out.

I came to this view on the word queer, and to queerness itself, over the course of my life in a variety of communities. I’m a non-binary person (meaning I don’t identify as male or female), an academic, a journalist, and an event rider. I’ve taught at just about every level from preschool through master’s students and have been a community organizer my entire adult life. Those experiences have taught me so much about the value of identity and given me tools for moving conversations around marginalized people forward.

I’m also an equestrian, one of those kids who was born asking for a pony. I’ve been riding my whole life and have built my career around horses.

I’ve always been a keen observer of social dynamics everywhere, including in the horse world, and I’ve learned a lot about the difference between community visibility (simply being seen existing in a space) and community empowerment (the ability to make substantive change and create safer spaces). I see this a lot in the horse world: “It’s fine to be gay, no one cares; there are so many gay men in the sport that it doesn’t matter; as long as you’re not too ‘out there,’ no one will mind.”

That’s what community visibility can look like — baseline assumptions that it’s okay to be in a place, but without community empowerment. If it’s only okay to be gay or queer if you’re not “too out there,” then we have some work to do. But all good equestrians know that where there is work to do, there is opportunity for growth. If only certain types of gay people — those who aren’t “too out there,” or who “don’t bring sexuality into it” (even though straight people do every time they mention their own partners), or whatever arbitrary measure of the moment — are acceptable in the horse world, then it isn’t as queer-friendly a space as many may think it is.

But the equestrian community has so much potential that I don’t want to pass up any opportunity to push for genuine queer inclusion in our sport.

What Makes the Horse World Special

There’s a lot that’s already queer about the horse world. For one thing, we don’t compete according to rider gender. Age and professional status matter, but gender does not. That is such a relief for non-binary trans people like me, who are passionate about the sport but don’t want to have to fit ourselves into a specific gender category to have access to it. I wish every sport structured itself like this. It’s liberating.

Also, our attire is relatively gender neutral. While tack stores list things according to women’s and men’s styles, there’s not a huge difference. We’re all wearing boots, breeches, jackets, helmets. No one notices if I’m wearing a neck tie instead of a wrap collar. I love it.

One of the most special elements of the horse world is how we all spend so much time around each other, up and down the levels. That helps to build community bonds, which is a great foundation for advocacy.

How Can We Work Together to Make the Equestrian Community Better?

Good, I’m glad you asked.

If you’re queer, first, hi, I love you. Now let’s talk about respecting other people’s journeys and making space.

  1. It’s very important for us all to take a few things into account: not everyone’s path is the same, not everyone’s expression of their queerness is the same, and privilege matters. Let’s support each other on the path, regardless of when they came out, what their coming out process looked like, or whether they’re not ready yet.

  2. Let’s also celebrate each other all the time. Is one of your barn buddies more flamboyant than you? Do they want everyone to know they’re gay and love wearing their Pride shirts to the barn and plastering rainbow flags everywhere. (In other words, do you board with me?) Let’s not shame our queer siblings into silence in an effort to not rock the boat. Part of Pride Month is about re-investing in ourselves as queer people and celebrating that. Many of us enjoy carrying the spirit of Pride in our hearts all year round.

  3. It’s important to keep in mind that some of us are more privileged than others. If you’re cis — meaning you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth — you have more privilege than trans people in terms of employment protections, access to health care, and social acceptance. If you’re white and queer, you have white privilege, which means racism isn’t going to make your life harder or more dangerous. If you're at the top of the sport, you have a platform the rest of us don’t have access to. So let’s encourage our more privileged members to leverage that and get conversations going.

If you’re not queer, you have important work to do, too. Here are some of Dr. Clawson’s Simple Rules for Being Cool:

  1. Celebrate the identities of the queer people around you without making it about you. If someone at the barn comes out to you, don’t give them a long speech about how okay you are with it. Give them a high five and buy them a milkshake. Trust me, that’s the path to success.

  2. Rather than declaring yourself comfortable with queer people who aren’t “too out there” for you, realize that you’re coming from a place of heteronormativity — the idea that it’s normal to be straight. As the brilliant Dorothy Parker said, “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” Try seeing “out there” queer people as brave and realize that they probably have a lot to teach you about liberation, including the concept that centering straight people’s comfort isn’t supposed to be our priority, but being the best version of ourselves is.

  3. Wanting to learn more is wonderful, and I so encourage it! Please do take the time to read about everything from legal struggles (the ACLU is a terrific resource), beautiful essays from all corners of the community (check out Autostraddle as a starting place). And please remember that while some of us are more than happy to have extensive conversations explaining all things queer, some people don’t have the emotional resources for it and it isn’t their responsibility. So if a queer person does do the emotional labor of educating you, please compensate them. It doesn’t have to be money. Clean their tack for them, buy them a snack, and most importantly, have their back if they encounter homophobia or transphobia.

  4. On that point: If you notice someone at your barn is depressed, withdrawn, or not themselves, you can be a listening ear and help them find resources without making things worse if you remember to validate people’s experiences. For instance, if a queer kid is sad about their parents’ lack of understanding, avoid telling them to give their parents time or in other ways put the burden of dealing with the situation on them. Instead, encourage them to advocate for their own wellbeing and help connect them to people and resources that can help.

How Can Equestrians Make the Whole World Better?

A lot of us are good at recognizing that having horses in our lives is a privilege. If we’re able to do the horse thing, especially if we’re able to compete in the sport, we have some resources. Let’s use them.

Many equestrians are doing that, creating wonderful scholarship opportunities for young riders, getting horses into communities that might not have access, trying to overcome the hurdles of financial access to the sport. I think that’s all wonderful and I’m thrilled about it.

It’s now time to lift up our queer community, too. Let’s use our labor, money, access to media, whatever we have to support queer people. Why not have scholarships for young queer equestrians to go to school, or to help them get to the next level of competition? Given how often queer youth are displaced from their homes — 40% of homeless youth are queer — many of them don’t have resources needed to survive, let alone compete in equestrian sport. But we can help them.

We step in to help horses and other animals in need all the time, and that’s one of the things I love about the equestrian community. But what if we also put some of that effort into funding trans-inclusive shelters? Many shelters deny access to queer or trans people — a potentially life or death situation.

Let’s build a better world. We already know we can do it because we do it in so many other areas of life. This Pride Month, let’s both celebrate our queer siblings and promise to make the horse world the authentically queer-inclusive community we want it to be.

Read this next: Dearly Beloved. This is How Equestrian Proposals are Done.

Graphics by Cadre Collective for NoelleFloyd.com

Written by Jess Clawson, Ph.D.

Jess Clawson, Ph.D. is an event rider and the podcasting director for The Plaid Horse Magazine. They write about queer issues and mental health in the horse world and teach gender studies at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.