Eventing: The Whitest Sport?

Clockwise from upper-left corner: 2012 team and individual Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics Gabby Douglas, four-time Olympic gold medalist in tennis Serena Williams,  2008 and 20012 Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones, 11-time PGA Player of the Year Tiger Woods, 2006 and 2010 Olympic gold medalist in speed-skating Shani Davis, 1988 Olympic bronze medalist in figure-skating Debi Thomas. All photos used under Creative Commons License. Clockwise from upper-left corner: 2012 team and individual Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics Gabby Douglas, four-time Olympic gold medalist in tennis Serena Williams, 2008 and 20012 Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones, 11-time PGA Player of the Year Tiger Woods, 2006 and 2010 Olympic gold medalist in speed-skating Shani Davis, 1988 Olympic bronze medalist in figure-skating Debi Thomas. All photos used under Creative Commons License.

Here’s something that nobody wants to talk about: diversity in equestrian sport, or more specifically, the lack thereof. While black athletes have made inroads into many traditionally white-dominated sports in recent decades, a glance around any given horse show makes immediately apparent the fact that we’re woefully out of step with that trend. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that so few people seem to realize that it’s a problem.

For the sake of brevity, let’s limit our discussion to eventing. (Mostly because if you got me started talking about the social stratification of the A-circuit hunter/jumper world, I will never shut up.) So just how “white” is eventing? Since we don’t have statistics to go by — there are no “describe your race” checkboxes on USEA membership forms or event entries — we have to rely on experiential data. And speaking from experience, I think we can all agree that, with a few exceptions, the VAST majority of American eventers are white.

Racial homogeneity isn’t unique to our sport. Despite dramatic advances in the sports world at large to provide a more equal playing field, some sports have simply lagged behind. Much of this can be traced to vestigial socioeconomic barriers: Not everyone is in a financial position to invest in the training, equipment and competition costs required to participate, much less excel, in certain sports. This speaks to a deeper structural racism of who has access to what. Eventing, being an expensive sport to participate in on even the most basic of levels, is correspondingly one of the most exclusive and least racially diverse.

How do we make our sport more accessible? That’s a question the eventing community loves to ask. But when we posit it, it’s in the self-serving context of, “How do we achieve more popular appeal, more airtime and more sponsors?” Not, “How do we share this experience with those who wouldn’t have access to it otherwise?” The two questions, however, are more intertwined that you might think.

Stephen Colbert had a heyday with equestrian elitism last year but, mercifully, his critique was sugarcoated in humor. What if it hadn’t been? If our sport continues existing in this insular white privilege bubble, someday it’s going to catch up with us. It’s worth remembering that equestrian sports aren’t a shoe-in for inclusion on the Olympic roster like, say, swimming or track. We have to make an effort to continue demonstrating global reach and appeal. As it stands, we’re just one “Nightline” exposé away from a public image nightmare.

Other traditionally white sports have made it through this dilemma intact, even flourishing through the transition to a more diverse participation. The emergence of black sporting icons like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters put “country club sports” like golf and tennis within the grasp, physically and conceptually, of a broader demographic. Other traditionally white-dominated sports like gymnastics, swimming and figure skating have followed suit.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that eventers are racist, or that we intended eventing to become one of the the last bastions of white sport, or that non-white athletes are greeted by our community with anything less than open arms. What I’m saying is we are guilty of complacency. If eventing wants to be considered a relevant sport in the 21st century, we have to lose the tunnel vision and work harder to evolve.

I’d love to see the USEA continue this conversation and put some meaningful programs in place that emphasize inclusion. How about a diversity scholarship rewarding talented minority riders, or outreach programs providing riding lessons to underprivileged kids? Sure, it’s easier (and cheaper) to hand kids a basketball than the reins to a horse, but if winter sports outreach programs have been successful in getting under-served youth onto the side of a mountain, surely we can get them to a nearby farm.

There are things we can do as individuals as well. For instance, several years ago I got involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Once a week, I picked my “little” up from school and we went to the barn. She loved grooming my horse and learning the basics of riding, and those hours in the country offered much-needed relief from a troubled home life. As eventers, we’ve been given a gift, and it’s our responsibility to share it.

It makes me incredibly sad to know that the experience of eventing is limited to a fortunate few. And I feel deeply troubled when I see our community fold further and further in on itself. And, I promise you, as more money gets injected into the sport, it’s only going to get worse. Will we see a black event rider on the Olympic podium in our lifetime? Who knows. But we can commit to growing a healthier, more diverse sport in which anything is possible.

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