I’ve got a serious question for you all. Do we actually want equestrian sport to be the bastion of the privileged white? Is it that really the path we want to go down? On the one hand we get defensive when anyone calls our sport elitist, or when it’s disparaged as the pursuit of the toffs by the ‘working class’ and you can’t turn on your computer without seeing a post complaining about the rising costs of the sport and the prices of top level horses. Yet there is an inherent racism and classism in so much discussion recently, that I’d be more inclined to expect from the Twitter rants of the immigration and political profiles I’ve been following out of necessity. Are we really comfortable with this or should we be calling it out?
I’ve written before that we are in a remarkable position to be an example on inclusivity, being the only Olympic sport where men and women compete on equal terms and for decades we’ve been a place where the LGBTQ+ members of our community feel safe and supported. It’s a fantastic platform and something we should be proud of. Yet that acceptance is not global. In the past week I’ve seen three different conversations, posts and comments that if not directly discriminatory, at the very least have overtones of intolerance.
The first was a conversation around a showjumping team that purchased a number of top level horses – the intimation being that they didn’t deserve to be competing at that level. I’m sorry, but anyone who gallops down to 1.60m is a world class athlete. A good horse makes the job easier, but the rider still has a definite job to do. Then there was a post about an eventer being sold to a member of an Asian team. It is the December before an Olympic games. Horses will be changing hands all over the globe in order to meet FEI ownership rules before Tokyo and this exchange can benefit both parties as the prices demanded can set the producers up for life. Not to mention the particular rider that was gaining the ride has been a regular on the British eventing scene for 7 years and is no stranger to the pointy end of the sport. For what it’s worth, if my lotto numbers came in in the next two weeks, rest assured I’d be going horse shopping and I’m a lot less deserving!
The last straw for me, the one that had me write this blog, were some particularly disturbing comments on a post about Khadijah Mellah, the young Muslim girl from inner city London who won the Magnolia Cup charity race a couple of months back. Her achievements are significant. She was the first female wearing a hajib to participate in racing. But that’s just the start of the story. She grew up in south London the daughter of immigrants. She started riding at the Ebony Horse Club, a charity whose aim is to teach life skills, build confidence and provide opportunities for disadvantaged youth. She only sat on a thoroughbred for the first time 4 months before the race and beat a number of top sports people, including accomplished riders on the day. She has singlehandedly created a pathway for so many people to follow and has also bridged the gap between communities. That deserves celebration. I personally distinctly remember the first female jockeys competing in a professional race on equal terms. That inspired a generation of horse people to do something they had never thought possible. Who knows who Khadijah will influence? She has a far wider relevance than those early female jockey did.
Our sports need diversity. We have much to learn from other ethnic groups – both Arab and Asian nations have an equine history that is centuries older than the Anglo-Saxon. And it’s true, we need the money that some of these people bring to the table. The Godolphins have been responsible for keeping racing’s head above water for some time and the most British of British Horse Shows, the Royal Windsor would not be half the spectacle it is without the input from Al Shira’aa. Plus, can you imagine the UK equestrian scene without immigrants? No Alex Hua Tian, Jackie Siu, Mark Todd, Chris Burton, not to mention British gold medal winner Laura Tomlinson? (OK, Alex was born here and educated at Eton, but was included pointedly… this is a conversation about the judgements we make – often incorrectly)
I realise that this will be another controversial opinion from me. That some of you will not agree with what I have to say. But the conversation needs to be started. It may make you uncomfortable. It is up to us as grass roots to elite participants to question what we want for our future. It is up to us to stand up to those that divide our community and to stand beside those who are being attacked, even if that attack is made unconsciously. We need to expose language and sentiments that can bring people down and make them feel ‘other’.
It’s time that we got down off our high horse and recognised that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t get upset when the public say that it’s a sport for the rich when we do not defend the rights of people from all backgrounds to participate.
Photos for todays blog both by Beck Edmunds - head girl at Bryan Smart racing who have long since discovered the joys of an ethnically diverse crew as well as employing and training a number of young people who would normally not move to careers in the industry.
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