I’m mixed race: My mother is of Italian descent, and my father is African American with Native American lineage as well. Even though I’m half white, I’ve never enjoyed the privilege that comes with having white skin.
My first riding lesson was at 8 years old. Like many young girls introduced to horses, I was instantly hooked. I was privileged to have a mother who worked very hard to afford my weekly riding lessons. Riding gave me a purpose, something to look forward to. I rode my very best at every lesson.
I was also blessed to have a wonderful trainer who shaped the very foundation of the rider and horsewoman I became. She taught me everything from the hoof up, and I learned how to establish relationships with horses based on respect. Eventually, my trainer helped my mother find a horse for me to ride and compete during the show season. Smokey was an Appaloosa-Quarter Horse cross who, surprisingly, had a full mane and tail—and a heart of gold. To this day, he’s still the best horse I ever had.
Growing up at the barn, everyone was kind, and I never felt like I was different or that I didn’t fit in. I had a great childhood friend at the barn, and we became friends outside of horses—more than 30 years have passed, and we’re still in contact.
Things changed when I started showing. I recognized that I was different from the other girls at the show. What stood out in my mind was not seeing another person of color or another Appaloosa—double the awkwardness. I saw white girls with pink ribbons decorating their braided pigtails and lots of dapple-gray ponies in my short stirrup classes. There wasn’t anybody like me. I guess I had just assumed there were people like me at every barn, but the horse world wasn’t very diverse at all. This was in the early ’90s, but there are still few riders of color competing in the show world today.
The sport lacks diversity primarily for financial reasons. You have to have the resources for lessons, clothing, board, vet bills, more vet bills and so on. Even if you’re an extremely talented rider, many redline and fail to climb the ranks because they can’t afford the horse with all the gears to get them there. Less talented riders with financial means have no limits. That’s not to say some don’t deserve to be where they are, but I’ve seen some lesser-known riders who could outride some at the top. It’s not a level playing field, to begin with. And let’s face it, not everyone is getting sponsored or has the connections to progress in the sport.
Suffering In Silence
When I look back to those show days, I have some very good memories, but the negative ones are more abundant and persistent, like girls starting at me as I struggled to get my curly hair into the net, desperately trying to tame the flyaway hairs to fit neatly under the hunt cap. I just wanted to have neat and tidy hair like the other girls to fit in better. I remember the smirks on their faces, and it never sat well.
Many times I’d walk the show grounds alone. I liked seeing the variety of horses, which was a stark contrast to the lack of human variety. On many occasions, I would hear girls comment and laugh about my “messy” hair as I walked by their horse trailer. Some would literally point at me and whisper. I did stand out; I was the darker-skinned girl on the Appaloosa.
Some girls felt entitled enough to ask me point blank, “What are you?” It wasn’t with a curious or friendly demeanor that some young girls have; it was accompanied by a tone of voice that implied I was different and didn’t belong. After several of these encounters, I thought something was wrong with me. I felt alien.
I didn’t speak outright about these situations at the time; as a young child it’s hard to articulate complex emotions that you don’t understand. I was embarrassed to be different. I didn’t know exactly what I was experiencing until I matured a bit into my teens, and at that moment I’m certain I had my first dark night of the soul. I wanted to talk about what had happened, but I thought nobody would believe me, or they would think I was misinterpreting the behavior of others. We never really had a talk about racism in my household when I was young, so I didn’t have that term as a tool to identify that type of discrimination.
I never brought any of this to my mother’s attention. She had endured harsh judgment, accompanied by some name-calling too painful to type, for being in an interracial relationship and was further shamed because she had a mixed-race child.
Honestly, there were many days after the shows where I’d just go in my room and cry myself to sleep. The comments, the looks, the sneers, it was so confusing and weighed heavily on me. Nobody knew how deeply tormented I felt about this.
Over time, I reached a breaking point. I grew sour and uninterested in the show world. The thought of going to another hunter/jumper show made my stomach turn. Looking back, I’m sure a lot of people just assumed I was a teen with an attitude or had a chip on my shoulder, but the truth is I was frustrated. Nobody wants to feel like an unwanted guest.
I never gave up on my love for horses and riding. Instead, I discovered the world of horse racing. When I stepped onto the track, I was shocked. People were from every part of the world and, best of all, nobody gives a damn what your ethnicity is—just work hard, take care of the horses, don’t complain, and show up the next day.
The experience positively changed me. I focused on becoming a better rider to diversify my skillset by learning how to break 2-year-olds on the farm, gallop on the track, establish a good clock, rate horses, break sharply from the gate, and eventually ride races as a professional jockey. I had a renewed sense of confidence where I didn’t question my abilities or talents. I could handle tough horses, encourage those that lacked confidence, and calm the high-strung and nervous types, which felt amazing.
Listening To Someone’s Truth
After I read Sophie Gochman’s article, I was moved by her honesty and willingness to bring to light the ugliness of racism and lack of diversity in this sport. I have hope for the future of this sport now that the U.S. Equestrian Federation has stepped in and acknowledged a lack of diversity. I hope the younger generation transcends the attitude of elitism and racism—but it’s a learned behavior, so there’s a need for change at home. And judging by the comments alone, it’s going to be a long journey.
I’m grateful to Robert Dover, whom I looked up to as a young rider, and many of the other prominent equestrians who have used their platform to speak about systemic racism. Thank you for not dismissing our experiences and listening to our stories.
Here’s the thing many people don’t understand: Racism can be difficult to describe to a person who has never experienced it. Acts of discrimination aren’t always overt and obvious, like someone seeing a black or brown person and suddenly grabbing their purse or crossing the street to avoid them. Many times they’re subtle and nuanced. What makes this conversation difficult is the denial that racism is a real issue and the refusal to face it.
On so many occasions, horse people assumed I didn’t know basic horsemanship or how to handle a horse. Mentioning simple things like, “You should hold the lead rope like this,” and, “Do you know you should mount a horse on the left?” The comments were made before they even saw what I was capable of. These situations were particularly frustrating because, with all the horse experience I have, I could teach them so much—but I just swept aside their ignorance and said nothing.
Women of color are opening their hearts and sharing their truth about experiences they’ve had in the horse world. It’s heartbreaking to see some left horses behind, but I can certainly understand why.
When I see the comments on pieces written by equestrians of color, there are many who are supportive, and that’s encouraging to see. However, far too many people immediately dismiss a person of color’s experience—asking for proof and examples, instead of listening to their truth without putting them on trial. The very act of dismissing and questioning someone’s truth is another form of suppression and oppression. Microaggressions are deeply seated in many of the comments and even in the article the Chronicle published, “Sometimes You Have To Read Between the Lines.” It’s disheartening to see people with prominent stature in the show world given a platform to further oppress the voice of people of color because they don’t see evidence of discrimination.
If you don’t understand racism in America, seek education, and learn about U.S. history. And please stop asking people of color to educate you—it gets exhausting. USEF provided some excellent resources in a recent email, including a number of African American sites and organizations with resources. But don’t stop there. Learn about the history of other minorities, because America is so diverse. History is fascinating as well as enlightening.
If you want transformation in society, it starts on an individual level with yourself. Speak up and support people of color—especially now. You can even volunteer your time or donate to organizations dedicated to helping minority and/or underprivileged children experience the joy of horses. As horse people, we all know the gift of horses can change lives.
Raina Paucar is a retired professional Thoroughbred jockey who has worked privately for more than 20 years to rehab and rehome ex-race horses. She is certified in equine massage and PEMF and has studied Kinesio taping and many other equine rehab modalities. Currently, she works as an independent product developer, retailing her latest equine invention Drop-N-Slow. Raina can also be found at her blog at ohioequinerehab.com.