Discussions about race unsettle rarified equestrian world
Of all the athletes in all the sports who have been pressing for change in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a pair of 17-year-old girls in the cash-soaked world of show jumping have set off among the most visceral and unexpected debates.
Sophie Gochman and Lauryn Gray, both getting ready for their senior years in high school, sparked a frank conversation about white privilege, economic disparity and unspoken racism that they say pervades a sport saturated in exclusivity at every level.
“I don’t hate the horse world, I just want a discussion to start,” said Gochman, whose blog on June 1, seven days after Floyd″s death, began the unfolding of an uncomfortable reckoning for a sport with a history of not facing its most troubling issues head-on. “I want to improve it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”
In her blog, published by the influential The Chronicle of the Horse website, Gochman calls the equestrian world “an insular community with a gross amount of wealth and white privilege, and thus we choose the path of ignorance.”
Reaction was mixed. The first response: “My dear Sophie...if you want to publicly address bias...you should start with your own.” One retort to that: “It is truth, not bias.”
According to the Equivont website, about 40 percent of show jumping participants spend between $1,000 and $2,000 a month on training and board, and another $1,500 on veterinary and other bills. Among the sport’s notable participants include the daughters of Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bloomberg and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Gochman, whose family is also well-known in horse circles, makes no secret of her conflicted feelings as a white teenager from a wealthy family taking advantage of a system that seems to benefit only people like herself.
“But I also know I will dedicate my life to service,” she wrote. “I will work to tear down the dazzling structures that uphold my privilege. I’m not asking for applause or attention, but change.”
Gochman’s aunt, Sarah Nordgren, is a deputy managing editor for The Associated Press, but was not involved in the production of this story.
In the back and forth of responses to the blog, it was an open letter published in the Chronicle seven days later — from the highly regarded trainer Missy Clark — that took the debate to a new level. In it, Clark undercut many of Gochman’s most searing arguments and argued herself that blacks and minorities weren’t excluded purposefully.
“In our world, some choices are forced because they’re based on the cold hard fact most people can’t afford to do this. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but it also doesn’t mean that it’s discrimination,” Clark said in a posting that received a mixed reaction and also compelled The Chronicle to publish its own op-ed to defend its reason for printing the response piece in the first place.
In between, Gray, a 17-year-old with one black and one white parent, published her own open letter titled: “Being The Bay In A Field Of Grays.” She discusses the early realization that she participated in a sport in which there were very few who looked like her.
“It’s a hard idea to wrap my head around, and it’s even harder to find a legitimate answer,” she wrote.
She said she appreciated Gochman’s stance, and also felt it was important for the riding world to hear from someone like her.
“I hope there is one more conversation between regular people who participate in the sport,” she said in a subsequent interview with The AP. “My other hope is that people who do have a bigger platform, the professionals, the large brands, I hope they speak out a little more. They owe it to all of us to speak up and say something and raise awareness.”
Another voice in the discussion belongs to Stephanie Kallstrom, whose own blog, “Life As A Black Equestrian,” appeared in The Chronicle last Friday.
She described a life of feeling like “a fly in the milk” in the equestrian stables where she grew up in the Vancouver area.
“It’s always been the elephant in the room for me but something that everyone else can ignore,” she told AP. “It’s something in my life that’s really uncomfortable for me because no one can relate to what I’m saying and generally no one has been open to hearing about it.”
This isn’t a new place for equestrian, a sport that for decades has wrestled with a history of sex abuse cases that were largely swept under the rug for years. Only in the recent years, with the entire Olympic sports world facing similar issues, has the sport been forced to reckon with that pass. The U.S. Center for SafeSport has handed out no fewer than 18 lifetime bans to those in the equestrian world since 2017.
Now, thanks to these three riders and the dozens of more who are chiming into the conversation they’ve generated, a discussion is breaking out in the most unlikely of places.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation is developing what its CEO, Bill Moroney, called “a comprehensive diversity and inclusion program,” the details of which will be shared with the federation’s board of directors next week.
It’s one of many steps the sport is reckoning with as it finds itself in the middle of an unexpectedly jolting debate. Kallstrom described some of her private correspondence with Clark, in the wake of Clark’s blog post, as productive.
Clark also posted an apology on social media — “What I perceived as an inclusive community, free of racial bias, is an inaccuracy that I completely misread,” she said — that Kallstrom, Gochman and Gray view as a sign that people in the sport can learn from the tumult resulting from Floyd’s death.
Gochman says she’s well aware she will be viewed differently when she gets back into riding after a layoff that made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.
“But I hope that if you were super upset about my article that maybe at least you thought about it for a couple minutes, or part of it intrigued someone,” she said. “I hope it led some people to at least think a little more about their actions.”