Last week, I got back in the saddle. The horsey saddle that is. I hadn’t sat on, let alone ridden a horse in 10 years and believe me feeling sore after is an understatement. But I’m not here to talk about my aching buttocks or sore quads today. I’m wondering why almost 15 years on from my first riding experience, I’m still struggling to see black people proudly a top a horse or making any kind of horsey headlines in the media? I know there are black riders. I’m one of them! So, where is our representation? Or is this another area where we are swept under the carpet?
Let’s face it. Horse racing in itself is still known as the “sport of kings”, so the representation of the industry having a certain type of racial exclusivity is not surprising (even if my African ancestors could well have been royalty, how would I know – burnt documents). I know I can be bold enough to state that I’m a queen. Heck, I’m a daughter of the king and yet why have I always felt like I didn’t belong in the horsey world? Oh right? Yeah, that’s because I was sometimes made to feel as such.
Why have I always felt like I didn’t belong in the horsey world?
So, back to last week. I was riding with my friend Lisa. She’s great. We bonded over or love of dogs at the shelter we volunteer at, horses and now all things Jane Austen – yes specifically Pride & Prejudice. She was definitely up for a morning hack and she is one of those really pure souls that just believes in giving love and receiving love in equal measure.
Riding really is a ‘rekindling’ love of mine. But hacking in the park with Lisa has definitely bought those all too familiar experiences back to the forefront of my mind and had me wondering how much has changed since then…
“Hacking, definately bought those all too familiar experiences back to the forefront of my mind.”
I remember being on a horse yard doing work experience for my Animal science course (like in school, I was the only non Caucasian in the classroom – go figure!). I was in the middle of tacking up this woman’s horse. I could feel her staring at me. I focused on the horse. The horse sure wasn’t judging me. There is also this waiting with baited breathe feeling that we go through when we feel eyes staring at us. Waiting and wondering if we will again be able to silently blend into the background should the moment call for it. But that’s just it, we shouldn’t have to make ourselves small to accommodate the masses of people who aren’t necessarily told that they will have to “work harder” to get further in life or in their careers, or justify why we TOO deserve a space in the room. Eventually she said it. “Don’t get many of your sort on a horse yard.”
I turned and looked at her. I could feel my blood boiling. In that moment I had 2 options. Speak my mind – which would’ve been “What do you mean by my sort?” – or put up and shut up. I needed the work experience, so I chose the option that wouldn’t result in a complaint and a likely termination of said experience. With grace I simply said “Yeah, I love animals and really enjoy riding too.” Her lips pursed, I gave her the reins of her horse and went about the rest of my shift. Having to watch what I say to climb the next rug of the ladder to me is maddening. Looking back, I wish the whole freedom of speech thing would have actually applied to me. But I knew that things in the animal world and especially the equestrian world have not been laid out for my benefit.
They suggested: perhaps I’d “feel more comfortable” as a stud hand “behind the scenes”.
As is usually the case, it wasn’t to be the last time I experienced blatant discrimination in the equestrian world. I applied for a horse training program in the North of England. My friend drove me as I didn’t have my own car back then. They assumed he was the interviewee and when I corrected them, their faces dropped. I knew then, without having been interviewed I would not get a place. Sure their may have been better candidates, but their facial expressions already told me everything I would have to know about the email that they would send in a few days time. The email and I remember it so clearly. Thank you for your application, however you have not been successful. I asked for feedback…that was worse. We felt you wouldn’t be ” the right fit” (read race) for the team and the suggestion made was that perhaps I’d “feel more comfortable” as a stud hand “behind the scenes”.
Are we still behind the scenes now?
But it’s 2020 now right? So, there must be more established riders, jockeys and sport people out in the world of African and Caribbean descent. So, where are they? Have they decided to hide under a rock? Have they chosen to remain as far from the spotlight as possible? Instead choosing to hide their God given light’s instead of making them shine as bright as their white colleagues and counterparts?
I did a google search and believe you me, the struggle to find any black people past and present that were riders was not so easy. You can try it for yourself….
Some of my searches included but were not exclusive to:
- Black Riders
- Black equestrians
- Black equestrians Britain
- Black British equestrian
- Black horse men/women
- Black horse riders in Britain
- Famous black horse riders
Many of these searches were futile. A few bought up equestrian men and women in the USA. Dependent on what I searched for the search results varied from pictures of black jodhpurs, black horses, pieces on the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and even a synopsis of the Narguls of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR series!
Of the many searches I did do I only found a few small articles featuring up and coming ethnic equestrians. A few bought up equestrian men and women in the USA. The first black female jockey in the USA, Cheryl White and Mavis Spence groom turn grand Prix rider. One about a young black Muslim girl Khadijah Mellah in London and another young black man, Reece McCook who lives in New Zealand. A few old articles about Sam Martin an Olympic hopeful from 2016, whom I found no recent new of also turned up, but the emphasis on his ‘troublemaker’ past made it appear (in my opinion) like he was tolerated rather than accepted. But overall it was not easy to find equestrians of colour within search engines or even equestrian publications online. The majority discussed history of equestrianism in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Oliver Skeete.
Why is the sport still so upper class white elitist?
I think a lot of the issue is social class and wealth. Equestrianism has long been an activity that was only affordable among the very affluent and rich. Even within white social classes. If you were not part of the elite upper class then this was a sport that was very far from ever being in your grasp. Unfortunately, it is still riddled with elitism today.
Changes in the British Equestrian Federation
A review; (read in HERE) undertaken by the British Equestrian Federation (BEF) in 2017 showed that changes within the sport were still a long way off. Previous chief executive Clare Salmon raised a number of concerns in July of that year including:
- achieving a bigger and more diverse community for the sport
- building standards of integrity
- communicating the belief that horses are a force for good
- elitist views and personal aspirations of a small number of individuals have the potential to prevent any material progress.
- Corruption, self-interest and bullying behaviour are a reality in part of equestrianism
However, very few of these concerns where addressed by the BEF within their report instead that drew on 3 main and rather insignificant or life changing points! They do not address the issues raise by Clare Salmon upon her registration or summarise how they are to change the diversity and accessibility of the sport in the future.
The only recommendations made by the BEF where as follows:
- The identification of the role and responsibilities of the BEF
- The establishment of strong leadership within the BEF
- The maintenance of good governance
So as of 2020, some three years on diversity is still something that needs to be shown world wide and across all spectrum’s of this sport. Equestrianism is still very much lacking behind where other sports such as football, rugby, tennis and have become more accessible (if not less racial). So, despite feeling like they have do not have or less of a systematic racism “issue” compared to there American cousins. The statistics and research tell us differently. Let’s hope that this can be something that changes for future generations. But as always it starts with us. Saying no. Enough is enough and things have to change.
In the mean time, I intend to enjoy many days out with my new found horsey friends and can only hope that should I ever choose to enter the equestrian arena (just for fun) that I am met with cheers and not jeers.
How do you think we can make equestrainism more diverse? Do you think it will ever become a sport accessible to all? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.