Equestrian Sports Are Still Too Rich and White
The demographics of horse shows rarely transcend their privileged, wealthy origins. Something must be changed.
I’ve been involved in equestrian sports over several disciplines since I was a child. I started out doing hunters, based on style and quality of the animal, and jumpers, based on speed and efficiency of getting around a course of fences without knocking them over. I then did equitation and dressage. I was a horse girl through and through.
But, unlike the majority of the community, I grew up in a lower-middle-class household. I always felt like an outsider in a world where the majority of participants were privileged with lots of wealth and resources. At horse shows, my mother had to work in concessions while other kids’ moms stood by the side of the ring with their horse butlers, the majority of whom are Central American and live on the family’s sprawling acreage, handling all aspects of caring for their horses and equipment.
Only when I got older and got a job at a barn in Ocala, Florida—during a winter circuit—did I begin to grasp the true inequality of it all. Throughout the annual 12-week-long show, people would spend an average of $2,000 per week, per horse, often bringing multiple horses to show during the event. A memory that sticks with me is when a girl around ten years old came in and bluntly told me, “I need Porpoise ready in ten minutes.” For one, she was way too comfortable ordering a stranger around. But second, it wasn’t my responsibility to groom her horse at all. “OK, then go get it,” I responded back. She was completely beside herself, and just stood there with no idea how to prepare and saddle her own horse.
Horses Are Treated Better Than the Impoverished Groomers Taking Care of Them
People involved in the equestrian disciplines tend to be either ultra-wealthy or ultra-poor. The elites own lots of acreage spread across multiple properties. In Ocala, there are a lot of seasonal residents who reside there only during the months of competition. They fly on private planes, vacation in the islands and flaunt their wealth in astounding and egregious ways.
The economics speak for themselves: If you want to be competitive in the regular divisions, the average price for a horse at competition level is around $100,000 and stretches well past that. The cost for boarding at a more minimalistic barn is at least $1,000 per month. There are more extravagant barns with costs ranging into the millions that have full lounges, gyms, swimming pools, kitchens and any amenity the mind can conjure.
Since the horses are treated like athletes and there’s a lot of pressure on their joints, they also get regular injections and courses of treatment. At base level, owners must factor in thousands per year in veterinary costs to maintain their joints and a minimum of $250 every eight weeks to have their hooves maintained by a farrier. They even get acupuncture, chiropractic treatment and massages. They’re fed the finest foods. Their care is manicured and tailored down to the hour of turnout, which allows a horse to graze the pasture. Those who can afford it have their horses turned out by themselves without any other horses in the same pasture so there’s no risk of injury.
In many cases, horses live a more lavish lifestyle than the humans who are taking care of them. To put it in perspective, think about when you’re driving down the highway and you see one of those large horse trailers—if you know to look, you’ll often spot a human face. They belong to the grooms, largely undocumented Central Americans, riding in the back with the horses to keep them calm. It’s very dangerous, just one of many inhumanities they suffer. They often live on a corner of the barn owner’s property with their whole families, including kids and grandparents, packed into decrepit mobile homes. On the surface, they seem to be treated very well. They basically become part of the family. But the reality is that they’re paid almost nothing, they work 15-hour days in brutal climates and then have to go home to a trailer with ten other people.
Racism and Elitism Still Dominate Equestrian Sports
The most ironic thing about the horse community is that they’re largely Republican and anti-immigrant, yet rely heavily on extremely cheap, undocumented labor to tend to their every need. There’s also a major undertone of racism that shines through the sport thanks to its lack of diversity. When George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement bubbled over in the summer of 2020, there were threads on popular horse message boards where the racists came out of the woodwork in droves. A well-known horse trainer wrote, and I'm paraphrasing, “Of course there are only white people in the sport—it’s an expensive hobby and Black people are poor.”
Overall, there are very few people of color in the sport, and they’re almost always younger. I only know one person of color who still shows up after aging out of their junior status. The competition judges are mostly white male conservative baby boomers, and the standard for what gets pinned (awarded) in equitation is flat out gross: tall, thin, beautiful and white. My friend’s daughter rides remarkably well and is Black. Even if she puts in a nicer round, she has never placed above her white competitors. In many cases, the competitors make clear mistakes but were still placed higher.
The racism is still more of a foghorn than a dog whistle.
Despite the glaring issues facing the horse community in the U.S., I want to believe we can make it a more equitable experience for everyone. I’d love to see this change here and I know it’s possible because, in European countries, taking part in equestrian sports is not as rigidly class-based or as problematic as it is in the U.S. Working with horses teaches you so much about communication, body language, listening, sensing and helps you build an intuition that you just can’t get anywhere else. I hope more people can experience it.