July 2020 - The Gallop: Be The Change
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Wednesday, 01 July 2020 06:18
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Amidst much talk, actions speak loudly in the effort to bring inclusion and diversity to equestrian sports. 

by Kim F. Miller

“Be the change we seek in the world.”

This paraphrase of Mahatma Gandhi’s words is an emerging response from the equestrian world to racial injustices brought brutally to new light by George Floyd’s death on May 25. As protests denouncing excessive police force and promoting Black Lives Matter continued into June, equestrians stated their cases on social media and in person in demonstrations throughout the state.


Current events also prompt a look at actions underway for many years and those poised to bring exposure, diversity, inclusion and opportunity to equestrian sports going forward. They’re not enough on their own, but they illustrate the impact of horse people deciding to be the change they seek.

Horse Power

The night before Bay Area horsewoman Brianna Noble vaulted to national fame, she saw the video of Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. It was the “exact same thing” that happened to Oscar Grant in 2009, she explained, referencing the first incident that prompted her to public activism.

Brianna Noble and Dapper Dan at the Oakland rally. Photo: Beth LaBerge (https://www.bethlaberge.com). Brianna challenges all to post a picture of themselves on a horse, with raised fist, and post with the hashtags: #blacklivesmatter and #humblehorsemanship

The next day, Friday May 29, Brianna hauled her horse Dapper Dan to downtown Oakland and joined a demonstration. The sight of the beautiful, black 25-year-old and the 17.1-hand horse whose haunch bore a cardboard “Black Lives Matter” sign had an immediate impact. Images and interviews spun around the globe.

Showing up on horseback was intended to “give the media something positive,” she told the New York Times. “A good bright positive image to focus on, as opposed to some of the destruction.”

Early in the ensuing explosion of media interest, Brianna recognized the chance to “be the change I want to see in my community.” She began channeling the attention toward the Humble Project, her long-held dream of a program giving disadvantaged kids exposure to and opportunities with horses.

“Horses can be life changing, but usually only for the rich,” she states. “I’m one woman on one horse and I made a difference. I want to use that to create a positive future for kids who are going to change the world -- for the next generation.”

Turning “problem” horses around to sell was Brianna’s initial method of supporting herself as an adult in the horse industry. More recently, she has focused on beginning lessons, trail horses and training as Mulatto Meadows in the Oakland area’s Briones. In early June, she launched The Humble Project and, as of June 31, had raised $44,000 toward a hoped-for $100,000. “Exposing underprivileged and marginalized communities to the horse world” is its mission.

Members of the Compton Cowboys taking part in the June 7 Compton Peace Ride. Photo: Lindsey Long

The Skin We’re In

Providing a safe and supportive environment is a big priority.  While costs keep many out of the sport, Brianna notes that “the color of the skin is a huge driving force in that as well.” Having now worked and, earlier, taken occasional lessons, at several stables in the East Bay area, she says, “I’ve probably never had one barn in my life where my skin wasn’t a topic or something that caused something bad to happen.”

Experiences range from being stared at to “people complaining and not wanting you around.” Having a person ask “Why the palms of my hand are light?” and “reach out and try to pet me” are manifestations of the deep-rooted racism she’s encountered. The insensitivity of the recent touching incident is extra offensive in this time of COVID-19 social distancing.

Accomplished young FEI dressage competitor Genay Vaughn says she hasn’t personally experienced overt racism. Yet, “I have witnessed looks of surprise when others come to find that I am a rider and not a groom at competitions.

“As a person of color, when you walk into the room, even if you walk in wearing the uniform that communicates that you’re there to compete, people will see you differently,” she continues. “This is even more so if you’re black and you’re really good, because you are defying expectations of what black people can do.” (For a fuller perspective from Genay, read her article in this issue.)

Grand Prix jumping rider Mavis Spencer in the Compton Peace Ride. Photo: Lindsey Long

“Even talking about this issue,” can be a problem for an African American trying to make it in the horse world, Brianna says. “It’s hard enough to make it as a trainer, then you lose people (clients) because everyone does not have the same belief as you do.”

Building a sense of community is a Humble Project priority. “We don’t have a support system and I want to create that for young riders coming up in the sport.”

She hopes to broaden that within the larger equestrian community. She hopes that the many professionals who’ve offered support will do things like bring their students for shared lessons or to help Humble’s entry-level equestrians. “I think we will have better horsemen if we can learn something and teach something.”

Her native East Bay Area is in need of The Humble Project, says Brianna. She cites the Compton Jr. Posse and Detroit Horse Power as good examples of how valuable inner-city youth equestrian programs can be in building healthy futures for kids of color and from tough circumstances.
    

Victoria Faerber and gold medal show jumper Will Simpson coaching Riders United students.

The Compton Jr. Posse

The Compton Jr. Posse was founded by Mayisha Akbar in 1988 to “keep kids on horses and off the streets.” Along with instruction on caring for and riding horses at the Posse’s Richland Farms base in Compton, Mayisha built friendships throughout the horse show industry. These connections helped create the exposure and opportunity that are considered critical to increasing diversity and inclusion in equestrian sports.

(Editor’s Note: When Mayisha retired at the end of 2018, the Posse was renamed Compton Junior Equestrian. It is affiliated with the Compton Cowboys, which includes many riders who started with the Posse. The Compton Cowboys were prominent in the June 7 Compton Peace Ride and social activism is part of their mission. When the Jr. Posse disbanded, its longtime riding director Victoria Faerber launched the non-profit Riders United to continue working with show-ready Posse students from her training bases in Calabasas.)

Olympic gold medal show jumper Will Simpson was a Jr. Posse clinician and resident BBQ master at fundraisers for years. Dale Harvey’s West Palms Events regularly provided show scholarships -- covering entry fees, stalls and lunches -- to the Posse’s show-ready riders and transported kids to the Del Mar International to watch the Grand Prix.

Dale eschews accolades. Instead, “It’s a good time to point out that there are people who give a sh@# about this issue” and to recognize the “difference between talking and doing. And, even between writing a check and doing. There are people really contributing and affecting change in a hands-on way.”

For the most part, the main goal of the Compton Jr. Posse, Horses In The Hood and similar programs is using horses to show students the wider world and its opportunities, to teach responsibility and to build confidence. Going onto an adulthood with horses is less important than going onto a healthy, purposeful life.

Nathan Allan Williams-Bonner is a Compton Jr. Posse graduate who is building a life with horses. At 12, his grandfather got him riding with the Jr. Posse. He now runs his own small hunter/jumper training program based at Special T Thoroughbreds in Temecula and works with Victoria Faerber in Riders United.
    

Nathan Allan Williams-Bonner competing at a Nilforushan Equisports Event show.

Intentional Naiveté?

Of current events as they apply to the horse world, Nathan says, “I do believe in inclusion and that all lives matter, including black lives, and I keep a very peaceful approach to it.” He acknowledges possibly “intentional naiveté” about prejudice in his profession. “I try not to let anything blind me or make me feel like I can’t do something,” he explains. He acknowledges a sense of “having to mind my Ps & Qs” more than others in his behaviors and action, real and perceived.

Now aged out of the West Palms Events show scholarships that helped him get to this level, Nathan aspires to having a sizeable training program and to jump in the Olympics. “I’ve been blessed to work with some great people,” he notes of coaches that currently include Grand Prix jumper Susie Hutchison.  

He also hopes to help riders with backgrounds similar to his own by working with Victoria Faerber and Riders United at its Temecula branch.

Victoria has broad ambitions for Riders United. Having grown up in the Thoroughbred racing industry, she foresees partnering retired racers with inner city kids as they become more advanced equestrians. She wants to include education, arts and performance to broaden Riders United’s benefits and reach. “My dream would be to have a performance art team that tells a story, like they do in Cavalia. Some kids would ride. Some would do music, others the art.”

Horses will always be the core. “Being involved with horses does amazing things. Even if they don’t compete, riders are empowered and they learn to love and be responsible.” Many of the horses are donated, often because they have some flaw. “So, they also really bond with the horses in ways that give these horses a sense of purpose.”

She’s grateful for the ongoing competition opportunities provided by West Palms Events and Nilforushan Equisport Events and reports future possibilities with the Langer Equestrian Group shows.

“Every show is like a year of riding lessons,” Victoria explains. “They get to perform, to overcome fears and to support each other. They can learn so much. I like our kids doing the A shows. They see the strict rules and a higher bar to reach for. They see that they have to ride correctly and do things right.”

Compton Jr. Posse rider Zoie Brogdon competing at the Del Mar International. Photo: JXB Photography.

Calls To Action

“We’ve got to stop all this snooty stuff,” asserts The Humble Project’s Brianna Noble when asked what equestrians of all colors can do to increase diversity and a sense of inclusion. It starts with ensuring that barns and shows are welcoming places, where saying “hello” to a stranger is a regular occurrence rather than a suspicious rarity.

Look out for a person “who is looking for an opportunity to work and make something of themselves,” she stresses. “Somebody has to see us. Maybe give a chance to the brown kid whose family can’t afford the lessons.” Unpaid working student positions that help some riders advance aren’t options for a self-supporting rider, she notes.

She’s grateful to Marlene Fultz of A Star-Lit Farms in San Joaquin County’s Ripon for giving her both an opportunity and a reality check. “I was 19 and working as a vet tech when she took me over to her barn and let me ride some horses. She saw how hard I worked and she sat me down and said, ‘Look, I know you have Olympic goals, but you have to come from money to do that.’”

Marlene encouraged a more realistic profession with horses, Brianna says. Retraining “project horses” to be good partners for trail or beginning riders seemed like a crazy idea, she admits. Yet, proceeds from doing that enabled her to make a living as an equestrian -- and to buy her first horse trailer. Brianna liked the emphasis on horsemanship and training, expertise that can help her fill what she sees as a void in many show-focused training programs. Dapper Dan, the horse on whom she rose to fist-raised fame in Oakland, is one of those project horses.
   

Photo: Lindsey Long

Photo: Lindsey Long

Reactions, Discussions, Opportunities

Show organizer Dale Harvey “observed a range of reactions” to his team’s efforts to bring Compton Jr. Posse riders into the show scene. “A lot of it is positive and there have been many touching, funny moments. And some comments that were not so nice. Like ‘Where would this go for any of these kids?’ I was blown away that somebody would say that. It was discouraging. But a lot of people in our community made a point of befriending these kids and making them feel welcome.”

FEI dressage rider and para dressage coach Shayna Simon says that her mulatto and Jewish heritage “has not been a huge issue for me” in the international dressage world. “I’ve been treated very fairly.” Yet she understands how it could be an uncomfortable arena to enter for all whose skin color sets them instantly apart from the sport’s predominately white participants.  “If somebody of color says it doesn’t bother them being in an all-white world, they’re lying.”

Shayna says the best outcome of current events is more frank conversations. “I think it’s giving black people the option to speak freely about what they are uncomfortable with and that it will free up their soul to get it off their chest.” Equally, the attention is “really good because a lot of people think (racism) doesn’t occur because they are not directly involved in it. Because of what is happening, it gives people the opportunity to ask, ‘How can I support you? What can I do?’”

Such conversations are a “necessary first step to taking action,” says fellow African American FEI dressage rider Genay Vaughn. “Equestrian sports should welcome conversations like these because we have an opportunity to distinguish ourselves in the sports world as a community that embraces diversity and provides opportunity to experience all that equine culture has to offer.”

The larger world offers ample examples of the benefits of embracing diversity and inclusion. “Our most profitable corporations and universities have recognized the value in enacting institutional change,” she notes. At the 2019 Sports Business Journal Conference, the benefits of diversity were promoted by executives in mainstream sports ranging from baseball to wrestling.

Dale Harvey says providing show scholarships and bringing Jr. Posse kids in to see the show isn’t good for his business’ bottom line. “Obviously, there’s not a financial return on that. But it’s not about the business. It’s about humanity. It’s about doing the right thing.”
    
The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .