2020 has been quite the year so far. January brought the optimism of not only a new year, but a new decade! Yet between an entire continent catching on fire, a global pandemic, and a movement which has captured the attention of the whole world, 2020 unquestionably has something it is trying to tell us.
I will admit I was nervous to sit down and write this. We live in a time where it seems like you are not only damned if you do, but damned if you don’t. Many are afraid to speak up out of fear. Uncertain if what they say will be correct, whether politically or otherwise, and how it may be perceived by others. Nonetheless here I am, to give the perspective of a young working student/exercise rider who is also biracial, black and white.
I would be remiss if many of my white peers in the equine world were showing such notable support of the Black Lives Matter movement, while I stood by and said nothing. To be honest I am not used to talking heavily about race, as it tends to make white people uncomfortable. I have grown up in a white neighborhood, with primarily white friends, and am passionately involved in a “rich white-person sport.” With the added variable of being biracial, when I have tried to have open conversations about race, I’m usually met with, “Well you’re only half, you’re not even that black.” I have often wondered what was meant by said statement.
It’s puzzling to participate in a sport in which I sometimes feel I don’t truly belong. I’ve often felt as though I’m on the outside looking in, but let’s be perfectly clear here. The lack of involvement of black men and women in the horse community is not only one of race, but of financial capability. Whether black or white, one automatically has a leg-up if there is enough disposable income to contribute to their passion.
At 8 years old, I begged my parents to take riding lessons. At the time, one lesson a week was all they could afford. One lesson then turned into doing work around the barn for extra rides. Extra rides turned into working student roles. Up at 5am before horse shows, 12-hour days, and working non-stop to keep my dreams alive as I’ve never been able to afford more than a feed-lease. My parents paid for the first two shows of my career. Since then, I’ve worked for my trainers to pay off the barn side of fees, as well as working for a horse show company to work off my show fees. So trust me, I understand what it is like to work hard to feel as though you even remotely matter, when most of your fellow riders have their own horses and can compete monthly. It’s not their fault either, they are simply making the most of their situation the same way I was.
My love for the sport continued when I moved to the East Coast and earned my bachelor’s degree in Equine Studies. Afterward, I continued to work in the equine business in a variety of positions. Although I’ve lived and breathed horses for almost 18 years, the number of black riders I’ve encountered have been few and far between.
As a child I rarely, if ever saw black riders modeling the clothing I wanted to buy, ran into very few black exhibitors, and certainly never saw black Grand-Prix riders at the horse shows. At first, I didn’t really notice I would often be the only person of color at my home barn or on the showgrounds. The realization came to me in the same way one wakes up from a long night’s sleep. Slowly, then all at once.
Over time, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was different. I observed I was the only black rider at my barn, never saw equestrian companies which featured black models, and felt as though in some ways I participated in a centuries-old narrative, playing the role of the black worker with limited means, working for wealthy white individuals. I’m not saying this is anyone’s fault or that it’s right or wrong – it’s just the way it is.
What is wrong is having a white man invade my personal space to touch my “dreads” without my permission while I was working at HITS Coachella last year. I was stunned, but not surprised by this interaction. I then fielded a relentless series of various questions for the next few weeks regarding my “locks”, as I would often receive double takes from numerous exhibitors. How do you wash them? How do you put them in a helmet? What happened to your hair? I found some questions to be of genuine curiosity, while others were downright rude. I was exhausted and somewhat annoyed having to consistently be interviewed when at the end of the day, it is just hair. This highlighted the reality of the issue: there are simply not enough black individuals at the horse show and in the equine community in general. By the way, they were box braids…
I’ve never competed on a world-stage, but I’ve always felt every time I show, I ride to help represent every little black girl who doesn’t believe she will ever have the opportunity to step into the show ring. Thank God for riders like Mavis Spencer and Jordan Allen, who started their careers as working students, and are some of the most well-known riders in the country. They have inspired me in ways I could only hope to properly articulate to them one day. I’m always so excited and proud to see fellow riders and trainers of color. Since the tragic death of George Floyd, there has been a global shift. I’m now seeing more black equestrians than ever before use their voice to say, “I’m here too.”
In order to have more representation in this industry, we need to make it more accessible. Trainers who have working students need to trust in the people they have working for them, and if possible, provide them with rides in addition to their work. Equestrian tack and clothing companies absolutely need to have more men and women of color, with various body shapes and sizes in their photo shoots and catalogues. US Equestrian needs to feature more black members in their marketing and ad campaigns. Programs like the Compton Jr. Posse are critical to exposing underrepresented youth to the animals we all know and love. These would be steps in the right direction.
I would not have made it as far as I have without the generosity and guidance of numerous white trainers, college professors, and other equine professionals. They recognized my hard work and potential, opening doors I could never have opened myself. For this I am forever grateful.
Black Lives Matter is not about black vs. white. Law enforcement vs. people of color. It’s the fact that my mother had to have the conversation with my brothers about how to interact with the police if or when they would get pulled over. It’s the fact that I’ve faced certain prejudices because of the color of my skin. It’s the fact that in the same day, my white father was let go with a warning for speeding while my black mother was issued a ticket, even though they were each going the exact same speed.
One day, I hope I can bring my children to Grand-Prix’s and see a more diverse order-of-go. Until then, please do your part to protest, donate money, speak up, and vote. These are the actions which will truly make a difference! It is unfathomable to me that there are still people who do not understand the severity of this situation. It is heartbreaking that the systemic racism in our society has taken the lives of so many sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. This conversation will not be over anytime soon. In fact, it is just the beginning…
Written by Camille S.
Below are some Black-owned equestrian businesses, organizations, and Instagram accounts to follow:
COMPTON JR. POSSE
SADDLE UP AND READ
CBC HORSEBACK RIDING ACADEMY
DIVERSIFY YOUR FEED:
If you are a black-owned equestrian business and would like to be featured here or would like to advertise on The Hunt (for free!) please email me at email@example.com.