Friday, Jun. 21, 2024

Eventer Chris Talley Makes Pride A Point: ‘Your Life Does Matter’

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When five-star eventer Chris Talley flips his calendar to June each year, he makes a point of posting something related to LGBTQ+ Pride Month on his social media channels. 

“I want to make sure that people who were once in my shoes know they have a safe space,” said Talley. “A lot of the time we get so caught up living our lives riding horses. I do 11 months out of the year, and then June comes around, and I reflect on where I was when I was 14. By making one Instagram post—and I’ve done it now for a number of years—the number of people who just say thank you for letting them know they are being heard, and there are people out there who support them, is really special.”

Talley, 30, Ocala, Florida, became an eventing household name in 2019 when he and off-track Thoroughbred Unmarked Bills completed the Kentucky CCI5* in their rookie attempt. Talley claimed the award for the highest placed youngest rider and proved that with enough hard work, talent and luck, big dreams sometimes do come true.

Eventer Chris Talley marks June on his calendar every year: “We can always do a better job of making sure people are accepted and valued,” he says. “I’m a culprit of it 11 months out of the year. It’s work; it’s business; it’s horses. I often forget too. It shouldn’t just be a one-month thing just because it’s Pride month, and everybody feels like they need to put it out there. It should be a more recognized thing to say, ‘No matter who you are, your life is important, and you do matter.’ ” Purple Horse Design Photo

Since that fairy-tale moment five years ago, Talley has continued to establish himself as an eventing professional, bringing along young horses, competing multiple horses at the international levels, and contesting the 2023 FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championships (France) with two horses. 

But for Talley, establishing a place in the equestrian world has provided him with more than a profession. The community and acceptance offered by his fellow equestrian athletes was life-changing in high school, and now he wants to be a resource to anybody who might benefit from hearing his story or reaching out for support. We sat down to talk to him about his own story and the importance of Pride Month to him.

Tell me about your experience growing up.

I knew I was gay. I grew up in Chester County, Pennsylvania, which has a relatively small-town feel. It’s one of the larger horse areas, but I grew up in a fairly conservative household. It was in my mind growing up; I knew I was going to shake up the household. I was like every other in-the-closet gay kid, where I tried to change how I viewed things and how I thought about things. I didn’t want to necessarily admit it to myself. 

In middle school and high school I was the stereotypical kid who was bullied. Partly that was because I rode horses. The other part was that people assumed I was gay because I rode horses and I was a male. It weighed pretty heavily on me when I was young. I had these people chanting things at me. I was never really comfortable in my own skin to be able to come out.

I would go to school, especially in high school, and I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I would eat my lunch in the bathroom. I would sit in the library whenever I had the chance. I had a couple of friends in high school, but for the most part that was just the life I had to live, not necessarily the life I wanted to live.

How did finding community in the horse world help?

At the first bigger barn where I rode, it was largely girls, and they were all my age, and they just saw me as a kid who could ride horses really well. All the other kids in high school saw me as the boy who rode ponies, and they assumed I was gay. [At that barn] was the first time I felt like I had a group of friends around me who didn’t see me differently, even if I was gay, which I hadn’t told anybody or even admitted to myself at this point. 

I was probably 15 when I started riding at that barn. It wasn’t until I was almost 19 that I came out to everybody.

I felt more included. I felt like the horse world was more my people than the people in my high school and middle school. I got a working student position at [U.S.-based Australian eventer] Ryan Wood’s, and one of my really good friends there was another male rider. They all started to realize, and I started to express myself more toward being gay, but their view of me never changed. That was what really made me comfortable with finally coming out. I started to hang out with this guy, and I said we were “really good friends.” They were very supportive of it, and that pushed me to come out to my family. On days when I felt like I didn’t have anybody else to talk to, I still had that group of friends. That was really special to me about the horse world.

My barn life was where I felt comfortable just being myself and not getting made fun of for riding horses or being assumed that I was gay. My last two years of school I did online because I was so tired of going to school and listening to everybody. I just wanted to live the life that I wanted to all the time.

Chris Talley takes a moment with a young volunteer after completing his dressage test aboard Unmarked Bills at the 2019 Kentucky Three-Day Event. Kimberly Loushin Photo

Tell me about coming out.

I didn’t want to have to come out because I was being made fun of. I wanted to come out when I felt comfortable and when I felt like I was accepted. 

I would have girlfriends. This was a breaking point for me. I posted a picture with a friend, and I was having dinner with my mom. She asked me, “Who is this friend? Is this your girlfriend? Is this one your girlfriend?” I remember just shaking because I knew at that point I had to stop trying to hide it. I had to accept who I was. I did feel very much that I was living a double life.

There were definitely times where I felt like, “I don’t know if I will be accepted by friends and family when I do come out. I don’t know what that is going to look like.” I can’t say I necessarily had suicidal thoughts, but I was terrified of what it would look like if I was not accepted by family or not accepted by friends. That can be incredibly lonely for those people who aren’t accepted by their family.

There was a tough point with my family for the first couple weeks where they had to accept it, and they had to come around to it. My mom worked right down the road, and she used to bring me lunch all the time. For a week my mom didn’t bring me lunch. I was like, “Is she going to stop bringing me lunch?” 

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But there are kids who go through much worse. That’s where I was able to have the barn family to fall back on. I think that is important, especially in the equestrian community, where I was able to fall back on my barn family to be there when I needed people to talk to. 

My family is amazing, and they’re incredibly supportive and accepting, and they quickly became that way. But it is a really lonely place when you’re sitting there getting ready to come out to everybody. I see how a lot of people can have [suicidal] thoughts. 

Why do you post on social media for Pride Month now?

I try to let people know that your life does matter. That is in more of a general sense than just Pride Month and the LGBTQ+ community.

Everybody kind of knows [that I’m gay], and I assume they can talk to me. But when I’m just posting horses and the success of horses all year, it’s probably one of those things where people don’t necessarily want to reach out and say, “Hey I’m struggling with this.” 

When they finally see a post directly pointed to being heard and your life matters and being accepted by the community, by anybody but also a professional, I think that triggers people then to reach out. I have more people reach out in the month of June saying, “Thank you for posting that,” or “Can I talk to you about my experience?”

I try to really be there for people. I do all my own social media myself. It takes a lot of work. At this time of year, I see messages from people saying thank you and explaining their situation. For me, it’s really important to take the time to message them back. It means something to have somebody you can look up to, A as a professional, but B as somebody who might have been in your situation.

We can always do a better job of making sure people are accepted and valued. I’m a culprit of it 11 months out of the year. It’s work; it’s business; it’s horses. I often forget too. It shouldn’t just be a one-month thing just because it’s Pride month, and everybody feels like they need to put it out there. It should be a more recognized thing to say, “No matter who you are, your life is important, and you do matter.”

And this goes beyond Pride, right?

I get messages from young riders: “I don’t have any money. How did you make it?” It’s important to take the time, the same way to make people feel included, to answer those questions to the younger generation who might be struggling in any aspect of their life. 

People know me for voicing my opinion publicly, maybe a little more than I should! 

Social media is a big platform. I will go through comments where I see people attacking people. Personally, I find it really unnecessary. I like to stand up to it when I can. I’ve gotten backlash. [People say,] “He’s a loudmouth and likes to tell people off on social media.” 

If I see something, I’m going to defend them the best that I can. As a professional it is important. I don’t want to be bullied, and I also don’t want to see somebody else getting bullied on social media.

I always look at comments. Am I going to get backlash for posting this?  But at the same time, I don’t care. I want other people to not have to worry about it.

What do you think professional riders can do to help?

As professionals, we have [to be diligent about] protecting the sport. The younger generation is going to come up underneath us. What we can do to help that is important. [That includes] other professionals sharing their stories and making people know it’s OK to talk about it. It is talked about. You don’t just come out and sweep it under the rug.

I don’t think everybody needs to share their entire story. There’s oversharing, and then there’s undersharing, and there’s a balance of being in the middle. I know of a lot of people—just from being out in the equestrian world—who are out, but you wouldn’t necessarily ever know it if you didn’t ask. I think it’s important, if you do feel comfortable, to share it. 

What do you say when people reach out to you?

I share my experience. People message me: “I think I’m gay.” “I’ve had these thoughts.” “How did you come out to your family?” “Have you ever been treated unfairly in public?” “How do you deal with that?” I just try to answer as honestly as I can, using my experiences. 

Coming out and coming to terms with it is so unique to every individual. You have to do it on your terms. Everybody has different terms. I try to be somebody that people can talk to. I try to answer as honestly as I can.

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Do you mind sharing your experiences with prejudice?

There have been times when I’m walking through Walmart in breeches—it doesn’t have to be just because I ride horses, but some places you go that just seems to be a stereotype—I’ve definitely gotten the “faggot” under somebody’s breath. There’s still that overt prejudice toward people. In society we still have a long way to go in being accepted. 

You go to certain areas and walk around and see people look at you and judge you.

I’ve gotten comfortable in my own skin to ignore them. I know if they’re putting that kind of hate out there, usually it comes from hate within.

The trans community seems to be singled out right now. What’s that like for you, and how do you support trans folks?

Everybody should be able to live the life they want. I don’t think we should be trying to keep people from living that life. Everybody is made up differently and goes through different situations. The more we try to control how everybody thinks and feels and acts, the worse it makes it for everybody. 

I don’t care what you look like, who you are. I’m willing to have a face-to-face conversation and accept people for who I see and who they might want to see themselves as. I don’t know that the rest of the world always thinks like that.

I can’t necessarily say what a trans person goes through. It can be a lot harder than what somebody who is gay goes through. Not only are you coming to terms with who you are, but you’re not even comfortable in your own skin because often you’re changing. Someone close to me is transitioning. I don’t necessarily know what he’s going through, but if I can be there, be somebody he can talk to and feel like he has somebody to talk to who doesn’t judge him for anything he’s going through, it’s very important. It’s just the simple act of being kind.

What can other people do to support members of the LGBTQ+ community?

In the media—and it doesn’t just have to be the LGBTQ+ community—could do features more often, maybe once a month, featuring inclusiveness. You see horse stuff, horse stuff, horse stuff, but if some kid goes on [to an equestrian media site], and they feature someone who has this coming out story, that makes it a lot more inclusive. Then somebody can say, “Oh this is the sport that I partake in. I know they are going to include me.” It feels more normalized.

I have a client who just put flag poles up. She has a Florida flag and the American flag, and she said, “I’m going to get the Pride flag next.” I thought that was so cool. It will be right there at the ring. For anybody who comes, there’s going to be a Pride flag there. 

Right after I did Kentucky, one of the Thoroughbred programs sent me a shirt that they had made with my horse’s name—Unmarked Bills—with the letters in the rainbow flag. I thought it was the coolest thing, and I still wear it when I’m riding. Just by seeing it on somebody’s shirt, you’re like, “I can talk to that person.” 

I don’t have [a Pride flag] on my Instagram bio, [but it could be helpful] so if somebody who doesn’t necessarily know me clicks on my profile and there’s a Pride flag, then they automatically know I’m a safe person who is open enough to put it out there publicly.

Last thoughts on Pride month and supporting others in the horse world?

For anybody struggling, if you have had those thoughts, and I know depression comes along with it, just know that there are people out there who will talk to you and are willing to talk to you. The world is not as scary of a place as it seems at face value. Sometimes people haven’t found their group of people.

Your life does matter. The world is a beautiful place when you find your people.

Because of who I am, every June I put it out there. But I see the horse industry and the community of horse people, and it is so inclusive. Sometimes we forget how inclusive we can make it. We just go about our daily lives of riding horses. It is one of the most inclusive communities because it’s made up of so many different people, and that’s what makes it so special. 

It’s also why the horses are so good. As much as we want them to, the horses don’t talk back. They just listen to us. They’re amazing creatures. 


If you or someone you care about is having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources, including LGBTQ+ specific resources. 

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