As America’s reckoning with its racial history continues, the topic of equal access and opportunity within the equestrian industry has spun off several innovative nonprofits and scholarship funds aimed at closing this divide. Many business owners found themselves grappling with an uncomfortable question: what action can I take to help? What if I can’t do “enough”? Where do I begin? In fact, it’s these sometimes uncomfortable questions and conversations that lead to growth – and this is how the idea for the Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship was born.
Mandy Collier felt something stirring after she attended a virtual panel on Diversity and Inclusion hosted by Heels Down Mag. On the panel were five Black equestrians from a wide variety of backgrounds. Mandy listened, learned, took notes.
In the wake of the civil unrest sparked most recently by the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, social media scrambled to keep up. A viral black square made its rounds, intended as a signal of solidarity – but often this square was followed by nothing else. No changes, no action.
Mandy knew this wasn’t enough. She’d started her own business as an Equine Massage Therapist and wanted to use her own privilege to help. So she enlisted the help of Shaq Blake – who was a part of the Heels Down Mag panel – and Jacqueline Ely to form some actionable ideas on what could be done.
“‘Act now, talk about it later,'” Mandy reflected on perspective provided by panelist Abriana Johnson, a host of the Young Black Equestrians podcast. “So I thought, ‘ok, I have to do something. What am I going to do?'”
Throughout the panel discussion, the recurring theme was access to education and opportunity. As show jump rider Mavis Spencer put it, once she was competing and established she felt she had ample opportunities – but getting a foothold presented the biggest challenge. Therein was a way to make a difference: by helping to bridge the divide of opportunity for riders who simply wanted a shot.
“For me growing up, I always thought you had to be wealthy to ride,” Shaq recalls as she recounts her early days in the saddle. “It wasn’t a normal thing that just anyone could decide.” (Shaq, the author of The Black Equestrian blog, was recently featured in Elle Magazine alongside several other Black equestrians; don’t miss the article here.)
Shaq grew up riding in Boston, Massachusetts, and she says one of the biggest challenges starting out was simply getting the right information. It’s a challenge that many new equestrian parents face: what equipment is needed? Where is the nearest barn? Is that barn a safe place? “Knowledge is a huge part of the access, outside of just location,” she said.
When Shaq started riding, search engines hadn’t risen to popularity yet. So her mother was left to fend for herself, guessing on what type of gloves her daughter needed or what type of apparel was most appropriate for riding. Looking back, Shaq says she can sympathize with the feeling of helplessness her mother must have felt, wanting to give her daughter the right opportunities but having no idea how to find them.
Jacqueline echoes these early challenges and says one of the aspects of riding that was missing from her early riding days was proper instruction. She relied heavily on whatever material she could lay hands on: videos, magazines, books. Though she grew up on a farm and has worked with horses her whole life, Jacqueline says she wishes she had more, better instruction throughout those formative years.
“I was seeking out as much as I could from videos, magazines, anything I could,” she recalls. Now, she has her own training business, an opportunity to help kids who are just starting out with knowledge she wishes she had more access to. “To me, big picture, (this scholarship program) could be huge. There are a lot of individuals who believe in this and want to be a part of it, because maybe they have a story similar to mine or Shaq’s or Mandy’s,” she says.
And so this brain trust of talented women put their heads together and, from their varied experiences, landed on the idea of a scholarship that would not only offer monetary support but mentorship, too.
After all, horse ownership is expensive, no matter which way you throw the dice. No doubt many reading this can relate: in order to make it happen, you’ve got to get creative. Side hustles, proper planning of how money will be spent, and setting yourself up to be able to support what will always be an expensive hobby or career.
Therefore, the Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship will offer mentorship opportunities to all applicants in addition to monetary awards. A quarterly financial award in the amount of $600, funded both by Mandy’s Optimum Equine Massage Therapy business as well as private donations (you can pitch in to support the scholarship fund here), will be given to a deserving rider. “Whether you want to get involved or be able to stay involved, we encourage you to apply,” Many explained. “The idea is to have riders from all backgrounds apply; there are many things that can stand in your way and we want to help these riders overcome those obstacles.”
Mentors have stepped forward from all walks of life, from lawyers to photographers to yoga instructors, and everything in between, ready to help scholarship applicants navigate not only their riding career but a life that can support that career as well.
The deadline to apply for the Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship’s first round of awards is Thursday, October 15. Applicants are encouraged to submit either a written or a video application as well as a budget for how the award would be used. In turn, each applicant will be matched with a mentor.
The Heels Down Mag Diversity Panel was full of candid discussion and perspective – we highly recommend a watch: