BY JESS CLAWSON
The horse world, at least the English side of it, seems to have a lot more openly gay men involved than in other professional sports. While it isn’t clear that the same can be said for other people in the LGBTQ community (we’re here, but we don’t always have as much visibility), this is part of what makes equestrian sports special. But what is it about the horse show world that seems to draw in more wonderfully openly gay men than other professional sports?
Though no one story can give us all the answers, Hunter/jumper trainer Christopher Webb’s journey sheds some light on the matter.
Webb grew up in Alabama into a family of horse lovers who trail rode and showed in halter and breed classes. “Everyone just knew I was gay. I got picked on for it from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade,” he said.
Webb came out to his mother when he was in seventh grade, and his father when he was 18. “My mom was very dramatic about it, but she came around. My dad and I had a brief conversation about it and that was it. He wasn’t thrilled.”
Webb’s parents had been separated and then divorced for most of his life. His father was away a lot, working, and his mother was battling drug addiction. That left him as a child to figure things out for himself. When he was 16, he left home entirely and finished high school and college on his own.
“The horses saved me,” he said. “They gave me a direction, a purpose. And I had so many good horsewomen watching out for me, making sure I stayed on the right path. They didn’t have to do much, because I was a good kid, but they were there.”
Webb worked closely with Carla Shoemaker, a barrel horse breeder whom he credits with getting him through high school and convincing him to go to college. “She told me I was never going to make money in the horse business, and that I had to either join the army or go to college. And I wasn’t going to make it in the army, because I’m gay,” he said.
Webb, who is now 29, was probably right about that–not because he isn’t tough as nails, which he clearly is, but because he’s been out his whole life, and at the time he would have joined the military, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy was still in place, which meant that he would have been discharged from service if he was known to be gay.
Webb went to cosmetology school instead of joining the military, but he didn’t love working in the field after he graduated. He wanted to do the horse thing, and he had his sights set on Virginia. He got a job with jumper professional Ramiro Quintana. “I packed up all my things in my little beat up car and made the move,” he said.
Working with Quintana was quite a shift from his previous experience with horses, and he had to quickly learn the ropes of upper level competition and managing those kinds of horses. He loved grooming, but wanted to ride and compete, so he went to work for Stephen Bradley, an eventing professional and openly gay man. After nearly a year, Webb wanted to branch out on his own and go back to the hunter ring.
Once again, Webb moved on to do his own thing, an ability he cultivated in his adolescence, and started his own business. Almost immediately after setting out on his own, he met Charlie, his partner in life and in business. Charlie is a professional hunter trainer, and the two have now been in business together for five years.
Webb’s story illustrates some key features that are common across a lot of queer experiences: family difficulty, assembling a community of supportive people outside the birth family, a survival-driven need for independence.
The horses kept Webb on track, and maybe they’ve done that for other queer men, too. Maybe because our sport isn’t separated by gender, there’s a bit less overt policing of masculine norms the way there is in, say, American football. Maybe there aren’t more queer men in horse sports than in any other sport, but more men are able to be out in the horse world than elsewhere. And maybe because we can be competitive so much later in our lives, more of us across the queer spectrum become more comfortable with being out.
Whatever the reason, we at The Plaid Horse celebrate people of all queer identities, regardless of how out anyone is, and what discipline they ride in. And we echo Webb’s advice to other LGBTQ riders: “Be confident in yourself, know your worth, heels down, eyes up.”
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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