Katherine Un: ‘A More Open and Inviting Community Is Not Enough’

“Unfortunately, a more open and inviting community is not enough to ensure inclusivity and diversity in our sports. We also need to address the barriers that young equestrians, both amateurs and professionals, face to accessing and thriving in our community. “

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 Katherine Un. More voices: Caden Barrera | Madison Buening | Anastasia Curwood | Deonte Sewell | Dawn Edgerton-Cameron | Jordyn Hale | Jen Spencer | Aki Joy Maruyama | Julie Upshur | Leilani Jackson | Dana Bivens | Muhammed Shahroze Rehman

Photo by Mihayla Phillips (IG @mihaylapphotography).

Like 90% of equestrians, I live a double life. I have a work life and a horse habit.

As a horse-person, I ride classical dressage, enjoy trick training and liberty, and love nothing more than mountain riding and camping in our gorgeous Evergreen State. In 2019, after many years spent training horses for others, I finally got my own. Madelina and her foal, Inti, are two Spanish breed mixes that came to me through a quite sketchy Craigslist ad.

The other life I live is as an anti-racist advocate. I do this work both through my job, as an organizer for farmers and ranchers, and in my spare time, as a person of color deeply engaged in their community. I work wholeheartedly for a world in which issues like student loan debt, healthcare access, and political disenfranchisement no longer disproportionately affect minority communities.

The equestrian world, until now, has never really had a space for me to bring both passions together into one “anti-racist horse life.” More than anything, I’m excited to see what ideas other minority equestrians bring to the conversation and thank Nation Media, Hannah Hawkins, Katherine Coleman, and Stable View for getting the ball rolling.

As a first step to “opening the doors of opportunity to all,” we can double-down on our work to bring the horse world together. My heart is warmed by the relatively recent efforts of creative entrepreneurs to push back against divisiveness in our community and empower all equestrians. I personally have enjoyed following the evolution of Herd of Zebras, featured on Horse Nation in January 2019, a small brand that designs apparel and tack to empower, heal, and uplift equestrians. I’m also an avid listener of Horse Radio Network, which has done a beautiful job of breaking down barriers between horse sports including through partnership with Horse Nation on fun events like the Christmas Horse Radiothon or the Halloween Short Story Contest.

I hope we can do more to share this kind of work and that we can encourage even more new and creative ideas. As we do so, we should make sure at every step that we center minority voices. By centering, I mean that we be more intentional about inviting minority horse-people in the creative and executive leadership of projects to empower and heal equestrians and that we make every effort to prioritize the needs, knowledges, and goals of minority horse-people when imagining new initiatives.

Photo by Mihayla Phillips (IG @mihaylapphotography).

Unfortunately, a more open and inviting community is not enough to ensure inclusivity and diversity in our sports. We also need to address the barriers that young equestrians, both amateurs and professionals, face to accessing and thriving in our community. There are some wonderful community programs focused on making horse sports accessible to young people and thankfully some such projects, like the Compton Junior Posse, have gotten well-deserved attention in the past months. Ideally, we would collate and broadcast a comprehensive list of organizations doing this important work so that people could easily support and donate. As for supporting young minority equestrians in their career, I believe the answer is in larger policy changes and broad scholarship opportunities.

Barriers like access to quality land, financing, sponsorship, clientele, and education are compounded for minority horse-people. Our histories of dis-empowerment mean that young minority equestrians do not have the generational wealth and social capital of our white counterparts. For instance, the United States, through discrimination and violence, has had a history of impeding the efforts of Black communities to build wealth. We need only mention some examples such as slavery, Jim Crow era “Black Codes,” limitations in the GI bill, and redlining. This means that Black
communities, and other communities of color, have not had the same ability to pass down wealth from generation to generation, impacting statistics today. To give only one example, because of differences in family wealth, young people of color are more likely to take out student loans, and larger loans, than their white counterparts.

In the equestrian world, this would make it more difficult to accept and thrive in key lower wage professional development opportunities like assistant trainer and groom positions. A very beginning step to achieving a level playing field for young horse professionals would be for one of our major national equestrian organizations to establish a committee on equity in our sports. This committee could listen to the needs of young minority equestrians and make recommendations on diversity and inclusion. Similarly, it could spearhead an innovative scholarship for equity in our sport to palliate the generational wealth gap. Setting up structures like equity programs, review boards, or advisory councils has been the usual first step in a wide variety of sectors to ensure long term accountability to the goal of inclusion and diversity. For instance, on a much broader scale, the United States Olympic Committee a while back took its first commitments towards equity by establishing a diversity and inclusion program (you can see how the program scored U.S. Equestrian Federation on equity here).

The most recent scorecard available for US Equestrian is from 2017 (USOC: “Due to a minor error in submitted data, the 2018 Scorecards were temporarily removed in June 2020 and will be available again after recalculation.”) For simplicity, the scorecard uses green, yellow and red. Green indicates 85 percent or greater; yellow for 69-84 percent; and red signifies 68 percent or lower. 

Finally, in parallel to diversity and inclusion work in our equestrian community, I would strongly encourage all horse-people to support anti-racist efforts outside the horse world. This because, for as much as we wish our equestrian world to be our safe bubble separate from the drudgery of everyday life, in the end the horse world is embedded and intertwined within our greater society and economy.

The strongest path that I see to encouraging diversity and inclusivity in our sports is to make sure that every child who comes to an equestrian center has had a healthy and hearty breakfast and lunch; that every young horse person has a stable enough household to be able to shed daily stresses and focus on the moments in the saddle; that every young horse professional has the education, healthcare, and financial freedom to pursue their horse career dreams; that every equestrian adult has equitable access to the economic stability required to maintain a horse hobby; and that every elder horse person has the same life expectancy and extended quality of life to be able enjoy horse sports for as long as they desire. In this spirit, I hope that every equestrian will not hesitate to support diversity and inclusivity initiatives outside the horse world.

Get Involved: In the spirit of encouraging readers to get invested in broad structural change, Katherine says she would love to encourage folks to donate to her “adult job” organization. Katherine is the Organizing and Advocacy Director at National Young Farmers Coalition, a grassroots network of beginning farmers, ranchers and supporters working together for a brighter, more equitable future for U.S. agriculture. The Coalition tackles the structural challenges preventing young people from succeeding in farming, such as access to land, credit, and skilled labor, climate challenges, health insurance, racial injustice, and student loan debt. Their approach includes work in three strategic areas: coalition building, policy advocacy, and business services. Their Coalition Building provides a platform for young farmers to emerge as community leaders as well as a national chapter model that offers supportive farming communities that young farmers need to be successful. Can you help? Donate here today. 

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.