The Limits Of Diversity: Horsemanship, Race And Inclusion

Jun 22, 2020 - 3:00 PM

As an equestrian and medical student who is of Afro-Caribbean descent, it is often the case that I am the only Black person in a given space. Because I grew up in a majority-white suburban town with a large amount of my family living either out of state or abroad, I tended to view this as normal. I have grown up in, been socialized in, and acculturated to white dominant social spaces, and this is probably the reason I felt comfortable in the horse world as a child. This sense of comfort and normalcy allowed me to develop a passion for horsemanship that will keep me in the saddle for the rest of my life.

JessicaBarnesselfie
“While the barn where I board my horse has largely been a safe space for me, I cannot say the same for the industry as a whole,” says Jessica Barnes. Photo Courtesy Of Jessica Barnes

But as an adult, it is much easier to understand why there is a dearth of non-white people in the world of horses in general, and those who look like me in particular. This has been highlighted, now more than ever, by the recent racist police lynching of George Floyd and the nationwide, indeed international, protests it has galvanized in the struggle for Black rights and against racism and oppression.

The recent protests that have swept the country have brought to light the persisting racial disparities of U.S. society. The equestrian world should not and cannot be spared from this critique. While one’s disposable income can be a barrier to entry into the sport, it is not a sufficient explanation as to why there is a lack of diversity.

It is imperative that we stop acting like money is the only barrier to entry in this sport. Of course showing at the 3/4/5* level is expensive, but if money was truly the only thing barring people from participating, there would be no lessons barns, no schooling shows and no pony camp.

If money were the only obstacle to entering the horse world, high-end shows for the ultra-rich would be the only form of competition. Affluent families of color exist, yet they are not adequately represented. For example, 2016 economic data indicates that approximately 13% of African American families have a household income of greater than $100,000 per year.

There are models of the sport that work to mitigate financial burdens on riders and their families. By providing access and exposure in a more affordable fashion, the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association offers an avenue for those of us who are less wealthy to participate. But within the IHSA there is not any semblance of diversity. If the only thing holding minorities back from the sport is money—which, in subtly racist fashion equates non-whites with poverty—why do we not see more minorities in the IHSA? It’s important to point out the IHSA is available to college students, a cohort that is actively growing, pushing their boundaries and looking for new experiences. It only makes sense that if the sport were inclusive, more minorities would not only get their start through the IHSA, but also use it as a launching pad to stay within the industry as either an amateur, professional or fan.

So I pose the question again: Why is there a lack of representation in our sport if there are more affordable avenues to get involved?

While the barn where I board my horse has largely been a safe space for me, I cannot say the same for the industry as a whole. Whether you want to admit it or not, whether you are aware of it or not, the horse world is not always a comfortable milieu to be in and around, particularly for minorities. That one has not personally witnessed racism or racial discrimination does not mean it is not pervasive in the horse world. For example, I’ve been told to my face, “We don’t like Black people here.” Though such perverse and explicit racism exists, the most common formulations of racist sentiments are more subtle.

It’s not always overt racism or discrimination that makes the industry unwelcoming. It’s things like the uneasy glances and a lingering gaze that my father receives when he comes to watch me show, as if he is out of place. And, given the current status of the sport, he is. People are questioning what reasons he has for being at the ring.

It’s also things like being told by one of your riding buddies that “you’re not like other Black people because you are educated and come from a good family.” Racist sentiments such as these may be well intentioned, though often they are not. Regardless of intention, however, such otherization and indeed exoticization (i.e. “I am a ‘special’ Black person!”) does nothing to further diversity or make racial minorities feel welcome.

21/03/2018 ; Wellington FL ; Winter Equestrian Festival - Week 11
“That one has not personally witnessed racism or racial discrimination does not mean it is not pervasive in the horse world,” says Jessica Barnes, shown here in the modified adult jumpers at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.). Sportfot Photo

Or how about when not one but two out of the three industry small businesses you have worked for in the past are also posting things that are problematic? For example, one posts in support of Trump, who has stoked racial animosity. They decry the protests against police brutality and question the point of protesting at all. Another still argued that a white person killed in a similar manner to George Floyd likely has less of a rap sheet, all this under the facile guise of “opinion.” All of this is buttressed by people who ride or are somehow involved in the industry and pen posts on social media tearing down Black Lives Matter or championing content that is downright racist.

We can’t say that this industry is accepting of everyone when the reality is that in person, people are only welcoming of minorities who “check certain boxes,” undoubtedly in categories or areas that make them feel more comfortable, while simultaneously using their social media platform to openly reject or denigrate everyone who doesn’t. This duplicity is not just cognitive dissonance; it is the essence of racism within the horse world.

As a Black woman, to enjoy my time in this industry is rather difficult while knowing full well that some of the circles I run in are inhabited by people who are so ready, and at times eager, to uphold the precepts of systemic racism. It is this same system that disproportionately kills and oppresses people who look like my brother and father in the streets of this country. It is disheartening, to say the least. Knowing all this, it should not come as a surprise that there are so few Black equestrians or Black people associated with the sport. Would you feel welcomed into a space where people are nice to you personally but OK with the status quo, which allows for the modern-day lynching of your kin?

So, if we truly want a more diverse and inclusive sport, the first step is to be introspective as to how certain spaces are unwelcoming. Take some initiative and read or watch one of the many resources available on race relations in the U.S. Understand what a microaggression is and take active steps not to use them anymore. Have the hard conversations at home with your family about race and don’t be afraid to speak up when a family member says something that is even a little bit racist. Accept that Black people are deeply oppressed in this society, and, with this in mind, advocate for minorities, and not just people of African descent, but others as well.

And if while on this path and you make a mistake and get “called out,” don’t be offended and don’t try to justify it. Just think about how you could do better next time. These changes represent a journey of emotional and character growth that will not be easy or comfortable, but the industry will come out stronger for it.


Born to Jamaican parents and raised in New Jersey, 26-year-old Jessica Barnes is in her last year of medical school at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Her academic interests lie in medical education and the field of anesthesia and critical care. She is passionate about giving back to the community her medical school serves through outreach programs. When she is not studying you can find her at the barn spoiling her jumper Cody. The pair shows in the adult and amateur jumpers. Jessica has trained with Amber and Tommy Harte of Brass Ring Farm for the last five years and competes with them in the Northeast and in Wellington, Florida. When not riding or studying, Jessica enjoys spending time with her family, her friends and her rabbit, Hazel.

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