As we celebrate Black History Month, how much do you know about Black equestrian history in the United States? Black horsemen and women have shaped modern sport on its frontlines and, when forced out of the spotlight by racism, behind the scenes and in the barns where they trained and rode horses but were not allowed to compete.
Take our true/false quiz to test just a bit of your knowledge, and read on to check your results:
- Most of the jockeys to ride in the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, were Black, including winning jockey Oliver Lewis.
- Black jockeys have been regular participants in the Kentucky Derby throughout its nearly 150-year history.
- Historians estimate that more than one in four cowboys in the American West were Black.
- A Black cowboy, Bill Pickett, developed one of the eight events (saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, team roping, barrel racing and steer roping) that make up professional rodeo today. Bonus points: Which one?
- Cheryl White became the first licensed Black female jockey in 1995.
- No Black riders have been inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.
- Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis organized a horse show exclusively for Black equestrians.
The answers to those questions and more were covered in a webinar on notable Black equestrians presented Feb. 10 by the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the second in its series on diversity, equity and inclusion.
The presentation included brief biographies of influential Black equestrians from the past 150 years, as well as discussion of how to make today’s sport more welcoming for athletes of color.
Black Jockeys Dominated The Early Days Of Thoroughbred Racing
The histories of equestrianism most of us are familiar with often leave out the stories of Black equestrians, who were nonetheless accomplished and instrumental in all areas of sport and horsemanship in general.
Thoroughbred racing in particular was dominated for decades by Black jockeys, who learned horsemanship skills during enslavement, when they served as riders, grooms and trainers for their white masters’ horses.
“It’s arguable that Black jockeys were really America’s first sports stars,” said webinar moderator Dominique Mungin, chair of the USHJA’s Diversity and Inclusion Advocacy Committee. “In particular, Black folks won 15 out of the first 28 Kentucky Derbies, and in fact, the very first Kentucky Derby featured 13 out of the 15 jockeys as Black men.”
But by 1904, Mungin said, Black jockeys were unofficially banned from horse racing. No Black jockey participated in the Kentucky Derby from 1921 until 2000, she added.
“Throughout the 1900s, systemic racism pushed Black riders off the track, both physically and structurally,” Mungin said. “Physically, there are numerous accounts of white jockey sabotaging Black riders by literally boxing them in, forcing them to crash into other horses or into the rails themselves. White jockeys also would beat Black jockeys with their whips during races, causing them to fall off their horses, and some Black jockeys would become critically injured from these events or even killed because of these actions.
“Structurally, groups colloquially known as ‘anti-colored unions’ had the goal of running Black riders off the racetrack through collusion between jockeys, owners and officials,” she continued.
Some influential Black jockeys included:
• Oliver Lewis, who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875 on Aristides, a chestnut colt trained by Ansel Williamson, himself a former slave who would go on to be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Lewis later became a bookmaker (despite it being illegal at the time) and wrote detailed handicapping charts that were the precursors to those found today in publications like the Daily Racing Form.
• Isaac Burns Murphy, one of the most popular sports figures of his time, is considered to be one of the greatest jockeys in American history. The son of a former slave, he grew up around horse barns in Lexington, Kentucky, and became a jockey at 14. He won an estimated 44% of his races, was the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies and was also the Derby’s first three-time winner. In 1995, the National Turf Writers Association established the Isaac Murphy Award, which is presented annually to the North American jockey with the highest winning percentage.
• Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1901 and 1902 and later moved to Europe and continued his successful racing career. He retired in 1919 with more than 2,500 wins and then began a career as a trainer, establishing a barn in France with his son Robert.
• Cheryl White, who became the first licensed Black female jockey in 1971 at the age of 17. Over a two-decade career she notched 227 wins and earned over $762,000 racing Thoroughbreds, and then later took up Appaloosa racing on the county fair circuit in California. She was the first woman to win the Appaloosa Horse Club’s Jockey of the Year (and would win it again three more times) and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2011. She also became the first woman to serve as a racing steward in California.
Black Cowboys Helped America Expand Westward
While Black jockeys were succeeding on the race track, Black cowboys also played an important role in the development of the American West.
“Though African American cowboys don’t necessarily play a large part in the popular narrative, historians estimate that over one in four cowboys were Black,” said Mungin.
In 1860, the U.S. Census reported over 180,000 slaves living in Texas, and after Texas joined the Confederacy in 1861, Texas ranchers depended on their enslaved people to maintain their land and cattle while they fought in the Civil War. Enslaved people became skilled at tending cattle and breaking horses, and in the post-war era, free Blacks were able to use those skills to help herd enormous herds of cattle north where demand was higher.
Some notable Black cowboys include:
• Nat Love, born into slavery near Nashville in 1854, left home at 16 and headed West to work as a cowboy. He was known as an excellent cattle driver and marksman, and wrote an autobiography in 1907 called “The Life and Adventures of Nat Love.”
• Bill Pickett, who was born in Texas in 1870, was a famous early rodeo star who is credited with inventing the sport of steer wrestling, colloquially called “bulldogging” to this day after the technique he pioneered. He became the first Black person inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1972, nearly 40 years after his death.
• Cleo Hearn, who has been a professional cowboy since 1959. He was the first African American to attend college on a rodeo scholarship and has played a cowboy in television commercials for Ford, Pepsi and Levi’s. He was also the first African American to portray the iconic Marlboro Man. In 1971, Hearn and three other men formed what would become the Cowboys of Color Association. He was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in 2022.
Black Stars From The Show Ring
As the idea of riding simply for leisure and sport began to take off in the U.S., Black equestrians became prominent figures in the show ring as well, and they continue to make a mark on the sport today. Some notable names include:
• Sullivan “Dave” Davis, who was involved with many different breeds, including Morgans, Arabians and hunters, but was most successful with American Saddlebreds—a discipline within which Black equestrians were widespread and successful. Davis was a rider and trainer, and the Leone brothers of show jumping fame—Mark, Peter and Armand—were among his students.
• Charles “Sonny” Brooks, who was the first—and so far, only—African American to be inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. He was one of the most successful riders of the 1950s and ’60s, although he often couldn’t attend the afterparties at the shows where he won because they were “whites only.”
• Sachine Belle, who won back-to-back championships in the green conformation hunter division at the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) in 2002 and 2003. She and In Disguise also became the second pair to ever score a perfect 100 at the Capital Challenge (Maryland) in the second year green working hunter division. Belle is a professional based in Lebanon, Connecticut.
Although they weren’t all accomplished competitors in their own right, many famous Black Americans have also held a strong appreciation for horses. Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis rode and competed himself, in addition to be involved in the creation of shows for Black competitors when they weren’t allowed to compete in regular shows. Baseball great Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and was assigned to a segregated cavalry unit, the Ninth Cavalry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. And rap artist MC Hammer was an owner of successful Thoroughbred race horses.
The Feb. 10 USHJA webinar was moderated by Mungin, chair of the USHJA’s Diversity and Inclusion Advocacy Committee. The panelists were: Rob Jacobs of Seattle, Washington, an “r” rated U.S. Equestrian Federation judge, trainer and columnist; Erin Brown of Philadelphia, executive director of the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy; and Kacy Smith of Ashburn, Virginia, who competes in the junior jumpers. An archived version of the webinar is available online, along with a reading list to learn more about Black equestrian history.
You can find more DEI resources on USHJA’s website.
(If you didn’t find the answers to the quiz questions above, #2, 5 and 6 were all false, and the rest were true facts.)