EDIT: After posting this piece to several forums, I received a private message from Ms. Clark. She specifically addressed several of the concerns I bring up in this essay, and we were able to have a dialogue about change that we hope to see in the equestrian community, with both of us agreeing to continue to listen to BIPOC voices and educate ourselves.
This piece is a response to the article “Sometimes You Have to Read Between the Lines” written by elite trainer and horsewoman Missy Clark and published in The Chronicle of the Horse on June 8, 2020. Ms. Clark’s piece is a response to elite junior rider Sophie Gochman’s article published in the same publication seven days prior, entitled “Breaking the Silence Surrounding White Privilege in the Horse World”. In that original article, Gochman calls for those with power in the equestrian community to utilize that power to enact change and dismantle racism and social inequality. She communicates her frustration that others in the community are publicly silent on this issue, and asserts that silence is no longer acceptable (Gochman, 2020). In Clark’s response to Gochman’s article, Clark states that she is proud to be a member of the equestrian community, which she describes as a “close-knit group of people” who “come together when times are tough” as well as directly referencing and discussing quotes from Gochman’s article (Clark, 2020).
This article – a response to a response – examines claims and statements made by both parties, utilizing research and facts to ascertain the truth about inequality in the horse world. It is written in the same format as much of Clark’s article – quoting the original pieces and responding to them below.
To begin, in support of her claim that the equine community is a supportive one, Clark cites the community response to the AIDS epidemic. Specifically, she discusses the Equestrian AIDS Foundation and the financial and emotional support for fellow horsemen during this time. She then says, “Anyone who intimates that we harbor discrimination towards minorities or gays is inaccurate in their assumptions.” (Clark, 2020). The Chronicle provides extra context here, explaining that the Equestrian AIDS Foundation was initially incorporated to assist those afflicted by AIDS, but today exists as the Equestrian Aid Foundation and includes assistance for many members of the community.
The Equestrian Aid Foundation website states its mission as follows:
“The Equestrian Aid Foundation provides emergency, lifesaving financial grants to horsemen and women coping with loss of income due to catastrophic injury or illness. EAF invests in the future of its recipients, giving them the resources to recover and thrive in the face of adversity.” (Equestrian Aid Foundation, 2020)
It is important to note that this mission states that the EAF provides aid solely for equestrians dealing with loss of income due to “catastrophic injury or illness”. It is also worth noting that all thirteen of the people featured in the “recipient profiles” page of the EAF website are white (Equestrian Aid Foundation, 2020). While the Equestrian Aid Foundation is a wonderful program doing great work, it does not combat inequality caused by race or provide financial support to racial minorities, nor does it claim to. In fact, there is no connection between the EAF and racial inequality in the equestrian community.
EDIT: Since posting this article, I have received testimony that EAF has assisted minorities as a large part of its operations. However, this does not negate that EAF’s mission is not directly related to racial inequality.
Clark then goes on to make the following assertion:
“Because you may not see a majority of certain presences doesn’t mean there have been purposeful exclusions. In our world, some choices are forced because they’re based on the cold hard fact most people can’t afford to do this. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s discrimination.” (Clark, 2020).
It becomes relevant here to understand the difference between discriminatory behavior and systemic discrimination, or more specifically, individual racism and systemic racism. The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre defines individual racism as, “…an individual’s racist assumptions, beliefs or behaviors…” and systemic racism as “…the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups.” (ACLRC, 2020)
Clark may well be correct that most equestrians do not actively engage in racist or discriminatory behavior, at least not on a conscious level. However, this lack of individual racism does not necessarily negate the existence of systemic racism. It is true that cost is a huge barrier to entry into the equestrian community, and that those costs are likely not set with the intent to exclude marginalized groups. It is also true that there is not a single person of color listed as a member of the USET Show Jumping, Dressage, or Eventing teams on USET.org (USET, 2020). If Clark is correct that this is not happening because of purposeful exclusion (individual racism), then it is reasonable to assume that it is happening because of systemic racism.
“One thing that surely factors into the choices available to many is indeed the reality of “white privilege” in our world. Among the many daily benefits afforded by simply being born with white skin, those who are fortunate enough to have been born into situations where their financial equation isn’t a prohibitive factor in obtaining the best of the best in life have a definite advantage over those who haven’t been born into that segment of the population. Many of these people, some of whom are deeply involved in the horse world, do great things for the less privileged in life.” (Clark, 2020).
This paragraph is an acknowledgement of the benefits of white and financial privilege. However, it does not connect the relationship between blackness and poverty. The fact is that most black people do not have the financial mobility to participate in our sport because of the long history of black people being shut out of the same opportunities as white people. It is not within the scope of this piece to adequately or fully explain the long and loaded history that explains why this is so. This is a link to an article in Smithsonian Magazine which features 158 resources for understanding the history of racism in America (Solly, 2020).
Secondly, while it is true that many people of financial privilege make donations to help those who are less privileged, individual acts of charity alone cannot solve systemic-level problems. I would hope that those who are in power due to their privilege now will recognize that they benefit from racist structures that were formed long ago but are currently perpetuated by the silence of the elite.
Clark then begins to quote from and discuss the piece by Sophie Gochman, classifying Gochman’s perceptions as “incredibly inaccurate” (Clark, 2020). The first quote from Gochman reads as follows:
“However, what the horse world fails to recognize is the prevalence of social injustice in our community. Trainers will support [President Donald Trump] and his racist comments and policies towards immigrants but hire undocumented workers from Latin America as grooms.” (Gochman, 2020).
Clark begins her response by saying that she disagrees with Gochman’s perceptions regarding how many of the elite within the equestrian world feel about social injustice as a topic. She then goes on to say that in her personal establishment they value their grooms and have gone to great lengths to obtain visas for them “whenever possible”. She makes the claim that this process is and has always been incredibly difficult (Clark, 2020).
Again, I return to the concept of individual racism and systemic racism. The absence of overt individual racism does not negate the fact that the systems that shape our workforce and much of our society are inherently racist. Individuals helping individuals is wonderful work that should be celebrated, but it is important to ask why it is that much of the lower-level workforce in the horse industry (grooms/stablehands) is made up of undocumented workers and why the community as a whole has not taken action to change our system to ensure fair treatment and pay for these, as Clark puts it, “valued employees” (Clark, 2020).
Next, Clark states that Gochman’s quoted statement above is based purely on speculation (Clark, 2020). Since Gochman did not cite any sources, this appears to be a fair assumption from Clark. I chose to investigate this further.
If Gochman is speculating that the horse world fails to see the social injustices within our community and she is wrong, then this leaves us with two options. The first option is that there are no injustices to be aware of. At this point in the conversation, we have a constant stream of information and black voices telling us that there are (Mooney, 2017; Gray, 2020; Beverly, 2020).
EDIT: Since publishing this essay, many major horse publications have published additional articles written by people of color regarding their experiences in the equestrian community. This includes Chronicle of the Horse, The Plaid Horse Magazine, and Horse Network. Go read those after you’re done with this piece for more on their perspectives.
Additionally, according to the 2019 USEF Media Kit, USEF members have an average income of $185,000 and an average net worth of $955,000 (USEF, 2019). Data from The U.S. Census Bureau (2018) indicated that the average American household headed by a white person earned about $70,000 per year with an average net worth of $162,770 while the average American household headed by a black person earned about $41,000 per year with an average net worth of $16,300. No, that’s not a typo. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation clearly lays these numbers out in this article (Peter G. Peterson Foundation, 2019). Clearly, the average household in both racial groups falls far below the average wealth of a USEF member – however, the census data clearly lays out how much more “above average” a black household has to be in order to fit into this elite club of competitive horsemen and women.
The second option is that people within the horse world do see the social injustices within our community and are simply ok with it. To be clear, by “ok with it”, I do not mean that individual equestrians are taking racist action. In fact, as Clark has stated, many equestrians in power will use their power to help others on the individual level when the opportunity presents itself. Instead, I mean that these people are “ok” with the systems that have allowed them to dominate our industry.
Next, I attempted to find concrete data to support Gochman’s claim regarding trainers supporting Trump and simultaneously hiring undocumented workers but was unable to find a statistical correlation between the two. Additionally, since I am not a member of the high-profile ranks of the equestrian world, I do not have personal experience to cite here either as I assume Gochman did when writing her article.
Then, Clark goes on to discuss Gochman’s discussion of “hostility towards outsiders” as a potential reason for under-representation, stating,
“Personally, I don’t see hostility as any version of a factor precluding people of any race or color from our sport. To the best of my knowledge, everyone is welcome, and despite the fact there isn’t a more noteworthy presence of minorities, there are still people who participate, many of whom I consider good friends. Instead, I see financial constraints as the main reason many people are underrepresented in our world.” (Clark, 2020).
Again, Clark reports seeing a lack of individual racism. When reading through this article on my own, my personal interpretation of the “hostility” that Sophie spoke of was the high barrier to entry into this elite community. I’m not sure that hostility is the word I would have used here, and I understand that it brings with it the implication of a direct interaction. However, word choice does not negate the fact that black equestrians have reported feeling unwelcome and unwanted in our sport – no matter how welcoming the predominantly white equestrian community feels that they are being. 17 year-old Lauryn Gray put it extremely well in her recent article “Being a Bay in a Sea of Grays” when she said,
“My barn and the circuit I compete on have always been an extremely loving and accepting environment, but now that I’m no longer looking through rose-colored glasses, I realize that the same can’t be said about our community as a whole.” (Gray, 2020).
This community Gray and Clark both refer to is built on the same racist structures as the rest of our country and “getting in” to obtain that wonderful feeling of community support is harder for people who are not white. Clark’s mention of “financial constraints” alludes to this but seems to imply that financial constraints are not tied to race, when in fact they are (McIntosh, Moss, Nunn, & Shambaugh, 2020).
Then, Clark suggests the following idea:
“Perhaps a foundation could be started to assist those who aren’t as fortunate as those born under the umbrella of “white privilege” as Sophie referenced in her article. Maybe it’s something Sophie might consider as a step to address the problem of social inequality within our sport. With her interest in equality, perhaps Sophie might choose to lead her peer group in getting something organized. I’m quite certain many people in our horse community would support a cause such as this to the best of their financial capabilities.”
I think a foundation to provide equal access to equine opportunities is a wonderful idea. I would love to see it happen, and I agree that many people would support a cause such as this. Perhaps a person who is a member of the board of directors for the Kevin Babington Foundation and the North American Riders Group as well as a member of numerous USEF and USHJA committees that also has a strong background in coaching, training, and competing at the highest level would be in a better position to do this than a 17 year old.
Next, Gochman describes Olympians and prominent trainers “[refusing] to talk about or silently support[ing] social inequality,” and Clark makes it clear that she believes Gochman is off target (Clark, 2020). I appreciate Clark sharing her opinion, and understand that it has come from a long history in the equestrian world. Here is a fact: as of June 9, 2020, out of the 23 show jumping team members listed on USET.org, 16 of which have active social media presences, only 7 have made a public statement about racial inequality – 5 of which consisted of a black square posting for blackout Tuesday – a movement which has since been criticized by activists for clogging informational hashtags and representing the act of virtue signaling.
While a lack of statement does not indicate support of social inequalities, and we cannot know the work that these people are doing behind the scenes, the absence of action perpetuates systems that benefit white people and discriminate against black people. Because these systems are already in place, nothing needs to be done to maintain them. Therefore, by doing nothing, whether inadvertent or not, these individuals are silently supporting social inequality – no matter how much equality they attempt to bring to their individual lives.
Clark touches on this idea again, saying,
“Many Olympians and trainers are proactive in ways that aren’t directly in the forefront. Change in thought and action can be achieved in both big and small ways, in loud and in quiet ways. Any vehicle towards change is a valid one. Some people seek change peacefully; some preach from the rooftops. The Olympians and trainers who I know are absolutely outraged by the complete disregard for George Floyd’s life by the four police officers from Minneapolis. It’s clear there’s a vast divide, and our country is in a state of turmoil like never before.” (Clark, 2020).
This statement is true, and important. There are many ways to be an activist and to dismantle systems that are outdated and no longer reflect the beliefs and attitudes of our community. However, if every person chooses to attempt to achieve change via the small, quiet methods, then that change is going to take a lot longer than if people in power use their platforms to take the louder, bigger options. I hope that these Olympians and trainers who Clark refers to take that outrage and use their power to turn it into something productive that will better the community as a whole.
Clark uses the next few passages to call on Gochman to “figure out different ways to achieve a goal” and cites the protesting methods of Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman specifically. She states that these people “…advocated for equality, world peace, compassion and humanity [and] made lasting impressions in history because they tried to influence in peaceful ways.”
Each of these people cited by Clark made change in loud, disruptive ways that caused immense upset among the dominant social groups. Martin Luther King Jr. made a speech in 1968 called “The Other America” in which he asserted that although he still believed in the power of nonviolence, he could not condemn riots (King, 1968). Desmond Tutu was arrested during a protest in 1989 (Wren, 1989). Mother Teresa lobbied to leave her convent so that she could aid the poor of Calcutta and continuously used her voice to aid others (Biography, 2020). John Lennon invited the media into his hotel room (Brockell, 2019). Mahatma Gandhi was arrested multiple times and said that, “…non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” (Constitutional Rights Foundation). Harriet Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War (Biography, 2020). Peaceful protest for these people did not consist of silence or “behind the scenes” activism. Peaceful did not mean quiet and it did not mean complacent.
Clark closes her discussion of Gochman by discussing Gochman’s final paragraph which reads as follows,
“It’s so shameful that a community made of such wealthy and affluent people cannot riot together to fight police brutality. It’s an absolute outrage. So sign the petitions, take to the streets if you can, make the calls, donate money and speak up. I’m disgusted by your willful ignorance, and I refuse to accept anything but action. This country needs a revolution. This country needs authentic democracy. This country needs justice, and I’m demanding your help.” (Gochman, 2020)
Clark says that while she recognizes the main point of Gochman’s article is to shed a light on the social injustices in our country, she sees Gochman’s aim at the horse community and attempt to influence change by “demanding certain behavior or calling for our community to riot together against police brutality” as a route that she refuses to take (Clark, 2020).
Personally, I agree that Gochman’s final paragraph is strongly written, and that her wording may make it off-putting or make readers feel as though it is an attack. I believe the phrase “riot together” was particularly strong and perhaps inappropriate. It overshadows the line that follows which calls for readers to sign petitions, make calls, donate money, and speak up – only encouraging people to “take to the streets” if they can. Each of these actions that Gochman has suggested here (signing, calling, donating, and speaking) are wonderful examples of the peaceful protesting that Clark calls for her to put forth numerous times throughout her response.
Clark then goes on to discuss a conversation she had with a good friend of hers, who presumably is of color, about his viewpoint and perspective. She reports that he told her that he had never felt any discrimination from anyone in the equestrian community (Clark, 2020). I hope that many of us can follow Clark’s example and seek perspectives of people of color, especially black people, regarding this issue. Truly, that is what this conversation is missing. White people can tell white people how black people feel for as long as we want to, but providing platforms for people of color, especially black people, to speak and then listening when they do is arguably our most important role.
Clark concludes her piece by writing, “I hope all of us can do our part, big or small in an effort to make the world a better place with equality for all people, regardless of their race or color. And at the end of the day, sometimes in life there’s a bigger message in front of us requiring us to read between the lines.” (Clark, 2020). Additionally, earlier in the piece, she writes, “…discussion has been initiated, and from discussion change has the chance to be born.” (Clark, 2020).”
Indeed, discussion has been started. We owe the starting of that discussion largely to Sophie Gochman and I hope and pray that her willingness to speak up will encourage others to do the same – not just in response to Gochman’s words but also in engaging in new thoughts, pondering difficult questions, and discussing how we can address them as a community. We owe it to ourselves and to every black child who wants to learn to ride a horse to ask why it is so much more difficult for them to achieve their dream than the white child with the same dream. We owe it to them to ask why it is that the athletes that represent our sport internationally are overwhelmingly white. We owe it to them to ask why we are so reluctant to acknowledge even the possibility of injustice or unfair treatment within our community.
For me and for most of my peers, equestrianism is not something that we do at an elite level. It is a passion that we scrimp and save and work our asses off to pursue. I understand that to many of my dear friends, it can be incredibly hard to consider that we have privilege within this community. It was hard for me to consider. However, the barriers to entry for this sport – for this amazing community – are higher for black people than white people. This does not mean that the average white person does not have to work their way in. It does not mean that it is easy for the average white person to pursue this incredibly expensive hobby. It means that it is even harder for black people.
So what now?
We all have to recognize how the issue of systemic racism affects the equestrian world. To do this, it is important to seek out black voices and listen to what they are saying. I hope that equine publications will continue to share pieces from people of color as part of their regularly scheduled content. I also hope that those in power in the equestrian world – those people who represent us and speak for us and carry a huge amount of wealth – use their platforms to make real change. A post on social media as a show of solidarity is a start, but that is all that it is if it does not lead to action. Missy Clark mentioned the idea of a foundation to help lower the barriers of entry to our sport. I think that is a wonderful idea, and I hope that she, or any other person who is able, follows through with creating it. Something wonderful about the horse world is that we are always helping each other – filling a class so someone can qualify for their finals, wiping off a stranger’s boots, or feeding a horse that isn’t ours. Now black people are asking for our help and young riders are demanding change. Let’s not disappoint them.
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