Week 18: Horses don’t discriminate, but riders might
Changing the face of equestrian sport
Aside from the outdoors, horses are my second greatest love. This week I am going to be talking about the pervasive privilege of the equestrian industry and the small acts of resistance that are beginning to change it. There seems to be an endless stream of articles on diversifying the outdoors, but in the equestrian world, you have to dig deep into blogs and forums to find any acknowledgement of inequity. Despite the fact that riding is one of the only sports where women compete against men, there is still a gender gap, and there has never been an openly trans or non binary athlete anywhere near the top. Yes, a good amount of the men who compete are gay, but they are also male, white, cis, wealthy, and able bodied.
Black people are certainly scarce in most equestrian sports, but polo is one that seems especially white and exclusive. In 1994, Lezlie Hiner founded Work to Ride, a program that would give the impoverished and marginalized youth of West Philadelphia a chance to play polo and stay on a positive trajectory. Hiner trains the, the group of students for free, but they must complete barn chores and maintain at least a C average in school. Shariah Harris, member of Work to Ride, said “I was only around black people as a kid and then traveling out to games we were the only black people…” Today, Work to Ride has helped many players to become the first Black athletes on top tier polo teams.
Jess Clawson is a queer equestrian who competes as a show jumper in Virginia. In addition to bigotry they have experienced from farriers, trainers, and employers, the other barn members of their barn wrote them off as dramatic and sided with those that had spewed hate. Clawson points out that “Queer kids deal with a lot of sexual abuse in and out of the horse world.” Clawson suggests that in order to be a true ally to queer equestrians, you must stand behind them and call in anyone you hear being ignorant or homophobic.
No, the white man did not make riding into a sport. Indigenous relay racing originated almost 300 years ago. Today, this tradition is still alive, and as journalist Nate Hegyi says, “It's a relationship that survived forced assimilation and western tribes' loss of land.” In the relay, riders race bareback and without helmets around a track. When they reach each of the three checkpoints on the track, they catapult themselves onto the back of a new horse and race off again. Riders often fall off and may even get trampled, but the sport is about cultural appreciation, history, and a love of horses, not winning.
The Compton Cowboys of Compton, California are challenging the stereotypes of cowboys, Black men, and Compton. The group was started by a group of friends in 2017, and now they train adolescents in rodeo skills such as roping. The cowboys are diligent caretakers of their horses, who they often save from abusive situations. . The barn is a safe space away from the gang activity that is prevalent all around it. Not only do the horses keep young people out of the way of violence, but they also provide a level of protection from the police, as the police hesitate to question them on horseback. Their next goal is to enter the majorly white world of rodeo. Anthony Harris, one of the founders, said “we’re different than most cowboys because we wear Air Jordan’s, Gucci belts and baseball hats while we ride.”
Dressage rider Sarah Hepler says that just because she is disabled doesn’t mean she can’t do everything that other riders can. Dressage is arguably one of the most physically demanding equine sports, and Hepler wants people to know that para-dressage is even harder. When she first dove into the para-dressage world, she found that there were very few, if any, well known para-equestrians. Today, there are still scant para-riders with a platform and riding is still inaccessible to much of the disabled community. Hepler hopes that women in the horse world can start to lift each other up in the future.
Horse Folk to Watch + Follow
Keiara Monique: Cowgirl
Shariah Harris: Polo player
Kareem Rosser: Polo player
Mikhail Proctor: Vaulter
Alyssa Cleland: Para-Dressage rider
Elizabeth Sobecki: Queer Para-Dressage rider
Thank you for reading! I hope you can find something important or interesting in these stories, even if you don’t ride.