BY SISSY WICKES
Rob Jacobs first crossed my screen few years ago in relation to the Gochman Grant and Pony Finals. Kids participating in Pony Finals under the grant named him specifically as one of the best parts of their experiences. I noted the name, briefly wondered why I had never heard of him, and reminded myself of how provincial I am.
Fast forward to the next year and again, Rob Jacobs is integral to the experience of the Gochman Grant riders at Pony Finals. It was time to research this young man as he wasn’t going away. A brief search for him on Facebook revealed RLJ Stables in North Carolina and the Robert Lawrence House of Opportunity, a newly established non-profit whose mission is to bridge the gap between quality riding instruction and household income for equestrians. His profile picture showed a tall, handsome African-American rider, trainer, and opportunity advocate. Wow, was this guy too good to be true? Having sat down with him for an hour over lunch on a sunny January day in Wellington, I can say that he is as authentic as I had hoped. Humble, appreciative, ambitious for the causes he embraces, Rob Jacobs looks to his future and the future of the sport.
TPH: How were you exposed to horses? You grew up in suburban Maryland and no one else in your family had anything to do with them. What sparked your love for them?
RLJ: I was always attracted to horses, but was a little it afraid of them. So, I waited to actually start to take lesson until the sixth grade- kind of late. I was already tall, so I never started on ponies.
TPH: How did you access horses? We talk so much about access and opportunity.
RLJ: I went to a Christian summer camp that had a lot of activities and equestrian was one of them. I knew that I loved horses and I chose equestrian and learned how to trail ride and walk, trot a little bit. I did it, fell in love, and knew that’s what I wanted to do.
That fall, I convinced my parents that I was ready to start taking lessons. So, we looked into the Yellow Pages! It sounds so bizarre now, but we didn’t know what else to do. We found an English riding barn and ended up at Willowbend Farm in Upper Marlboro. About a year ago, I went back and did a clinic there, which was very cool.
TPH: Did you dive right into the sport?
RLJ: I was a “once a weeker”– once a week lessons – for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. I leased my first horse in ninth or tenth grade. It was an affordable way for my family to do it, especially since I was progressing quickly. My trainers, Laura Johnson and Emily Merkel, knew I would outgrow one horse quickly to move up to the next. My first show experiences were in the NCEL, a program much like the current IEA. You would show up and catch ride.
TPH: How did your show experience progress from there? Here you are in Wellington showing a Green Hunter.
RLJ: I started doing “C” shows in the summer and rode whatever school horse I had been riding. Most of them were Thoroughbred/Arabian crosses! You bet I learned get out of the tack and sit still. From there, my parents and I decided to transition into a more serious showing situation.
TPH: Was there a financial barrier and, if so, how did you deal with it?
RLJ: There was a financial barrier. My parents are self-employed and have a construction business. I consider us an average middle class family which, as much as I hate to say it, is almost poor in this sport. We could afford the once a week lessons and to show 6-7 times per year.
My parents were tough and told me that I needed to find a way make the money to lease a nicer horse and figure out a way to go to the “A” shows.
At that time, I was with Paul Turner’s barn at Willow Glen. They would do local shows, “A” shows, and “AA” shows. My friends would go to the “AA” shows and that wasn’t something I could do. So, my parents told me that I could work for them on afternoons and weekends, they would pay me, and I could use that money to ride and show – or go the mall and I wasn’t going to the mall. I did maybe 2 or 3 “A” shows before college: Culpeper twice and Swan Lake once.
TPH: You seem undaunted throughout all this. Did you ever have that moment of ‘I am not going to make it’?
RLJ: I don’t think I ever went through that phase. I had to set realistic goals and realize that what I wanted took longer to get than others. I did have to deal with worrying about if I was good enough to compete once I reached my goal. Can I ride against these good riders and horses?
Getting here to Wellington with a horse from my own barn has been a big dream for me. I asked for help along the way and reached out to people, but I knew that I would get here some day. Becky Gochman and Bob Crandall have been so generous and I cannot thank them enough. It is my horse’s first time in the 3′ Green Hunters and I appreciate having so much support here.
TPH: Let’s talk about the Robert Lawrence House of Opportunity. It sounds like this program was born of your experience, trying to open doors so kids have opportunity.
RLJ: Absolutely. It has only been open for one year and we have involved around 200 kids so far. I have targeted large lesson programs similar to the ones that I grew up in. Usually, those are the kids that, like me, are “once a weekers” and can’t afford much more than that. These larger programs enable me to teach more kids so I can reach maybe 30 kids in two days.
TPH: And the mission is to give them good instruction?
RLJ: Yes, that and to give them hope that they are not the only ones that can’t go to those big shows. But, if they work hard at it and aspire to get there, it is possible. That’s the unique part of my story. I have been blessed and come into contact with great people who have helped me reach my goals and I would love to play a part in someone else’s journey.
TPH: How is the program funded?
RLJ: There are two ways. The first is private funding through friends, contacts, and people who are generous about helping to raise money. The other is what I call “Opportunity Clinics.” I travel to different areas and donate a day, donate my time, to teaching a clinic. The riders pay whatever they can afford that day. Some donate $15.00, some $25.00 , there is no set fee. Whatever is collected for that day, I give to the non-profit, to the Robert Lawrence House of Opportunity.
TPH: We talk so much about inclusion and opportunity in a sport that has become so expensive. What is the answer?
RLJ: I think the programs and clinics that are offered are great and necessary. But, the most important thing is for the kid to leave inspired and committed to getting where they want to go. Volunteers can donate their time and energy, but a person has to hang on to that vision and commit to the work to make it happen. This is the most important factor. For me, it was developing a horse and finding creative ways to come to Wellington, Florida.
TPH: What is it like being an African American in this business?
RLJ: My answer now is different than it would have been 10 years ago. In middle school when I started riding, I couldn’t tell if they were staring at me because I was a boy or African American! I got to the place where it was weird if people didn’t stare at me because I was so accustomed to it. It never made me uncomfortable.
As I grew older, I thought about how this might be an advantage. People are always noticing me. Even now, I will see people stop to watch me ride. I can’t prove or disprove any judgment bias in the ring.
TPH: Do you think you have inspired other African Americans or people of color in the sport?
RLJ: Yes! In fact, I heard from an African American mother and daughter who live in Georgia and saw on me on social media. They contacted me and asked if the daughter could come up and take a lesson with me. Inspiring her made me realize the importance of encouraging minority riders.
TPH: Why do we see so few African American and minority riders?
RLJ: I think of a culture’s sport of choice and this is not a minority sport of choice. It is not the norm or something they see their peers doing. Somehow that has to change.
TPH: What’s your five- year plan?
RLJ: Well, that is actually changing at the moment. I recently found out my father has prostate cancer. This knowledge came at a time when I was trying to figure out how to do what I love and have more flexibility in my life.
So, I sat down with my parents and they asked me if I would consider moving back to Maryland and helping with the business. I have been thinking about what kind of life I want to create and it includes time with my family and giving back to the horse community.
I am going to step away from RLJ Stables and turn that business over to a very capable young woman I have worked with, Shelton Stallworthy. I plan to move back to Maryland, relearn my parents’ business, and really focus on the nonprofit. I have been so busy running the stable that I have not had time to do many Opportunity Clinics. My day job may change, but horses will always be a big part of my life.
As Rob returns to Maryland and rearranges his life, we wish him the best and look forward to his building the next room in the House of Opportunity. Look for Rob’s next clinic on his Facebook page, R.L. Jacobs.
Photos © Emily Merkel, Sportfot, Julie Toret