Never Say Never: Breaking into the Eventing Industry with Daija Sams

“Honestly, I don’t know how I ended up here, but I’m not mad that I ended up here. It just happened. I just let life do life and here we are.”

So began my interview with 23-year-old Daija Sams, who has meandered into a career path in the equestrian industry, mostly by seeking new opportunities and rarely saying no. From modeling to working as a barn manager and assistant trainer, to chasing dreams as a new eventer, Daija believes the sky’s the limit.

One winter, she found herself working as a model for photographer Cassidy Brooke. “I was on winter break from the Savannah College of Art and Design and I knew Cassidy because she rode at my 4-H barn and she just so happened to put out this model call for And I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna apply and just see what happens.’ I ended up getting it.”

Since modeling for Cassidy, she’s also modeled for Urgo Beauty, Free Ride, and a few local photographers who were just looking for more practice.

The next summer, Daija started managing newly christened CCI3* eventer Shannon Riley’s barn, Infinity Sport Horses. “I saw Shannon’s job posting on Facebook for a barn manager position and there were opportunities to ride. The only reason I applied to it is because I would get to ride plus bring my horse but not have to pay for any of that.”

From there, managing Shannon’s barn turned into taking on a role as her assistant trainer. Taking on the position was also Daija’s first introduction to eventing, as she grew up in the hunter ring and in 4H clubs.

“Until I met Shannon, I always had this thing that I was like ‘Eventing is scary and going over solid obstacles – I don’t know if I will ever do that in my life.’ It did take Shannon nine months to get me to go cross country schooling for the first time,” Daija laughed. “I got thrown into it and I was just like ‘Okay, jumping over logs isn’t that bad.’ And then it led to going to Stable View, doing Eventing Academy, and all these things. I just competed in my first ever recognized Novice trial on our barn owner’s horse. Now, I’m gearing up for bigger and better things.”

Her plans for 2024 include qualifying her five-year-old Appendix, Pilot, into the USEA Young Event Horse track with the main goal of finishing the season by competing in the championships at the Maryland 5 Star. Daija started Pilot herself as part of her coursework in a colt-starting class at Martin Community College.

“You don’t really see Quarter Horses at the top of the sport; you see them in lower level eventing, but not really at the top. So I asked Shannon, and she thinks he could be a contender at the upper levels, so I decided to try and qualify for the Young Event Horse championships.”

As for whether or not she’s ready to tackle Young Event Horse having just completed her first ever Novice event, Daija is going into this with her eyes wide open. “I absolutely do not feel ready. Pilot has been cross country schooling two times. He cannot figure out how benches work, he tries to climb them. We have a membership to the Vista. We’ll probably just go every week, up until qualifiers which are coming up very soon. It’s stressing me out,” she laughed.

While I think Daija would love to find herself at the top of the sport, she’s a little coy about setting a goal that’s quite that lofty. “I don’t have any big major goals. At this point, I’m going to just keep doing what I’m doing. If I end up at the top – cool.”

As a person of color, Daija finds it frustrating that there aren’t more people of color (POC) competing in the upper levels of eventing. “It’s very odd. Like, you have Anna Buffini in dressage. You have Mavis Spencer in showjumping. Rob Van Jacobs in hunters and equitation — but I cannot name a single person in eventing.”

When I asked her about the barriers to access for people of color in eventing, Daija said that while she sees POC in the lower levels, she thinks the jump from amateur to professional eventer is simply a big leap to make.

“Now there’s all of these programs that are meant to help at the lower levels — like okay, yeah, 4H helped me. But when it comes to getting to the upper levels of the sport, there’s not many resources,” Daija said. “The only reason that I am where I am now is because I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make this my entire life for a minute. I’ll work hard. I’ll get the connections to be able to go and do what I need to do to advance.’ I mean, that’s why the SEE [Strides for Equality Equestrians] scholarship was made, to help bridge the gap between those connections. But overall there’s just a lack of knowledge. Putting more spotlight on resources like that I think would very much help getting people into the top of the sport.”

As for her own experience as a POC and professional in the equestrian industry, she says that while she’s encountered racism, she tries not to let it bother her.

“I feel like the best way to deal with it is by saying, ‘Well, I don’t really care what you say. I’m doing my thing and I’m living my best life. I don’t care that it’s making you miserable, that has nothing to do with me. I’m over here minding my own business.’”

Daija was very candid about the racism she experienced throughout her life, especially as a young rider. “At one barn, I was just treated so differently from everybody else. I remember one time I literally stayed home from school because I couldn’t stop bawling my eyes out just because of something said to me or how I was being treated that week,” Daija said. Then added, “But that’s why I left that barn and all my friends left that barn. At the time, I just thought they had a problem with me, but looking back maybe it was because of my skin color.”

While she has also encountered people mistaking her for a groom or unfair judging in the hunter ring, she says what annoys her the most is often from the most well-meaning people. “Everyone in the eventing community is so nice. There’s basically more ignorance in some people’s comments than blatant racism. For example, one lady walked up to me and started a conversation with me and she goes, ‘Oh were you in the DEI meeting with USEA the other night? I was like, no… At that point in time, I didn’t even have my USEA number. And she was like, ‘Oh, well, there’s this person that looks like you and she was telling her story. It was so inspirational!’” Daija said. “And then she says that same line that I hear all the time– ‘She was very well-spoken.’ Everytime I hear that I try not to roll my eyes into the back of my head. Just because I don’t talk in slang all the time, doesn’t mean I’m very well-spoken. There’s so many people that are very well-spoken, but it’s just different. It’s like speaking Spanish versus English, right? It’s just a different dialect.”

At the end of the day, Daija says she doesn’t lose sleep over instances like these. In her opinion, most of the time, people like this don’t even realize they’re being racist. Plus, she believes that the eventing industry could play a big role in bridging the gap between POC and English disciplines. “English disciplines are more elitist than Western in a way and cost more, but that’s why I also think eventing can bridge the gap – it’s cheaper than a lot of the other English disciplines in this industry.”

Daija sees a lot of promise in the eventing community, from the individual people to the venues. “When I went to Kentucky for the first time in 2016, there was a whole section in the museums about Black people. I was like, What the heck?! Honestly, I was genuinely shocked and so happy at the same time.”

As a young professional and someone new to eventing, Daija’s perspective offers a lot of wisdom for our community. She provides a first-person perspective on what’s missing in the stepping stones from amateur to professional, as well as unique insight on the promise our community can hold as an accessible haven for people of all backgrounds. I hope that in the future, young Black girls staying home from school and bawling their eyes out because of the way they were treated can turn on their TV and watch Daija Sams and other POC tackle the Kentucky Three Day Event — or, even better, that they never find themselves crying because of mistreatment and micro- or macro- aggressions at all, because it’ll be so commonplace to see riders of all races and backgrounds at the top of the sport.

No matter who you are or where you came from, whether you’re watching from the sidelines or galloping down the track – all of our dreams ride on the backs of these horses.

3.3 3 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments