On June 1, the Chronicle published a scorching missive from an angry 17-year-old young rider about the horse world’s silence on social injustice and white privilege.
And we watched social media blow up. Almost 2,000 comments on Facebook in two days. Close to 1,000 shares. People praised Sophie Gochman for voicing the things they’d been thinking. They called her brave and thanked her. Others sent angry emails and canceled their subscriptions to the Chronicle. While we pride ourselves on tackling the tough topics in the horse world, the response to this opinion piece is definitely a record. Those responses are a reflection of what’s happening in the USA at large right now, with our cities on fire and protestors taking to the streets. People are scared, and people are angry.
Could we have done a better job of opening this can of worms among horse folks? Sure. As a messenger, Sophie has some drawbacks. She’s white. She knows privilege beyond what most people will ever dream of, and she acknowledges it. She’s a kid who sometimes posts immature things on her personal social media accounts.
Sophie is also the reigning young rider gold medalist from the North American Youth Championships, and she stepped forward into a space where few other elite riders had gone, and she asked: Why aren’t we talking about this?
I’m sad, although I’m not surprised, that Sophie’s reputation has been attacked. What do we do when we don’t like the message? Attack the messenger. Those of us over 35 should count our blessings that social media wasn’t a thing when we were 17.
While I think her message could’ve been more nuanced, more inclusive, less divisive, I also believe we could’ve spent years trying to write the perfect story on white privilege and social inequality in horse sport, and we never would’ve gotten there.
Because this is hard to talk about. I personally have stayed mostly silent because I just didn’t know what to say. Of course I don’t support police brutality against black people, or anyone for that matter. I’m uncomfortable that because I was born with white skin, my life has been easier than others. Honestly, sometimes I’m afraid to even write supportive things on social media because I worry I’m just being a “slacktivist” if I do anything less than dedicating my life to fighting racial injustice.
But the more I listen to the voices of the people who are speaking up, the more I believe there’s no “right” way to address racial and social inequality in our sport or this country. There’s only starting to talk about it openly, listening with open minds to people describing their experiences, thinking about what part you play in the system, and committing to making things better as you can.
Whether you agree with what Sophie said or the way she said it, she brought a conversation out into the open. I know many people would argue they’ve been quietly working to address these issues behind closed doors or in less dramatic fashion. That’s wonderful, fantastic! We’ve been doing that at the Chronicle too, trying to tell the stories of people who look different, come from different backgrounds, have different points of view. Trying to highlight those who are taking concrete actions to make the horse world a better, more inclusive place.
We’ll keep doing that. I’m hopeful that we’re going to publish some really thoughtful responses to Sophie’s article, including those from people of color who never would’ve thought of writing something for the Chronicle before about their experience.
Horse people have many wonderful qualities. COVID-19 has highlighted how much we do try to take care of one another, as so many have worked to support those who need it most right now, within the industry and without. Empathy, patience and how to work really hard are just the beginning of the skills we receive when we dedicate our lives to learning from horses. Horses are the thing that keeps us sane or the thing that makes us insane, depending on the day.
You can choose to read Sophie’s opinion as ignorant shouting from a spoiled teenager, or you can see a passionate young rider who desperately wants to right the wrongs in a sport she loves and share the power of the horse and the horse community with so many more than it currently reaches. She’s kicked the door down and hit some people in the face on her way through with her message, but I hope many more will follow her through that open door—or maybe they were already doing it, but now they’ll let more people know—and we can all work together to make horse sport something everyone can experience.
If you want to share your opinions about racial injustice and social inequality in the horse world, please get in touch. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.