BY BRIDIE HAMILTON
It’s been three and a half months since Sophie Gochman’s article Breaking The Silence Surrounding White Privilege In The Horse World. During this time, the climate surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement has shifted drastically. I have witnessed tremendously courageous conversations about sensitive issues on all sides of equestrian industries. I have also seen many brands, high profile riders, show venues, governing bodies and spectators choose to stay silent.
Returning to sports during the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that BLM transcends culture, sports, and politics. Most sports are operating in bubbles on shortened seasons, and the horse show industry is no exception to making the most of a restricted outdoor season. Whether or not a return to competition while not operating within the strict settings of a bubble for athletes and operational staff is even appropriate seems like a conversation for another article. Something that has stood out to me, however, is the difference in the continuation of the conversation surrounding BLM as shows resume.
Other major league sports have painted “Black Lives Matter” on their courts, fields, jumbotrons, signage, jerseys, staff shirts, and kneeled during the national anthem to show their support. WNBA players are unmatched in their solidarity for social justice. They have dedicated their season to the #SayHerName campaign which seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality. Specifically, they are highlighting the story of Breonna Taylor by putting her name on their jerseys and observing a 26-second moment of silence before every single game. One second for each year Breonna Taylor was alive.
Yet during all these continued conversations in other sports, horse show venues are noticeably absent. The only exception I have seen is a “Lead with Kindness” jump at Sonoma Horse Park. It features sayings like “Feminism is for everyone,” “No Human is Illegal,” “Kindness is Everything,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Love is Love,” and “Science is Real.” At this point, it seems like the bare minimum a show management company could offer to demonstrate their interest in supporting black athletes, LGBTQ+ athletes, and those who have historically felt like marginalized members in our community.
Show organizations and governing bodies were keen to post a black square for Blackout Tuesday in early June and engage with other public signals of support. Why not keep that energy up when people are competing at your venue? No BLM jump? No shirts for your office staff? No BLM show jacket or masks from any GP riders who know their class will be photographed? No equestrian brands producing BLM gear for competitors to wear in the show ring? Unfortunately, these actions now seem motivated solely by the negative implications associated with doing nothing.
The more recent controversy surrounding Plantation Field Events has again shed light on the fact that sometimes difficult discussions have difficult consequences. The keyboard backlash on Eventing Nation’s article reminds me of Sportsnet firing a certain Canadian hockey commentator who shall not be named for racist remarks. He was a household name that many were outraged to see let go. I’m trying to imagine what would have happened if an NHL team shut its doors because they disagreed with his termination.
As someone who studies ethics, I get a lot of questions about what “the ethical thing to do” in a situation would be. My usual response is that I do not consider myself qualified enough to provide an answer. However, I am certain there is no ethical framework that can be meaningfully formulated to support a debate that ends in seeking moral high ground from performative inclusivity. Your hashtags are temporary and your virtue signalling is obsolete if you have not learned from it. Ethics in a racial context is going to be far less concerned with what you do publicly, and far more concerned with how you think when there is no moral praise to be earned.
Even if you choose not to support a name change in an attempt to uphold free speech or to preserve a certain narrative of history that keeps you comfortable, Plantation Field’s response (or, lack thereof) is cause for thought. In the wise words of recent U.S. Open winner and outspoken BLM advocate, Naomi Osaka: “What was the message you got?”
The message I am getting is that if the equestrian community is so emotionally attached to a version of history about a piece of property that they are unwilling to learn from new information that requires them to think critically about how that history has harmed others who are also a part of the equestrian community, then this sport is no worse for wear when close-minded athletes, organizations, or owners take themselves out of the game.
One argument against sports or professional athletes acknowledging BLM is the notion that athletic events should not mix with politics. That distinction implies that racial equality and social justice movements’ primary purposes are to advance a political agenda. But BLM is intended to achieve widespread vocal support for fundamental human rights. If that’s political to you, I think you have a severely misconstrued interpretation of politics.
Visibility is vital, and with what minimal Black representation exists in the sphere of power with the ability to create structural change in the equestrian world, real support for issues concerning the Black community will be difficult to come by. Ultimately, these venues are businesses and they respond to social issues accordingly. But as Sophie pointed out: this sport is the epitome of privilege. When you have the privilege to speak up and potentially make a difference, it is a violent act not to do so. Equestrian venues, brands, organizations, and athletes that choose not to stand up for the Black community when the dust has settled are siding against it.
Bridie Hamilton is a former working student, FEI Groom and EAP National Finalist turned collegiate equestrian. She is currently in her third year of an Honours B.A. in Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of Ottawa where she competes as part of the Gee-Gees Equestrian Team and serves as the team’s Communications & Events Coordinator.