Making the Horse World a Safe Space for LGBTQ Equestrians

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Even on the best days, horse shows can be difficult places. There’s the weather, the nerves, the chance your horse may throw a shoe right before his jumping round. Horse shows are not easy to navigate, and that can be especially true for riders who identify as LGBTQ people.

Merriam Webster defines safe space as: “a place intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.” In short, a place where everyone can safely be themselves.

I took a moment to chat with Jess Clawson, lifelong equestrian and adjunct professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA. Jess identifies as queer and wrote the dissertation for her Education PhD about queer history within higher education.

Growing up in Virginia horse country, Jess evented and did Pony Club until she went to college, where she concentrated more on the jumper ring. After she got her PhD, Jess became a working student for eventing professional, Mary Schwentlker, while also teaching at Shenandoah University. A smart, talented equestrian who puts her animals first, she has spent years involved in the horse world. I consider myself an ally for LGBTQ people, and thought who better to discuss the queer experience in the horse world than Jess, a member of that community.

Do you mind sharing how you identify on the queer/LGBTQ spectrum?

As with many people, this answer kind of depends on who I’m talking to and how much they need or want to know, what their baseline level of understanding is, and all that stuff. The simple answer is that I’m gay, and it’s fine if people refer to me that way. I like the word “queer,” too, because it feels more accurate – I don’t necessarily identify as a woman, and so when I say I’m gay, that implies that I’m a woman who is attracted to other women. But while I am attracted to women, I don’t feel as though binary gender labels work for my brain. In that sense, “queer” just seems more reflective of my identity. Queer isn’t a derogatory term when people are using it for themselves, in fact entire academic communities are built around queer theory.

As for my gender, I’m not entirely comfortable with the binary, but I’m also not sure where I land on things like pronouns. I tend to wear what are generally considered boy clothes. At this point, I don’t mind which pronouns people use when they refer to me. My boss, Mary, is really great about occasionally checking in with me about pronouns, just casually, to make sure I know I can tell her if I’ve come to a conclusion.

When did you realize?

This is actually one of the parts of my story I’ve had to learn how to be more comfortable sharing. I’m not one of those people who totally knew I was gay when I was six, and for a long time I felt as though that somehow made my experience less valid. As a young adult, I dated boys but I think I was seeking more social validation than anything else. I actually ended up very briefly married to a truly wonderful man, but that only lasted a few months because in that time I realized almost overnight that I was gay. Once I realized that, there was no turning back. I’m still very close friends with my ex-husband. It was really hard for my family to accept that not only was I gay, but I was getting a divorce. I often think if I had come out as a teenager, all of that would have actually been easier from the perspective of my family, but who knows. That was over a decade ago and we’re all good now.

Photo © Catie Meehan

Was there a time you were afraid to be out in the horse community?

Absolutely. I have had some wild experiences. When I was in grad school looking for a part time job, I applied at a riding school as an instructor. The owner of the place informed me that I’d just better not hit on any of the lesson kids’ moms. I turned on my heel and walked out. Anyone who knows me knows that I am extremely awkward and never hit on people, but more importantly I also understand how professional boundaries work.

I’ve fired two different farriers for saying horrible homophobic things to me, both when I lived in Florida. I did not have the support of the other boarders at the barn when I stood up for myself in that way. They thought I was oversensitive and dramatic, but I think they don’t understand what it’s like to have someone working on your precious horse’s feet and telling you he hates you at the same time, you know? Not a good situation. So then pile on top of that the social isolation that comes from people not wanting to be associated with you after you told off the farrier they all thought was cute and charming and funny… and it becomes a nasty situation.

Now in Virginia, I work for someone super well loved and respected. It’s just me and her in the barn; she doesn’t have any boarders. It’s terrific and peaceful, and I never have to worry. I also know that if I did have an issue with a horse professional or one of Mary’s clients, I could tell her about it and she would have my back. That level of peace of mind is great.

In your opinion, are horse shows today a safe space for LGBTQ?

I don’t know that any space is really safe, but I think horse shows can be safer spaces. I can only speak to the East Coast eventing world, and I’ve groomed for my coach at some recognized dressage shows. I’m 36, and don’t care if people look at me funny, so maybe I haven’t noticed anything. But, in my experience, horse showing has been fine. I think there are a lot of us anti-oppression folks in the horse show world, and people just need to be a little gutsier about expressing it.

When I ride, I sew a 3″x5″ rainbow flag on my saddle pads and I ALWAYS get compliments. Not just from the young woke kids, either. Folks of all ages and even parents of kids who are competing are constantly telling me how much they like my rainbow flag saddle pads. I always tell them I sew the flags on myself and they can too. It takes about three minutes and you can get them in bulk online for almost nothing. I hope more people do it!

I also always turn up to horse shows with a great attitude, whether I’m riding or grooming, ready to have a good time, with fat shiny happy horses, and I think that goes a really long way. I thank the volunteers and don’t sweat waiting my turn for show jumping. Having a huge smile on my face all day long makes it kind of hard for people to pick on me. That doesn’t necessarily speak to other peoples’ experiences, though, and I hope that anyone who’s been struggling with being queer in the horse show world will reach out to me or someone else safe for support.

What can we do to make the shows better?

I think just as a baseline, we need as humans to stop assuming other people are straight and cis (Editor’s note: cis means someone whose gender corresponds to their sex at birth). Let’s all work on that for the rest of the year, okay?

I also think the Safe Sport training that’s going on for the USEA Instructor Certification Program and in other areas of the sport is a good start and needs to continue. A lot of people are getting bounced for sexual harassment, and while that’s not queer-specific, it is SO important for everyone’s safety that coaches and students and everyone else understand what good boundaries are, regardless of how people identify. A pretty well known straight man who used to compete at the top levels put his hands around my waist a couple weeks ago when I was standing by the ring and I still feel like I need a Silkwood shower. And, that’s nothing compared to what a lot of people have endured. He still has all his teeth because I’d had enough coffee by that point in the day to have restraint. No promises next time. Again, too, I’m an adult and fully capable of advocating for myself and well beyond caring what he thinks, but when I was a teenager I’d have had different feelings about it.

Part of the reason this is especially critical to the safety of queer people is because I think a lot of queer kids, especially if they’re not out, are terrified of speaking up for themselves in case someone learns their secret. Queer kids deal with a lot of sexual abuse in and out of the horse world. Coaches with power taking advantage of their most vulnerable students is a nightmare scenario and one that requires all of us to be aware and vigilant and brave when it’s time to call someone out.

How can straight/cis equestrians conduct themselves to show queer riders that they are safe?

At horse shows or in the barn, speak up for queer people. If you hear a farrier or another boarder or whomever say something nasty and homophobic (or racist, for that matter), don’t keep your mouth shut about it. Tell the person directly that what they said is wrong. And don’t just do that if you think a queer person is listening–let the person saying the unkind things know it’s not okay to say that stuff around you. Yeah, it takes guts. You’ll probably feel shaky and weird afterwards. But imagine how much safer it is for you, the straight person, to do that than it is for the queer person who might well face dangerous consequences. This is called exercising your privilege. It might make a queer person feel better in the moment if they hear you, but even if they don’t, it will socially sanction the person who said homophobic things, and with any luck they’ll think twice next time.

I wish I could tell you to go buy a t-shirt or something, but the best way to help people feel safer is to do things that actually make them safer. Does your barn have restrooms designated “male” and “female”? Lobby to make them gender neutral so that people like me don’t stand there paralyzed with indecision when we have to pee or worry that someone else will be mean to us for picking the “wrong” bathroom. Tell people their jokes about gay men or lesbians or trans people or whomever aren’t funny. Believe the queer people in your barn or at the horse shows when they tell you about something that happened to them instead of saying, “Well I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that.” Don’t just go along to get along and keep the peace. It won’t make any difference to the queer people around you if you do that. If you want to be helpful, you’ve got to do the work. But you can do it, I believe in you.

On a one-on-one level, it’s okay to ask people what their pronouns are, so do that if you’re not sure, and then use the pronouns they tell you. And if other people are mis-gendering that person, again, speak up.

If someone at your barn comes out to you, do not assume they’re out to everyone, so be careful not to compromise someone’s safety by making a big announcement. It’s okay to ask, “Is this something you just want me to know, or would you like me to tell people so you don’t have to come out to everyone?” and then respect what they ask you to do. Don’t ask people questions to satisfy your curiosity or expect that they’re up for educating you about queer issues. We all go to the barn to escape our daily stress and enjoy our horses, so being friendly and kind to queer people at your barn or at horse shows and not asking them to teach you all about queer identities is a great way to make a new friend.

What would you like to tell LGBTQ equestrians who may be scared to be out in the horse world?

I love you. Don’t come out until you’re ready. There’s no right or wrong timeline, and you have to trust your instincts on when it’s going to be okay for you to be out in that context. You can add me on Facebook or Instagram and we can talk.

An aside to our upper level riders: If you’re already a wildly successful equestrian, even if everyone just already knows you’re gay, come out anyway and talk about it. Help spread the message that this is not something you have to hide about yourself or be in denial about if you want to be successful. Don’t just rest on, “Well, I’ve been with my husband forever so everyone knows.” Speak up. Mentor queer kids. Help me get some rainbow flag adorned saddle pads into production. Celebrate Pride month on social media. Heck, let’s form a community through USEF and get some visibility working. It matters. All these kids look up to you already, so here’s a fantastic opportunity to be a role model in another way. You could be the Ellen Degeneres of the horse world!

About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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