WHO GETS TO BE AN EQUESTRIAN? In the elite, predominantly white world of horseback riding, Black women face a painful set of challenges.
At 10 a.m., it’s already as hot as midday. Shaquilla “Shaq” Blake, a rising Black equestrian, finishes feeding the horses at a stable in Massachusetts as part of her student work in exchange for riding lessons. Wearing black breeches and a T-shirt that proclaims “Coffee” in AC/DC font, she squints at the rising sun.
Mornings at the big gray barn start with feedings and end with cleanings. It’s a picturesque scene: The horses—mostly quarters, and some Arabians, Shetlands, and Connemaras—are hosed down with cool water. Everyone gathers around back by the red picnic tables. There, Blake sits with five other barn workers—all of them white. Under the shade, the air thick with the scent of manure, they take a moment to catch their breath before the day’s trail rides begin.
As Blake cools off, she feels a tug at her dreadlocks. “Can you feel that?” a giddy voice says from behind her. It belongs to a 13-year-old girl whose profile matches what Blake calls “your typical equestrian”—namely, wealthy and white. Can I feel that?? Of course I can! You just yanked the hell out of my dreads!
This wasn’t the first time Blake felt unwelcome in the sport she loves. At that barn, where she no longer rides, she heard fellow riders use the n-word in front of her. Another time, “Some kids were talking, and one of them goes, ‘Do you smoke pot?’ ” she recalls. “And the other one was like, ‘No, I don’t smoke pot! You think I’m a poor Black person?’ ”
Once, these comments may not have ricocheted beyond the horse-world bubble. But like many elite, largely white institutions—prep schools, opera, theater—the equestrian world is facing its own reckoning with racism. A week after the murder of George Floyd, 17-year-old rider Sophie Gochman, who is white, penned an online essay for the horse-world magazine The Chronicle of the Horse. “We are an insular community with a gross amount of wealth and white privilege, and thus we choose the path of ignorance,” she wrote.