Life As A Black Equestrian

Jun 12, 2020 - 8:04 AM

The first time I sat on a horse I was probably 3. It was a pony ride, one of those that happened at a community day or a festival. When I was 8 years old I was invited to a pony birthday party at Wildwood Paddocks, a lesson barn in Vancouver. I was hooked, and that’s when my lifelong passion, love and respect for the horse took root. For the last 10 years I’ve ridden at Thunderbird Show Stables in Langley, British Columbia, with Laura and Brent Balisky and Laura-Jane Tidball. I currently own two horses, Sugar and Tigger, and I show Tigger in the hunter ring and the baby derbies at AA shows. I bred Tigger myself out of my old show mare Syd to Westporte, who is a local stallion standing at Country Lane Farms. I bought Sugar in California a few years ago, and he was originally imported from Germany. Both horses are pretty amazing, and I am so lucky to have these two geldings. Both very different rides, but both hack winners and winners in the ring.

Shortly after that birthday party I took two lessons a week and spent my entire summer doing pony camps. When I was 10, I leased my first horse, Bracken, who taught me so much about responsibility and courage. Wildwood Paddocks was never a place where they did things for you. You learned and did things for yourself, and that really solidified your respect for the kind of care and labor horses require. I grew up in the culture of barn rats, spending hours grooming ponies, riding bareback through sprinklers and trail rides by the river. We were at the barn from dawn until dusk and thought it was a privilege to muck a stall not a chore.

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Stephanie Kallstrom with Tigger. Photo Courtesy Of Stephanie Kallstrom

Despite my memories of childhood happiness, I was aware of the fact that I was often, if not always, the only black child at the barn. The only black child in Pony Club, the only black child among all my white friends. There was always some kind of feeling of belonging because my friends (who I am still close to now) were always kind, compassionate and never racist. There was, however, always a looming and obvious visual feeling of being the fly in the milk.

The significance of that comparison? You become the only thing anyone can look at; you are the thing that is unwanted. As I got older and moved out of the pony barn and into horse ownership and showing, “the fly in milk” analogy became that much more real. At horse shows I was usually the only black rider on the showgrounds, and due to the larger volume of people, it felt as if I was that much more out of place. I was out of my safe zone of my barn family and mixed in with dozens of new people who I wasn’t sure would be as accepting and kind. Every time I step into the ring, even now, I wonder if the judge will see me past the color of my skin.

From a very young age I learned to smile and nod in the face of racism because people don’t like to be challenged or to be called racist. When no one can relate to you or see how inappropriate their comments might be, you are left standing alone, fighting for something no one will likely understand. The things as simple as, “Do you get sunburnt? I don’t know if that happens with your dark skin,” or, “I have a black friend. Do you know them?” or even, “Oh, you’re the groom or the working student, right? That must be hard.” My usual course of action is that I talk myself down from major annoyance and then respond with a smile and joyful answer so I don’t rock the boat. These questions may not be in malice, but they are offensive and based on oppression and are only asked to satisfy your own curiosity. Black people aren’t your own personal encyclopedia, nor are we placed on this earth to support your uncomfortable mind or for you to prove to yourself that you really aren’t racist.

I need you all to do better, and I realize that in asking this there will be growing pains. For me that’s OK. I’m OK if you make mistakes because no one learns perfectly. Please treat me like everyone else; realize that I am aware that I stick out like a sore thumb; don’t add to my discomfort. I need to hear you care about black equestrians by helping include us in ads, equestrian clothing lines and horse show facility prize lists. I need you to understand that there is a huge socioeconomic imbalance due to systemic oppression and racism, and that is one (definitely not the only) of the reasons there are so few of us in the sport. Socioeconomic imbalance and poverty is high among the black community, unfortunately. In order to change that you need to be our action-driven and loud allies. If you hear anyone making a racist joke, comment or assumption, call them out. Don’t wait, don’t be shy, just confront it. Implement consequences for racism, no matter how insignificant you may think the comment or action is, and make sure black, indigenous and people of color are involved in the decision making and/or discipline hearings. With these small steps, we will move forward in allowing comfort for diversity in our sport. If you chose to ignore it because you are uncomfortable or it doesn’t affect you, nothing will change.

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Stephanie Kallstrom shows Tigger as an amateur. Totem Photographics Photo

Riding horses allowed me to survive some pretty significant childhood trauma. Riding has also helped me on my journey of healing from that trauma that still affects me today. I have called riding my safe place, but it’s not always safe. It’s not always safe because of the lack of inclusion and diversity. Can you imagine if your safe space was disrupted by anti-black and racist conversations, jokes and actions? I know my experience differs from other BIPOC, but I have been incredibly fortunate to always have safety within my barn family. I know a lot of BIPOC do not have that experience. I’m lucky that I feel the safest surrounded by my barn family as they line the fence watching me in the ring. That’s what families are supposed to do right? Protect you and make you feel safe and loved.

Several of my equestrian friends brought Missy Clark’s overtly prejudiced and racist column to my attention. As I read through it I was brought to tears. Everything I thought was an over-exaggeration of the equestrian world was true. As I saw other big names championing this article it had me reassess whether or not I belong in the sport. Whether I was too black and too different to be in the saddle. I spent hours overcome with sadness and recognized this feeling from childhood, the feeling of not being included because you are black.

I am no stranger when it comes to racism; I’ve been called that awful derogatory name so many times I couldn’t even begin to count. I’ve also experienced exclusion due to racism and a lot of prejudice. My first experience was at 4 years old when I was on the playground. The other children told me I could play, but I had to live in the basement and be the slave because I am black. Reading this article felt just like that incident, and the other big names who championed it felt like the other kids who just nodded their heads. It was traumatizing to read, so much so I actually unpacked it with my counselor.

Once I composed myself I decided I needed to reach out to Missy personally. I needed her to hear how much pain this had caused me. Missy’s response blew me away. It wasn’t something I was expecting. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but I felt it as a wholehearted effort, and it showed growth. Missy was apologetic and didn’t purposefully want to cause me or anyone else any pain. She told me she had been doing her own work to educate herself over the last hours as well. She took accountability and was open to my reading suggestions. I forcefully suggested the bestsellers “White Supremacy And Me” and “White Privilege” as reads that I felt were important. She also showed me that she was human, and when we are going through these growing pains that’s all we can hope for: humanity. Missy has always been someone I have looked up to; I’ve forever been a hunter/equitation kid. As an adult, I was particularly happy to see her humanity. Missy offered to keep in contact, which I intend to do because those kinds of offers are few and far between. No one is perfect, and during these times I think it’s important to be able to communicate honestly and openly.


When Stephanie Kallstrom is not riding you’ll find her on her yoga mat or at the dog park. She does a strong vinyasa practice daily. During quarantine this has been on Zoom with her favorite teachers in her living room. Stephanie has three dogs; Sassy, Kiwi and Ember. Ember is finishing up her training to be her service dog; you’ll find her wherever Stephanie is. She’s also working hard on creating plant-based, whole-food, organic meals. Stephanie works in Canada’s most marginalized and poverty-stricken community as a case manager. She also manages the Naloxone (opioids overdose reversal drug) program at their site. Her clients are folks who have multiple barriers including severe mental illness, drug/alcohol addiction, brain injuries, complex trauma and intergenerational trauma. She works from a trauma-informed approach and teaches practicum students several times a year. Her job is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who isn’t willing to accept people just the way they are.

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