Historically, African-Americans have made major contributions to the horse world. So why aren’t there more people of color in equestrian sport today, from the upper levels down to the press room? Melvin Cox, founder and managing director of SportsQuest International, reminds us of our history and looks to our future.
It is time for us to remove all forms of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance from the face of our beloved sport.
Two years ago, while covering the prestigious FEI World Cup Finals (Jumping and Dressage) in Las Vegas, I had an “interesting” encounter with a middle-aged white woman in the Press Room of the Thomas & Mack Center.
Staged annually in various international locations, the World Cup Finals bring together the top competitors from regional leagues around the world. Conducted under the auspices of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) — the International Equestrian Federation — the World Cup Finals are the de facto international indoor equestrian championships.
Despite my being in a restricted area with valid media credentials hung conspicuously from my neck, the woman in the Press Room nonetheless approached me asking, “Are you the bus driver?”
When I courteously replied that I was not, she continued to question me (seemingly in disbelief) stating, “… well, you look like the bus driver!”
Not wishing to further indulge her ignorance, I quickly removed myself from the conversation.
For the record, I have never driven a bus of any kind — and I was most certainly not dressed in any manner of uniform that might reasonably have led a person to believe that driving a bus was my profession.
But, clearly in the mind of this woman, I looked like the bus driver.
Was the woman making a very clumsy social advance?
Was she hopelessly intoxicated?
Was this her idea of a practical joke?
Or, perhaps it was because I was one of only three African-Americans in a room crowded with dozens of other professionals. The other African-Americans included my colleague and close friend Leslie De Bique, and a lady working on the staff of the tournament’s Media Director.
As we prepared to leave the Thomas & Mack Center following the conclusion of competition, one of the student interns that Leslie and I brought to the finals, Miss Claudia Suarez, received a prolonged and menacing glare from a stranger passing by.
Claudia is an extremely talented member of the SportsQuest International team. A documentary filmmaker of Salvadoran heritage, she was casually dressed for an on-camera rehearsal in an area just outside of the Thomas & Mack.
In our most charitable of hearts we would like to believe that the incident had nothing to do with the presence of an all-minority video crew at the World Cup Finals. However, the woman’s body language and extended scowl were interpreted as signs of racial hatred and bigotry by every member of our team — each of us having been the recipient of such attitudes in various and similar situations throughout our lives.
The moment was captured for posterity by another student intern — and is presented above.
Sadly, these were by no means the only incidents of this nature encountered during our time in Las Vegas.
Submitted in writing well in advance of the competition, our interview requests were mysteriously “misplaced.” This resulted in a significant loss of opportunity and waste of money. Eventually, interviews with two American competitors were arranged. After the fact, we verified that our polite requests to interview members of the Qatari delegation were never transmitted — either to the individual riders or to their Chef d’Equipe (team manager). Our request to interview the FEI President, Ingmar De Vos, was flatly denied on-site by a member of the event’s media team.
The World Cup Finals will return to the United States this spring — this time being held at the Century Link Center in Omaha, Nebraska, a city with a rich African-American history.
“Gateway to the West”
Omaha is the birthplace of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (aka Malcolm X), Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, media entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, musician Wynonie Harris (who had a major influence on the young Elvis Presley) and numerous other persons of note. The first film company owned by African-Americans, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company was founded in Omaha in 1916. (1)
It was also in Omaha that Dr. Claude H. Organ, Jr. so distinguished himself as an academician and surgeon that he rose to become Chair of the Department of Surgery at the Creighton University School of Medicine. With his appointment in 1971, Dr. Organ became the first African-American to head a department of surgery at a predominantly white U.S. medical school.
Located in the culturally diverse South Omaha district, El Museo Latino is a resource center for the study of Latino history and culture. Established in 1993, El Museo Latino is the oldest Latino Art & History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwestern United States.
SportsQuest International will provide extensive coverage from Omaha during the 2017 World Cup Finals (March 29 – April 2). Throughout the week, our postings will seek to educate the equestrian community regarding the multicultural history of Omaha. We will also work to bring the attention of the community-at-large to the presence of exciting international stars such as Qatar’s Bassem Hassan Mohammed and Morocco’s Abdelkebir Ouaddar — both Olympic competitors in the jumping discipline AND both men of obvious African ancestry.
As children, many in my generation were inspired by the heartwarming story of Harry de Leyer and Snowman as well as that of Hugh Wiley and Nautical (aka “The Horse With The Flying Tail”). Snowman was a former plow horse who became a champion jumper. Nautical was a former cow horse who represented the United States internationally, on his way to starring in an Academy Award-winning Disney documentary and induction in the Showjumping Hall of Fame. (2)
Tom Bass was a popular trainer whose clients included Buffalo Bill Cody, Will Rogers and former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. His most famous mount, the five-gaited Rex McDonald, amassed an amazing show career and became an influential sire. The Tom Bass Training Bit remains in use today.
Under the guidance of Hall of Fame trainer Ansel Williamson, Lewis and Aristides won the initial running of the Kentucky Derby, America’s most prestigious horse race, in 1875. (3)
Messrs. Bass and Williamson were born into bondage. They, along with Hall of Fame jockeys Issac Burns Murphy, James Winkfield, Willie Simms, Shelby ‘Pike’ Barnes, Anthony “The Black Demon” Hamilton and others, compel us to acknowledge the excellence under adversity shown by African-American horsemen in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Black jockeys rode 15 of the first 28 winners of the Kentucky Derby.
It is interesting to note that the careers of James Winkfield and Anthony Hamilton also included success in Czarist Russia and in Western Europe.
Gone as well from our collective memory is Colonel Baron Takeichi Nishi of Japan, who captured individual gold in jumping at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles aboard Uranus. Japan’s only Olympic medalist to date in equestrian competition, Baron Nishi died at age 42 during the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945). He was portrayed by Tsuyoshi Ihara in Letters from Iwo Jima, a 2006 World War II epic directed by Clint Eastwood.
There are equally interesting and important stories waiting to be told today.
Likewise, Messrs. Mohammed and Ouaddar, along with Olympic event rider Alex Hua Tian of China, demonstrate that one need not be born white.
There is a conspicuous lack of people of color in the ranks of riders, owners, trainers, breeders, veterinarians, farriers, nutritionists, sponsors, spectators and members of the equestrian media (particularly in the United States). Conversely, there is an overrepresentation as grooms, nannies, hot walkers and stall muckers. This is a major challenge for an Olympic sport that promotes itself as being truly global, “clean” and fully inclusive.
To remedy this situation, equestrian sports promoters and organizations representing all facets of the industry should understand that it is good business to spend advertising dollars in minority communities. Developing a more diverse fan base involves supporting equestrian sport training programs in those communities and working in concert with ethnic media outlets in educating members of the public about horse sport. Cultivating cooperative alliances with minority owned businesses will yield tangible benefits. In the run-up to the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, the partnership between Tryon Equestrian Partners and Salamander Hotels and Resorts, a minority-owned enterprise, is an enormously significant first step. (4)
This first step is important because horses are big business.
According to the American Horse Council, the horse industry contributes approximately $39 billion in direct economic impact to the U.S. economy, supporting 1.4 million jobs on a full-time basis. (5) According to statistics presented at the 2013 FEI Sports Forum — held at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne (SUI) — the horse industry has a €100 billion ($128.151 billion) annual economic impact within the European Union. The economic impact in the United Kingdom is estimated at being over £7 billion ($10.643 billion). (6)
The FEI World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina (USA) are projected to have a $400 million economic impact, attracting 500,000 spectators during a 14-day run in September 2018. (7)
The Lessons of History
In teaching the history of equestrian sport to new generations of horse enthusiasts, we must include in the lesson plan stories highlighting luminaries of horse sport and culture.
We celebrate the lives and accomplishments of people such as Neil R. Ayer (USA), Major General Jonathan R. Burton (USA), Raimondo D’Inzeo (ITA), Pierre Jonquères d’Oriola (FRA), Bertalan de Némethy (HUN), Lucinda Green (GBR), Lis Hartel (DEN), Reiner Klimke (GER), George H. Morris (USA), Leopoldo Palacios (VEN), Nelson Pessoa (BRA), Bill Roycroft (AUS), William Steinkraus (USA), Sir Mark Todd (NZL), Anky van Grunsven (NED), Jimmy Williams (USA), Hans Gunter Winkler (GER), Madeleine Winter-Schulze (GER) and Col. John W. Wofford (USA).
We should also remember those men and women of color (including members of the 9th and 10th United States Cavalry Regiments — the famed Buffalo Soldiers) who made major contributions to the equestrian heritage of the United States — but were barred under the laws and practices of the Jim Crow era from socializing with, and competing against, whites. (8)
Such lessons would naturally include conspicuous mention of the countless enslaved Africans who brought knowledge to the Americas in the vital areas of veterinary techniques, agriculture and animal husbandry. (9)
When we speak of the world’s great equestrian venues, it is correct to mention the storied showgrounds at Aachen (GER), and those at Badminton (GBR), Burghley (GBR), the Kentucky Horse Park (USA), the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (USA), Royal Windsor (GBR), the Spanish Riding School in Vienna (AUT), Spruce Meadows (CAN), etc. — but let us also include China’s magnificent Heilan International Equestrian Club, Mexico’s Club Hipico La Silla and Qatar’s Al Shaqab in the discussion.
I look forward to a time when world-class facilities in countries such as Costa Rica, Cuba, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Palestine and Tunisia will be welcomed to this list.
My colleagues and I pray for the day when the presence of non-whites will no longer be a rarity in the media center — or on the showgrounds — at horse shows, eventing competitions, endurance rides, drill team events, vaulting competitions or dressage shows across North America and the Western world.
In our mind’s eye, we foresee an explosion of interest in equestrian sports throughout the United States — reaching across all socioeconomic strata. But the outreach to new market segments will have to be done correctly — from a position of true humility and respect, and not from one of blatant arrogance.
Much as motorsport has successfully built a loyal following among fans with little if any opportunity (or desire) to own a Formula One racing car, the horse sports can be proactively marketed to all demographics. Just as Major League Baseball attracts millions who will never hit a curveball, the equestrian disciplines can find deeply loyal and very knowledgeable aficionados among persons representing all manner of humanity.
We look forward to a far more equitable distribution of the scholarships, internships, jobs, contracts, investment opportunities and profits associated with the global horse business. Young people in cities, in suburbs and in rural communities must be made more fully aware of the opportunities for successful and fulfilling careers that are available in the horse business and its associated industries. America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and her Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) represent an untapped “gold mine” of talent and opportunity.
Those who truly wish to expand and develop the equine industry will understand that the proactive initiatives I have outlined are both “good for business” in the short term, and vital to the growth and SURVIVAL of our sport in the long term.
It is indeed time for us to remove all forms of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance from the face of our beloved sport.
About the Author: A life-long equestrian sports enthusiast, Melvin Cox (born 1951) has documented major events in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The founder and Managing Director of SportsQuest International, LLC, he is the Producer and Director of the 2010 television documentary The Spirit of Aachen.
Mr. Cox is a Lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is the principal architect of Merrill College’s highly successful Focus on Africa series — a program in experiential education which seeks to build a viable constituency for Africa both on-campus and in the home communities of participating students.
1 Wikipedia contributors. “African Americans in Omaha, Nebraska.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
2 Wikipedia contributors. “The Horse with the Flying Tail.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Aug. 2016. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
3 Ja’Nel Johnson and Laura Ellis. “How Black Jockeys Went From Common to Rare in the Kentucky Derby.” WFPL Radio, April 29, 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2017.
4 Hotel Business. “Equestrian Lifestyle Destination, Tryon Resort, Launches” Hotel Business, Thursday June 26th, 2014 – 6:08AM. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
5 American Horse Council Foundation. “Economic Impact of the United States Horse Industry.” Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
6 Graeme Cooke. “Trends in Growth of Equestrian Sport.” FEI Sports Forum, 8 April, 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
7 Chronicle of the Horse. “Tryon International Equestrian Center Selected to Host FEI World Equestrian GamesTM 2018.”, Chronicle of the Horse, Nov 3, 2016. 5:01 a.m. Web. 25 Jan. 2017.
8 Wikipedia contributors. “Racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Jan. 2017. Web. 24 Jan. 2017.
9 Paul E. Lovejoy. “African Contributions to Science, Technology and Development,” The Slave Route Project, UNESCO, Web. 24 Jan. 2017.