By now you have read the many good articles on inclusion published by The Chronicle of the Horse, Plaid Horse, and across the internet about the Black experience in the horse industry. Some articles are vitriolic and others are passionate accounts of how people have experienced mistreatment in various levels of horse show circles. Some of the best articles have been the ones about Black equestrian activities and success in the industry, such as the positives successes seen on the Facebook pages Black Reins, Young Black Equestrians, and this article in the Chronicle by David Loman, a Black trainer with 44 years in the horse world.
Horse showing is the exciting part of our business. We love it, love to see students succeed and competition increases the drive to excel. And there are all levels of show from back yard grass roots schooling shows to the elite big time competitions where those referred to as the White elite ride. But showing a small part of our industry.
If you are a Black equestrian who is riding and showing your hunter or barrel horse, you have become the Black elite. You are able to give a hand-up to others. And let’s not kid ourselves. Learning to ride well takes hard work even if you’re wealthy.
According to its 2017 Economic Impact Study of the U.S. Horse Industry, the American Horse Council found that 30.5% (38 million) of U.S. Households contain a horse lover. That’s a huge number and the percentage that rides in horse shows is small by comparison. A person needs to look beyond the show ring to find the real horse world because it is so much more than hunter rounds, white saddle pads, and imported horses. Horse shows are not unlike Facebook where we see the perfect side of people. It’s not reality. Like Facebook, horse shows can be a mask covering unpleasant underlying ugliness in peoples’ lives and personalities.
The Lone Weirdo
You may think becoming a horse professional was easy for me because I’m White. That’s not true. Not a single other person in my family even liked horses. There weren’t horse lovers, cavalry members or anything like that in my family history. No one, not even my high school teachers wanted me to go into the horse business. I was brushed off, laughed at, and told to seek a real profession. I was the lone weirdo horse lover growing up in a Long Island, New York suburban family. My father was an electrician and my mother was permanently bedridden with Multiple Sclerosis.
I won’t tell you the boring story of my start with horses except to say I had a love for horses as a child. I read every horse book in the library and chose my Saturday morning black and white TV shows according to whether the program had a horse in it. Fury, The Lone Ranger, Cisco kid were my regulars. I inspected every horse and every bridle with each cowboy show I watched. I was so obsessed my father forbade me to talk about horses at the dinner table. Yup-I know I had the white privilege of going to the library and also watching Saturday morning T.V. And growing up in the 50s and 60s, I learned about race riots, Vietnam War, violence, protests, flower-power, and the gross mistreatment of my fellow human beings, both Jewish and Black.
More White Privilege
The love of horses drove me to find ways to learn about them and to ride. I prayed for what seemed like forever for a horse. That, combined with my nonstop obsession, pushed my parents to the brink and they bought me a horse. From a rental barn. He cost $350 with his saddle, bridle and delivery. I took care of him myself and worked at keeping the barn clean to pay for most of his board. Yup. I understand- more White privilege, but it was good people who allowed me to earn money weeding gardens and ironing for a neighborhood family so I had the money to ride two different buses to my riding lessons. When I got to my lesson I cleaned my instructor’s huge house to pay for the lesson and money to get home. I had a lot of hand-ups help along the way.
Finding a way and working to achieve my goals didn’t stop with my generation. After finishing high school, my daughter went to England as a working student to earn her BHS certifications. She found student airfare and paid her own way.
The recent articles caused me to consider my own involvement and response during fifty plus years of teaching riding. I wondered why I’ve had only a very small handful of Black students. I turned no one away because of skin color, and I offered an opportunity to anyone who would work hard.
The point of this post is not about who is elite, nor is it about who has worked for something and who has not. It’s about opportunity. I speak as someone who shared horses with inner-city kids and wards of the court in the late 60s.
Inclusion Begins with Awareness
Unless passion drops into your soul from the heavens, most people cannot work toward something of which they are unaware. How is a child from an urban area supposed to become passionate about riding horses when they can’t see the opportunity?
From my perspective, we can’t stop racial prejudice at horse shows in a drip down from the top fashion. The real cure for balancing the numbers of Black and White equestrians comes from starting at the bottom and introducing children to horses. Inclusion needs a strong base. What’s the difference if a Black child, or thousands of White children, don’t ride in elite horse shows? The benefits of learning the relationship with horses and horsemanship are the same. And these many skills are powerful building blocks for a successful life. Perhaps a few Black students, like the few White students, will push into the ranks of fancy horses and custom-made boots, but whether Black or White, they will be the minority.
Anyone who knows me, knows I am a foundational person. I believe a strong base, whether it’s a lower leg or increasing entry level riders, creates stability for the structure. If we attack the problem of inequality from the top down all we do is is scratch the surface of the problem. If we build from the bottom up we create a foundation, a base that is strong enough to support progress, one that can actually change our situation.
And please don’t twist what I’m saying. We should not allow prejudice and racial slurs to continue anywhere in our industry. I hope we’ve learned, and are learning, how thoughtless and ignorant we are when we demean other people for who they are. It’s not just time to take a stand against the mean girls in the barn and show ring, and the industry predators. It’s time to take a stand against ignorance and cruelty.
In my next post I’ll step off my soapbox and share a few simple ideas for inclusion and developing an awareness of horses in youth.
I’d love to have your reasonable input on this topic. Good conversation and sharing ideas is a basic step for progress.
Thanks for reading this to the end,
Barbara Ellin Fox