When I was 13, I made an “inspiration wall” in my room. I cut out pictures of eventers and show jumpers I felt inspired by. It included the “Greats” and the “Up-and-Coming.” As I stood back and looked at my wall, proud, it occurred to me: They are all white. So middle school Elsie started googling. “Black eventers,” “Black show jumpers,” “Asian eventers,” “Latinx horseback riders.” What I got pretty much surmounted to two or three people in the U.S. who weren’t very famous, and whom I had to search for.
As I approach a decade around horses, seven different barns and countless shows, I have never met or even seen a Black trainer. I have seen ONE Black rider at some horse shows (the same person). Before you quit reading now, ready to storm the comments in a wave of, “I know a Black trainer!” “I have Black students!” I know, that’s great! I’m not saying they don’t exist. I know they do. But they are a very, very, very small percentage. What I have seen in response to a few of the articles posted recently is a lot of people getting very defensive, very quickly, and that is what I want us to check ourselves on.
The horse world, regardless of which discipline, is a very sheltered place. The utter lack of anything else in the world being present in my mind while I am at a barn is one of the reasons it gives me such serenity. It’s very peaceful to not have to think about anything else. The rest of the world falls into the background when you are at the barn—for some of us. For riders like Tori Repole and Lauryn Gray (writers of “The Spectrum Of Discomfort” and “Being A Bay In A Field Of Grays” respectively), they have to navigate the lack of other riders who look like them and ever-so-piercing microaggressions even in their most serene place. Black riders are few and far between in the horse world, and writing that fact off as not a “purposeful exclusion” is condescending. If, while reading this, you are feeling at all defensive—if these articles make you want to say, “The horse world isn’t racist.” “I would never exclude a Black boarder/trainer/child from my barn.” “I’ve never seen any racism in the horse world,” then think about why you are getting defensive. The horse world is not special. Our sport is not immune to racism. Just because you haven’t seen it or haven’t participated in it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
“To the best of my knowledge, everyone is welcome, and despite the fact there isn’t a more noteworthy presence of minorities, there are still people who participate, many of whom I consider good friends. Instead, I see financial constraints as the main reason many people are underrepresented in our world.” Those are Missy Clark’s words in response to Sophie Gochman’s column earlier in June. Missy’s response to Gochman’s article only clarifies her lack of understanding of what systemic racism is. Missy’s article has some well articulated thoughts, but it very much sweeps the actual systemic problems under the rug and instead promotes the mindset of, “It’s not our fault there aren’t more Black people in the horse world. I never said they couldn’t ride.” To her credit, those statements are correct. It is not the fault of your individual self, and no one is trying to say you caused it. We are saying it is a bigger issue than individuals. It is a part of a bigger system that perpetually leaves marginalized people behind.
To say, “It’s not a racism issue, it’s an economic issue,” is to ignore years of Black struggle and the years of research that says otherwise. Economics involve racism; racism involves economics. They are tightly intertwined. Systemic racism includes things like the wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government surveillance, incarceration, drug arrests, immigration arrests, infant mortality, and the list goes on. All of these things and more contribute to why we do not have more Black riders in our sport.
Are you feeling defensive? Why? No one is attacking you. People ARE attacking Black people, constantly. You deciding that the narrative being told is not the narrative that you have experienced doesn’t make it untrue. If you see someone fall down across the street, and they can’t get up, would your first thought be, “I didn’t push them”? Or would you go see if they are OK? If you asked them if they were OK, and they said, “I’m in pain,” would you say, “No, you’re not”? Or would you say, “I’m sorry you are hurt. What can I do to help?” We need to listen to our Black peers, put aside our defenses for a minute, and try to hear them when they say, “We are being hurt.” Hear their stories with the willingness to learn and be willing to do your own research.
Here are two short educational videos:
This video explains microaggressions – warning it contains some offensive language – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDd3bzA7450
This video explains systemic racism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrHIQIO_bdQ.
They’re both worth a watch!
Elsie Stirling, 19, will be a junior in the fall at the University of Connecticut, where she is studying communications. Horses became a passion of hers at the age of 10 when she began volunteering at a local barn. Elsie started eventing as a freshman in high school and fell even more in love with the sport. She competed in various events across Area 1 for four years before heading to college, and she’s excited to continue when she is more financially able.