Leilani Jackson: A Minority Volunteer Perspective

“The news of the abuse from the trainers met me at the office. As I walked past the three workers who were sitting behind the desk, they held their heads down and did not look at me.” Leilani Jackson is a retired school teacher who wanted to find a way to pursue her interest in horses.  Today she shares her experiences as a volunteer.

In summer 2020 we launched our 1st Annual $5,000+ Diversity Scholarship with the support of generous donors, inviting minority equestrians to contribute to the discussion of diversity and inclusion in equestrian sport. It is the mission of this annual bursary, which we intend to expand in coming years, to call for, encourage, elevate and give a platform to minority voices in a space where they are underrepresented.

How do we build a more diverse, inclusive and accessible sport? In the coming weeks we will explore this question alongside many of the 27 Scholarship recipients as they share with us their essays in full. Collectively, their perspectives coalesce into a body of work that will no doubt help inform a viable path forward for equestrian sport, and we are committed to connecting their actionable ideas with the public as well as leaders and stakeholders of the sport.

Today we welcome Leilani Jackson. More voices: Caden Barrera | Madison Buening | Anastasia Curwood | Deonte Sewell | Dawn Edgerton-Cameron | Jordyn Hale | Jen Spencer | Aki Joy Maruyama | Julie Upshur

Photo courtesy of Leilani Marie Jackson.

I am a 57 year old colored female who recently became interested in equestrian sports. I am a retired high school teacher who relocated to Northern California in 2018. While researching ways I could develop my interests in my new community, I discovered there was a horse park near me that needed volunteers for schooling shows and sponsored events. 

I signed up as a gate steward at the warm-up arena. I read the job responsibilities the night before I was to work and saw they needed someone with experience. That was evident when I observed the timing and coordination needed to successfully run the booth. Fortunately, Molly, the volunteer coordinator, reassigned me as a cross country jump judge. 

That first visit at the park was one of the best experiences of my life. Seeing horses everywhere I turned amazed me. Some would ask about my equestrian background. I told them I didn’t ride and that I only volunteer to be around horses. Everyone was so impressed. You’d think I jumped a 5* clear round at top speed the way they responded. I later learned that most volunteers had horses and traded their volunteer time for stabling. Whereas I was happy just to be there. 

I met a volunteer named Beth who encouraged me to consider taking lessons. I told her I was past the age of starting riding lessons. Then she said she started when she was 50. I thought it was still considerably younger than I was but not that far off. I dismissed the idea and looked forward to my next volunteer opportunity. She gave me her phone number and asked me to stay in touch. I texted Beth to let her know when I was going to visit the park. I hoped to see her each time since she was the only person I knew. 

I worked the following week and afterwards attended my first show jumping Grand Prix. Beth saved me a seat in the VIP area. It was a great view. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a 1,000 pound horse jumping over fences with grace, speed and precision. Beth thoroughly explained the process and rules of show jumping. Beth treated me with dignity and respect. She wasn’t phony or condescending. She had nothing to gain by including me. She simply did it for the love of the sport. 

My next assignment was a gate steward for conformation judging. The description read something on the order of, “monitor the order of go for 2- and 3-year-olds for conformation judging.” I was looking forward to seeing the 2- and 3-year-olds. I talked with one of the coordinators before I arrived and she said that it would be so much fun to watch the 2- and 3-year-olds. I got to the arena and started looking for 2- and 3-year-old children. I didn’t understand until I read the order of go sheet. Needless to say, there were no children except 2- and 3-year-old horses. I’m still laughing at myself to this day. 

It was nearing the end of the season at the horse park and volunteer opportunities were thin. I had one last assignment as a gate steward at the jumping arena. Riders were preparing for competition the next day. Molly set me up at the booth and explained the rules. I thought the riders would line up first come first serve and rotate the line until one of the trainers showed me how to set up a chart and assign riders turns with their trainers. That was helpful. 

Riders began to take their turns in the arena by the order established on the list. Things began to take a drastic turn when the trainers were re-arranging the order of go of their riders. They started negotiating switching places in the already established order of go. I managed fine until one trainer tried to switch places on the list again. I told her no and that I had already made an exception for her. She became irate and began yelling at me. I ignored her since there were a lot of riders and I had to stay focused on the order of go. She demanded that I change the order; I told her no again.

She was so angry at me. She asked me if I would be the gate steward the next day. I asked her, “Why, do you think I’m incapable of handling the position?” She said yes. She gnashed her teeth in frustration, gripping her riding crop over her head. She really looked as if she would hit me if she thought she could get away with it. I told her, “Don’t you hit me with that riding crop!!!” In the meantime, riders and trainers took advantage of the distraction and began using the arena out of turn. It was embarrassing to see what are supposed to be grown folks behaving like children. I shook my head and re-gained control of the booth. 

I finished the assignment and was leaving to check out at the office. Before I left, one male trainer (most were women) that I barely spoke to walked towards me and told me thank you. I said, ”Sure.” I should add that Beth was one of the riders that day. She told me that if this was an actual show and she talked to the gate steward the way she talked to me, she and her riders would be eliminated from the competition. Beth told me that she was glad I stood my ground. 

The news of the abuse from the trainers met me at the office. As I walked past the three workers who were sitting behind the desk, they held their heads down and did not look at me. One person did apologize. The one man that was there always kept his head down when I went to the office. Oftentimes he would be the only person behind the desk when I walked in and never once did he ask me if he could help me. 

This incident was the first time I realized that being a person of color at the park was a problem for many people. It may sound naive for someone my age, but I was so happy to be there, I didn’t even recognize the subtle disapproval of my presence. I wasn’t looking for it. In hindsight, I can list every interaction from beginning to end that culminated to the events of that day. It was a disgrace. Yet, I am glad I didn’t see it. I would have most likely allowed the negative influences to ruin the fun of being around horses. In a way, the horses protected me. 

I learned that day from Molly that the “park money” I received for volunteering was useless to me. She said I could exchange it for gear (that was rarely available) or get a one day free entry to the park with my horse. She couldn’t understand why that was not made clear to me. While waiting for my car, she brought me a very nice tote bag. That kind gesture let me know Molly believed I should be treated with integrity. Molly was my first good impression at the horse park and my last. I’ll never work for them again. 

Photo courtesy of Leilani Jackson.

Moving forward, I found a new volunteer opportunity at the same location (there are several different equestrian businesses on the property). This time, I was a side walker for a company that taught riding lessons to special needs children. I signed up for an 8-week commitment. 

It was a super fun assignment since I was able to hang out with 10 horses. I would bring them carrots and apples and sing worship songs to them. When it was time for lessons, I received minimal instructions from the coordinator. I picked up enough from other volunteers to figure out how to use cross ties and brush the horses. I saw Beth at each visit as I was leaving. I would pass her stall and chat with her while she prepared her horse for riding. The new experience made up for the last one. 

I thought I would receive more instruction from the volunteer coordinator. When I didn’t, I figured I would learn as I go. The following week I noticed a booklet with detailed instructions and with really nice drawings on how to prepare for lessons. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is great.” until I realized these instructions were not for me but for a new group of white volunteer students from a local college. Here was a good example of how people of color do not receive the same opportunities as the majority (white people). 

While I was grooming one of the horses, a couple of students came into the stall with me and started to help me. I noticed the trainer came to the stall. When she saw me, she did not speak and quickly turned away. As I began to leave the stall, one of the student interns said to me, “Go see what the coordinator wants you to do.” I thought, “Does this child, whom I have never met before in my life, actually believe it is okay to talk to me as if she had authority over me?” I looked at her and calmly said, “She knows I’m here. She will let me know what she wants me to do.” The student intern looked at me (rolling her eyes) as if to say, how dare you defy me. 

During the lesson, while sidewalking with one of the students, the coordinator (also a trainer) asked me to have the student hold the reins properly. I began to adjust the student’s hands to her reins and the coordinator scolded me yelling, “NO, not like that! “ as she forcefully moved my hands away from the student’s hands. I let her know that I had not received proper instructions on how to make the adjustment. She then said, “That’s why we’re here, to learn.” She eventually had to use her own hands to make the adjustment to the student’s hands on the reins. 

My observations while working at this location was that the coordinator never addressed me by name. I made her uncomfortable. She did not want me there. She obviously did not respect me. I never returned. Later, I received an email addressed to all volunteers asking for more help. After the second email, I told her to remove me from her mailing list. 

I didn’t see Beth on my last visit at the park. She did text me about a month after I saw her last and said she hadn’t seen me. I texted back to let her know that I had not visited the park. That was it. I never contacted her nor has she contacted me. I didn’t want to have to explain the ugly truth about how I was treated at the second location. 

Moving forward, I made contact with the owner of a local trail riding business. We met and I asked her what she would have me help her with. She said I could help one of the trainers bathe a horse. I had to catch up to her as she left ahead of me. I told her I was supposed to go with her to wash the horse. I’m not sure what she said, but it wasn’t polite considering her rolling eyes went along with her statement. When I returned, the owner was gone. Once again, left with no instructions. Although, I will say they were very busy. I didn’t know what to do so I mucked a barrel full and cleaned the porch. 

I returned the following week. No one had anything to say to me. So I mucked another barrel full. Another owner briefly spoke to me but with no real interest in letting me know what they expected of me as a volunteer. I called the other owner to let her know I was there and if there was anything specific she wanted me to do. I left my number and waited for her to call back. Crickets. That was my last visit. 

I decided to take lessons and located another ranch near me. I made an appointment for a lesson with the owner, Diane, but couldn’t make it because I didn’t have the money. Diane was disappointed for me. She said I could write a check. I told her, no I can’t. 

I eventually had my first lesson with her daughter/trainer Julie. I became discouraged because there were so many things that I had to remember and the saddle was uncomfortable. It was overwhelming. I decided not to continue lessons. 

Surprisingly, Diane called to ask me how my first lesson went. I explained that I was uncomfortable and that I thought it best if I didn’t pursue further lessons. She did not want me to give up on myself. I honestly thought she didn’t want to lose me as a financial prospect until she said that I didn’t have to take lessons right away. She invited me to visit the ranch whenever I wanted just to be around the horses. 

At my next visit, while waiting for Diane to arrive at the ranch, I fed one of the horses trail mix with cranberries. Well, Diane returns to the ranch, and notices that the horse was moving his mouth funny. I was like, I’m in trouble. She just looked at him with curiosity and asked me what I gave him while he was smacking his lips together trying to remove the cranberry from between his teeth. I told her I gave him a cranberry. I thought she would scold me as I had been so many times before. Instead she politely stated it might be best if I didn’t feed the horses because they have sensitive digestive systems and gave me a ride to the barn. I was relieved I didn’t ruin my first in person impression with her. I visited once a month from November to March. I groomed the horses and spent time with them in the round pen and gave them legal treats. Julie taught me to lunge. She’s a great teacher. 

Last month, I met another trainer named Lauren. I told her about my lesson experience and how I was there to visit the horses. She tacked up her horse named Ellie (14 y/o Strawberry Roan), and let me sit on her while in the round pen. I learned that a Western saddle gives me more back support than the English saddle. I was a lot more comfortable and confident. We then walked around the pen with Ellie on the lead rope. At this point, I felt like I could really do this. Now I’m looking forward to my next lesson. Both Julie and Lauren said I could spend time with their horses whenever I visited the ranch. 

To the point of inclusion and diversity, Diane knew nothing of my ethnicity or skin color when we spoke on the phone. Oftentimes as a person of color, you are concerned that after the initial telephone conversation, the conversation will change after people see you. That didn’t happen with Molly or Diane, but it did happen with the other volunteer coordinator at the special needs program ranch and the owner of the trail riding business. 

Recently, it has become very popular to show support for oppressed and subjugated Black Americans and it’s about time. Yet, Molly, Beth and Diane encouraged me towards my journey to equestrian sports long before it became a trend. 

Get Involved: Were you infuriated by the end of this essay? I was. Volunteers are the backbone of this sport, a gift never to be taken for granted much less treated with anything less than respect. 

Riders/Trainers: Whether you’re competing this weekend, or next month, or next year, be mindful of the volunteers around you — without them, this sport would not exist. Never miss an opportunity to say thank-you, and return the favor by volunteering at every opportunity possible yourself — equestrian-related and beyond. 

We are very thankful for Eventing Volunteers, which not only opens the door to volunteers but rewards us and provides us with the tools we need to be successful in our volunteer roles. Get involved. We encourage the governing bodies of other disciplines to implement a comparable structure for volunteering, that creates an inclusive environment in which all volunteers are equipped in advance with the tools they need to successfully perform their job.  

Nation Media wishes to thank Barry and Cyndy Oliff, Katherine Coleman and Hannah Hawkins for their financial support of this Scholarship. We also wish to thank our readers for their support, both of this endeavor and in advance for all the important work still to come.