February is Black History Month, making for a particularly relevant debut for DEI Community Conversations, part of US Equestrian’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion action plan announced last year.
US Equestrian began DEI Community Conversations in an effort to bring awareness to the experiences of equestrians from a wide range of underrepresented and underserved groups by featuring expert panelists from those communities. The inaugural event was hosted via Zoom earlier this week, featuring a four-person panel: Ashland Johnson, president and founder of the Inclusion Playbook; Anastasia Curwood, Ph.D., part of Strides for Equality Equestrians; Kareem Rosser of Work to Ride; and Caitlin Gooch, founder of Saddle Up and Read. US Equestrian’s Ashley Swift moderated the conversation, explaining that these events will continue on a quarterly basis and are both free to attend and open to all; you do not need to be a USEF member to participate.
In honor of Black History Month, Curwood began the discussion with a lecture on the history of POC in equestrian sport. Going back as far as the 1800s, Curwood detailed the many accomplishments of BIPOC in equestrian sport, particularly in racing and saddle seat. A remarkable 13 of the 15 riders in the first Kentucky Derby were black; black jockeys also won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the race. Segregation in 1938 drastically changed the landscape, when BIPOC were no longer welcome as competitors in events like saddle seat, and Jim Crow laws forced black jockeys out of racing. The famed boxer Joe Lewis subsequently created a set of horse shows in Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York where BIPOC could participate as riders as owners.
Following Curwood’s lecture, a shift was taken to focus on the present and future of BIPOC in equestrian sport. Rosser and Gooch educated listeners on the success of their programs and shared their own personal experiences as black equestrians.
Rosser’s tale was particularly inspiring; the polo rider joined Philadelphia’s Work to Ride program when he was eight years old, and he is now a member of the executive board, as well as the organization’s treasurer.
Gooch shared that while her program does not involve riding, just being around and interacting with horses immensely benefits participants in her Saddle Up and Read program. Horsemanship skills not only improve their safety in the barn; they build her students’ confidence, enhance their soft skills and help improve their literacy. Horses she said, become an incentive for many to read.
“What can individuals and organizations do to support black equestrians in and out of the ring?” was among the questions posed at the end of the conversation, and the panelists gave a range of answers, from “just listening” to greater research and support of existing programs.
“Go and look at finding other community centers and outreach programs that exist already. Go to your local Boys & Girls Club,” Rosser encouraged. “Look at programs that might want to enter a new space in equestrian.”
“I welcome the questions 2020 has brought, but I also encourage others to seek out resources,” Curwood said.
“I just want to see a push in not tolerating [negativity],” Gooch added.
The panelists agreed, strides are being made, but the the effort needs to be continued.
“Organizations are miles ahead from where they were last year,” Curwood said. “This past year has shown that, first of all, there is a wonderful community, but secondly, that there is also a lot of backlash. Organizations need to get serious about setting what’s acceptable and not acceptable.”
Greater inclusion, she added, benefits all. “By drawing in BIPOC folks, we are expanding the reach of USEF and equestrian sports.”
All DEI Community Conversations events can be watched on demand at USEF Network.
US Equestrian has also launched a new feedback mechanism on DEI. You can access it at usef.org/compete/feedback.
You can learn more about DEI Community Conversations and find additional background information about how the DEI Action Plan came to be by visiting usef.org/about-us/diversity-inclusion.