The New York Times published an article on March 3 entitled, “Black Equestrians Want to Be Safe. But They Can’t Find Helmets.” It was inspired by a recent influx of social media posts by Black equestrians in which they advocate for helmets that can be worn over natural hair. The article detailed a cycle of underrepresentation–helmet companies don’t make accessible products for Black equestrians because very few horseback riders are Black (roughly 0.5 percent of the United States Equestrian Federation identify as Black). Thus, fewer Black people choose to get involved in this sport where even accessing basic, essential safety gear is a major barrier to entry.
The article detailed the experiences of Black athletes in a sport that has become incredibly white. Yes, become. In recent years, more attention has been paid to the history of Black people’s integral relationship with equestrian culture. A 2022 Washington Post article titled, “Teaching the next generation of Black horseback riders” shows how this history runs deep. It claims that many enslaved people were forced to work with horses until emancipation, when many formerly enslaved people used their horsemanship skills to leave the South and become ranch workers and cowboys. Many also worked as “Buffalo Soldiers,” serving in the U.S. army on the frontier. Historians estimate that 20-25 percent of cowboys were Black.
Despite this history, few Black people today feel included in the equestrian world. Few minorities in general choose to participate in equestrian sports. A significant reason for this is the way in which horseback riding has become tied to the American upper class. People who have been systematically denied the opportunity to amass generational wealth often find themselves at a loss for ways to enter this sport. While there are multiple Black rodeos that specifically celebrate the Black community’s contributions to Western-style horseback riding and offer a support system for people who are a minority in the sport, hunter-jumper riders have fewer opportunities.
But opportunities do exist. The New York Times article referenced a group called the CREW Urban Youth Equestrians, which is a nonprofit located in Minnesota. They offer horseback riding classes to students who face racial and financial barriers with the goal of helping young people build the sense of community and confidence that equestrian sports are so good at creating. But its founders told the New York Times that small things like the difficulty of finding helmets that fit students’ heads caused a significant decrease in students’ confidence.
This problem is not exclusive to the equestrian world. Other sports, such as swimming, have similar issues with gear that was not designed for non-white athletes. The National Swimming Federation recently approved the Soul Cap, a swim cap that is designed to fit Black hair. But no inclusive helmets have been approved for equestrian competition.
It’s clear that inclusive equestrian gear needs to be created, However, this is a small part of what must be done to address the lack of diversity within the sport. Modern day equestrianism must recognize the fact that Black people have always been a part of the activity, and that their existence in the equestrian world is not an anomaly, but a fundamental part of the culture.