On his quest to reach the elite levels of sport, this determined horseman rides with the benefit of others in mind.
At 6:20 a.m., on the morning of Aug. 4, Deonte Sewell entered the driver’s seat of a Buick Encore and drove the 30 minutes from his mother’s home in Elkton, Maryland, to Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania.
In a blue-collared shirt, black Tailored Sportsman breeches and a pair of Ariat paddock boots, Sewell gave himself pep talks as he prepared for the approaching job interview: “Work hard. Work fast. Be a sponge; absorb what you can.”
After a day of grooming horses and executing barn chores with Emma Ford, Dutton’s head groom and barn manager, Sewell landed the job, a surreal moment for the 23-year-old eventer with a dream of riding in the Olympics.
“Emma made a valid point of, ‘Everyone kind of walks in the barn wanting to be a rider, but no one ever walks into the barn wanting to learn the ins and outs of the barn,’ ” said Sewell. “You have to learn the ins and outs before you can ride. You come in with the expectation to learn how to be the greatest rider, but you’re also neglecting the fact that you must learn the work that goes into being a great rider. There’s always more to it than just throwing a saddle on and riding.”
Just four years ago Sewell realized his high performance dreams might be feasible. He and a friend were volunteering at The Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI in Maryland when he spotted Randy Ward, the first Black eventer he’d seen at that level.
“Growing up, I didn’t even know there was a Black eventer jumping around three-stars and four-stars,” said Sewell. “I remember seeing him go down the jog strip and me being like, ‘Wait. The grooms jog the horses too?’
“I remember reading an article and seeing that he was actually a competitor, and I was like, ‘What in the world?’ ” added Sewell. “I just remember telling my mom all about it. It was the biggest thing for me.”
With newfound inspiration, Sewell visited his off-the-track Thoroughbred Godard, who was recovering from a recurring suspensory injury.
“I looked at Godard in the field and was like, ‘When you’re all healed, we’re going to go do big things, buddy,’ ” said Sewell. “Seeing [Ward] really motivated me to go for it, because if he made it, why can’t I do it? I shouldn’t be afraid to do it. He set the bar high for other Black riders like myself.”
A King’s And Queen’s Sport
Sewell’s grandfather John Davis never worked at a barn, nor did he frequent the hunter/jumper ring on the back of an A-circuit horse. He explored his love for the animal through books, western movies and connections made in the racing community.
Davis loved visiting the racetrack, first as a single man, and then as a husband and father. His family reserved Saturday nights for Delaware’s Brandywine Park, where they betted and watched harness races.
“I looked forward to that every Saturday night; my dad always hit a trifecta,” said Sewell’s mother, Shannon Davis. “He would go early so I could look at the horses, and he would go pet them. He watched westerns all day. When the Preakness was on, that was a big-time thing. My mom would cook as if we were there, as if my dad were riding. He just loved horses.”
John tried to get Shannon into riding, but his efforts came to a halt after she fell off during a lesson. His next best hope was in Sewell, Shannon’s youngest child, who favored horse toys and movies and his grandfather’s equestrian tales from early on.
“We were watching the Olympics, show jumping, and I had my horse toys out,” said Sewell. “I was playing around, and I just looked up at him, and I was like, ‘Have you ever done that?’ He’s always telling me these stories, so I wanted to know if he’s ever jumped a horse; I wanted to know what it feels like. He told me no. ‘That side of the sport is more like a king’s and queen’s sport.’ ”
A young Sewell took his grandfather’s words with a grain of salt. Growing up in a lower-income home, he knew that finances affected his access to horses, but he couldn’t yet grasp his grandfather’s perspective.
“I never knew he meant in terms of your ethnicity having an effect on how people look at you in the sport,” said Sewell. “As a kid, I didn’t care. To me, I was just like, ‘We can change that. I can still be Black and do it.’ That was just the mentality that I had as a kid. It wasn’t until I got older that it more so sunk into me that Blacks aren’t supposed to be doing this.”
In 1952, John became the first of 12 Black students to attend Claymont High School, the first school in Delaware to integrate. The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling cited this integration two years later when it determined that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
Years later, when John was in college pursuing a medical degree, he was removed for having a relationship with a white woman.
“My dad always said it was going to be hard for [Sewell] because it was a king and queen’s sport and the color of his skin,” said Shannon. “Normally, they’re not riders; they’re barn help who basically knew more about the horses than the actual owners, trainers and riders.”
Shannon tried to divert Sewell from horses by pushing him towards other sports. Nothing stuck.
“I was very nervous about it for several reasons because of the area that we live in, the racism that breeds here, and all the many things that I’ve heard about the horse world from my dad growing up,” said Shannon. “I was very skeptical about how he was going to be treated in the way of his skin color, and I didn’t want them to treat him as charity, like, ‘the little Black kid.’ Even though I couldn’t afford a lot of the things the other parents were able to do for their children, I still didn’t want them to treat him as charity.”
When John took Sewell on his first trip to Delaware Park, they spent time by the paddock, studied the outriders, and got to pet a few horses. Seeing the human-horse bond was Sewell’s greatest takeaway. In the summer of 2009, he saw his chance for a riding lesson when he found a flyer for Painted Horse Ranch in his mom’s car. While the $25 lesson fee wasn’t in the budget, Sewell set up the ride anyway, only telling his mom the day before.
“I felt like the king of the world,” Sewell said of his first ride. “When I sat on the horse, I thought I already knew everything. I was like, ‘I watched multiple YouTube videos. I studied all of this; I felt prepared.’ When I sat on him, I just felt natural. It didn’t feel weird; I didn’t feel uncomfortable. It just felt like—this is where I’m meant to be.”
Impressed by Sewell’s determination, ranch owner Leo “Wolf” Portugal invited him to work in exchange for lessons.
“Wolf had spoken to me about Deonte, just his passion,” said Shannon. “That’s the first thing he noticed, and that’s something he always spoke about. Deonte may not have the monetary [backing] like all the other children, but the other children didn’t have his passion.”
Take The Bitter With The Sweet
For four years, Sewell spent his summers at the ranch, learning the basics of horse care under Portugal in a western setting. Sometime after mastering the canter and popping over his first log in a field, Sewell wanted to take his riding beyond barrel racing to a local hunter/jumper show.
Having watched horse movies and seen the show attire, Sewell knew that nothing in his closet was “Saddle Club” appropriate. He and Shannon visited several equine consignment shops, only to find items well beyond their budget. After reaching out to the show organizer, Sewell pulled together his next best outfit: a pair of jeans, a fancy shirt with a black cardigan, and black paddock boots.
“It was a bit uncomfortable because you see everyone else all in the same attire,” Sewell said. “You look at the kids, and they’re kind of scared to talk to you, and they’re staring at you, looking you up and down. It’s common at horse shows for people to stare, but the stares are always a bit different.”
Sewell didn’t earn a ribbon in that class, and he was worried. “Is it because I wasn’t actually good, or is it because I don’t fit the part of everybody else?” he wondered. “And that’s kind of the feeling that I felt. It wasn’t fun for me. Everything I envisioned the shows to be was completely different from what it was. So it was a bit heartbreaking to see the movies, hear people that I went to school with talk about all their great experiences at horse shows, and then my first experience at a horse show, I was like, ‘You shouldn’t be here. Why are you here? Who allowed you to be here?’ ”
While the horse show wasn’t all Sewell had hoped for, it was a foot in the door. Once he was ready to step up to the next level and explore eventing, Portugal loaned him an auction horse, who carried Sewell to his first elementary course at Fair Hill.
Shannon watched, worried about what he’d experience. “For me, dealing with racism in high school, I didn’t want Deonte to be subject to it. We try to protect our children from it as much as we can,” she said. “I had to learn how to control my anger because when we first started out, the stares that he would get, that mom ‘protect mode’ would always come in, and I would always want to voice my opinion.
“Deonte was very intelligent, very patient at such a young age,” she added, “and I could never understand it because I always wanted to let them know, ‘No, you’re not going to treat him any type of way.’ He’d always be like, ‘Mom, I belong here, and you have to learn how to let me learn how to take the bitter with the sweet no matter what the situation is.’ ”
At Elkton High School, Deonte’s brother CJ Sewell was the varsity football team’s running back. Deonte was the sibling with linebacker potential who instead chose horses.
Peers would erupt in laughter when Deonte expressed his goals of being an Olympic rider. Very few offered encouragement, with the majority questioning, “Do you know how much money is in horses?” or, “Black people don’t ride horses.”
“They thought it was hysterical that I had dreams of riding horses in the Olympics and actually doing something other than football, basketball, because that’s where Blacks are very dominant, in those two sports,” said Deonte. “So it’s only natural to the public eye for me to fall into those same traits.
“You don’t see any Black people riding horses around the Olympics,” he added. “You’ve seen other ethnicities, but you don’t see any Black people riding around. That’s the whole point of me wanting to go to the Olympics, to change that stereotype.”
Deonte left Painted Horse Ranch in 2013 and catch rode at local facilities before joining Tom Proctor Racing Stables in Elkton upon graduating from high school in 2015. He saw the racetrack as an opportunity to work from the ground up and gain exposure to the off-the-track Thoroughbreds that become eventers.
“Deonte came to us, had no idea really what a race horse was, but he had been around horses and had good horsemanship,” said Lindsay Schultz, then assistant trainer to Proctor. “He would come and work a few days a week and learn to work around the barn, how we like things. He always was respectful, but he was maybe a little green, trying to figure out how everything went and nervous to do anything wrong. He always wanted to learn, and he always tried to talk to everyone and figure out how to do things.”
While Deonte was green, he carried a tenacious desire to learn and a natural ability with horses, both in and out of the saddle. What started as a 4:30 a.m. hotwalking job gave way to grooming and riding opportunities. During his second of three years under Proctor, Deonte asked for the chance to pony race horses to and from the track.
“We were really short on riders one day, and I needed to get on a few,” said Schultz. “We had one filly that actually ran in the Kentucky Oaks as a 3-year-old. I got on her, and I had Deonte go with me on the pony. He had probably only done it 10 times, but he was great. I had grown to trust him, and I was happy to have him help me, even with that caliber of a horse.”
Schultz, now farm manager at Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, Florida, has seen his confidence grow. “Even when he comes out to the farm, I’ll have him sometimes go on one of the off-the-track Thoroughbreds that we’re trying to look for a new home for,” she said. “He hops right on him, goes around, and he’s helped me rehome a few of them now. It’s amazing for me to see someone we had to show how to brush a horse and how we liked the stalls mucked, just everyday things, [become] someone that can help me run parts of the business.”
When Proctor learned of Deonte’s aspirations in eventing, he presented a rare opportunity.
“I want to say I was 290 pounds,” said Deonte. “Proctor looked at me and said, ‘You lose 75 pounds, and I’ll sponsor you with a horse. You can use my truck and trailer; I’ll help you with entry fees. We’ll get you new gear.’ I ended up losing over 100 pounds by the next summer.”
Given a choice between two retired race horses, Deonte chose Godard, who competes as Struck By The Gods, bringing him along slowly as they grew together, eventually competing at novice in 2018, and training and modified in 2019.
“I watched a lot of eventing TV when I started him, and that’s how I trained him,” said Deonte. “I’d go on YouTube and find exercises and stuff, and then I’d go to the barn, and I’d set him up with what jump standards I had and learned to ride the questions. When I got to school him, I knew what I thought I was supposed to do, and that’s just what I did. I didn’t really know; I was just going for it. I still do that now, putting the pieces together as it slowly works for me.”
Deonte began working for Sara Kozumplik Murphy and Brian Murphy at Overlook Farm in Berryville, Virginia, in 2018. The following July, he worked with Juli and Ian Sebring at Appleton Equestrian in Elkton.
“He’s always had a really natural way with the horses, very calm and reassuring,” said Maya Black, who gave Deonte dressage lessons at Overlook Farm. “Right from the beginning, you could put him on any hot horse, and he’d give it a pat, and soon enough, that horse is walking on the buckle on a trail ride.
“His development was more on the fine tuning of show barn type of skills, and then teaching him about different types of riding as far as dressage and finessing his position,” she added. “We’re both bigger people, so we need to be extremely quiet and still on a horse. His position changed a lot during that time, making him a lighter ride in the saddle. He always had a very good demeanor and energy about him.”
On a memorable Sept. 6 last year, Deonte ran his first modified class with Godard at the Seneca Valley Pony Club Horse Trials (Maryland). After completing the course and celebrating his accomplishment, he learned of his grandfather’s passing due to complications from a stroke.
“He’d always tell me how proud he was,” Deonte said. “It was a pretty big thing for me to be where I am today; it still kind of is a big thing. [It was] kind of the fuel to be like, ‘If my grandfather says I can do it, then I can do anything.’ ”
Deonte and his grandfather always had a close relationship, Shannon said, and it was John who stepped in when Shannon was in and out of the hospital with her daughter Daysha Davis, who has lupus.
“Deonte, his father wasn’t really around, so my dad was his role model as far as a father figure goes,” said Shannon. “He made sure he took him to every show he had. My dad was there more than I was. Anything that he needed, my dad made sure he had, and he would always encourage him and tell him, ‘You belong. Don’t stop.’ ”
The Journey Continues
Deonte had dreams of stepping Godard up to the preliminary level, but soundness issues prevented the horse from advancing.
“I cried like a baby because I was like, I’m losing my one connection. I felt like he was my one shot to get to where I needed to be,” said Deonte, who retired Godard from competition in February. “Some goals that I always wanted to do, I felt like I was finally making it, and when I had to let him go, it was like everything just stopped.
“I didn’t really know what was the next step because I didn’t have a horse,” he added. “I was sad, depressed for a solid two weeks. It just felt like everything I had worked for was gone, and I didn’t know how I was going to get there again because I put all my money into this one horse, and now I’m like, I don’t know if I can ever afford to get another one.”
A month before Deonte sent Godard to teach children the ropes at Gambler’s Choice Equestrian Center in Dover, Delaware, he accepted an assistant trainer position at Chris Barnard and Justine Dutton’s show jumping focused Notting Hill stables in Ocala. And Sept. 30, he’ll move to Pennsylvania to work with Phillip Dutton.
“I know he has pretty big goals and wants to go up the levels of eventing,” said Justine. “He rides really well, and he always wants pointers and help. We’re really sad to lose him, but at the same time, it’s the next step for him on his journey.”
Shannon’s most proud of Deonte for having paved his way in the industry.
“He is my hero. He taught me to fight. He’s taught me patience,” she said. “I made sure that I taught him respect for others, prayed over him, taught him about God, so he knows to seek God in all that he does, treat people the way he wants to be treated.
“His journey, I don’t even know how to put it in words,” Shannon added. “I’m super proud of him because it wasn’t given to him. I always taught my children—because what my dad taught me—‘You’ll appreciate something that you have to earn.’ That’s why [Deonte] appreciates every opportunity he has.”
This article ran in the Sept. 7 & 14, 2020, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
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