Lyssette Williams: ‘BIPOC Riders Like Me are Watching and Waiting’

“It is not enough to commodify a moment in a movement – brands, publications, and organizations now need to roll-up their sleeves and buckle down for a lifetime of work building trust and equity for the BIPOC equestrian 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 Lyssette Williams. 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 | Katherine Un | Mitike Mathews | Malachi Hinton | Christopher Ferralez

Lyssette Williams and Sueno. Photo by Ellecee Photography.

Like most children obsessed with horses, I used to dream of the day that I would finally get to ride and own one. As a biracial Black child raised by a single mother, my dream felt out of reach. Thanks to a generous coworker of my mother, I took my first riding lessons the month before my 12th birthday. After outgrowing the mentorship of my mother’s coworker, I moved to a hunter/jumper barn. That barn would become my second home; there were kids my own age, lots of (actual) ponies to ride, and our trainer Irene always rewarded hard work. We are all still a tight knit barn family but growing up I still found myself filled with feelings of inadequacy. At first, I thought my raging insecurity stemmed from class status; my mother could not afford to buy me a horse, I rode in the jeans and shirt I wore to school that day, I had ‘cheap’ boots and suede half chaps. For several years I even rode in a bicycle helmet that I had since elementary school! But as I got older, gained confidence in my ability to ride, and acquired jobs that helped me afford nicer things — I was still plagued with doubt. Do I belong in this space?

I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, participating in a sport that was much the same. I remember the first time I saw another Black person at a horse show, I was awkwardly excited. Seeing others like me, or other non-whites riding was a rare occurrence, but as the years have gone by the demographics of our sport has changed. Just at a slower rate than the wider world. Though the Black Lives Matter movement was started in 2013 it is finally garnering the equestrian community’s wider support. Many who call themselves allies do not know what the next steps are to create equality and equity for Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) equestrians. While #BlackOutTuesday was a resounding social media success – BIPOC riders like me are watching and waiting. It is not enough to commodify a moment in a movement – brands, publications, and organizations now need to roll-up their sleeves and buckle down for a lifetime of work building trust and equity for the BIPOC equestrian community.

While BIPOC riders like myself should not have to shoulder the brunt of the work – I cannot idly sit by without brainstorming an action plan for the equestrian community. What follows is an actionable list for organizations and management companies to start conversations internally. I have spent my life so far riding Hunter/Jumpers, so I will be mentioning the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)/United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) often in the paragraphs to come. These ideas are more than applicable to other disciplines’ affiliate organizations.

Lyssette Williams and Blitzkrieg Bop. Photo by Andy Cloke.

Normalizing the BIPOC Body in the Equestrian Space

  • Representation matters: Equestrian brands and magazines are gatekeepers to public opinion. By not including BIPOC people in advertising and editorials they have hung a sign saying, “You are not welcome here.” Many of these brands do support BIPOC riders with sponsorships, but we would never know because the brands choose not to share these images on their social media or advertising. The solution is simple – use BIPOC sponsored rider images regularly. If your brand does not support a BIPOC rider, ask yourself ‘why?’ and then change your mindset. In the situation where the brands and magazines use models they should request racially diverse models from the agency they work with. If the agency does not have any, it is time to work with a new agency!
  • Diversity and Inclusion Committees and Task Force: On June 22nd at their Board of Directors Meeting, USEF announced they were spearheading a diversity and inclusion task force. This is a great first step! Now, they need to ensure a seat is provided for BIPOC equestrians on this task force. Seek input to learn what hurdles BIPOC equestrians face from BIPOC equestrians. If they do not, then they cannot call themselves inclusive! All affiliate organizations under USEF and those that are not, need to take the time and the space to listen, learn and implement changes from these task forces. Organizations also need to promote their BIPOC members to be included on their boards. If there is currently no space on your various boards and committees, create one.

Lyssette Williams and Sueno. Photo by Casey Spragens.

  • Hiring BIPOC staff: Diverse workplaces naturally have more inclusive ideas. Diversity in hiring should happen across all departments but especially in marketing, writing, editing, art and human resources. These staff members bring their varied life experience to the table which informs design and editorial decisions. Larger brands should hire Diversity Consultants. This specialized job can navigate your corporation into the modern era! Hiring a consultant may be cumbersome for a smaller brand/company but they should still consider it. All companies should review their compensation structure for bias. If BIPOC staff are tasked with spearheading diversity efforts in the workplace, they should be compensated for the effort. This work does not come cheap, easy or for free! Employees always appreciate bonuses and promotion for extra effort exerted in their roles but if workplaces want to make a real, positive change, they will need to normalize BIPOC employee salaries to be on par with their white counterparts.  
  • Bringing BIPOC history to the public: Share Black history outside of Black History Month! Share BIPOC History Period! Organizations like USHJA and New York Racing Association (NYRA) are connected to museums like the Wheeler Museum at the Kentucky Horse Park (USHJA) and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs (NYRA). The directors and curators of these museums should work with BIPOC historians and create exhibits centered around BIPOC contribution to equestrian sports and the equestrian lifestyle. We (BIPOC equestrians) have been riders, jockeys, grooms, trainers, and pioneers! Amplify the work of The African Connections Research and Education Foundation (ACREF) which hosts the annual Day of the African Equestrian Gala in North Carolina and the National Multicultural Western Heritage museum. In non-pandemic times, invite local schools for field trips to the museum for free. Host experts and historians on these topics. Currently these could be run as webinars. After the exhibits run do not just box things away – parts of the exhibit could become a permanent collection. There is also room for collaboration with museums all over the United States. Lend the collection out, especially to museums located in urban areas. 

Diverse barns are the spice of life! From L to R: Karley F, Lyssette, trainer Irene Lorimer and Erica S1. Photo courtesy of Lyssette Williams.

Growth Starts at the Roots

  • 4-H and United States Pony Club (USPC): For years USEF has been spinning their wheels on how to grow participation in equestrian sports. Most of my friends did not start out hyper focused on one affiliate organization like the United States Dressage Federation (USDF), Arabian Horse Association (AHA), or USHJA. Many kids get into horse shows through local chapters of their 4-H or USPC. USEF and their affiliate organizations can work directly with USPC and 4-H with funding, mutual advertising, integrating educational programming and the licensing of officials. They can also allow 4H/Pony club shows to be rated at the lowest level for their affiliates whether that is labeled as ‘outreach’ ‘c-rating’ ‘USDF recognized’ etc. While imperfect, USHJA has already done some integration with the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and Interscholastic Equestrian League/Association (IEL/IEA) teams. 
  • Getting involved with the local community: Most children become interested in riding because they know someone in their family or their families immediate friend group who has horses. In my case, we lived in a more rural area, so I saw them every day. As equestrians we know that access to horses is extremely limited so if we want to be more inclusive, we as a collective group need to go out of our way to introduce others to the sport. Career days, club exhibitions, and assembly presentations at public schools, Scouts of America, and other youth organizations like Camp Fire USA are all ways that local pony clubs, riding academies, and horse show associations and management groups can become more integrated in their community. To raise money, some local schools will have raffles for services from businesses in the community – riding academies can donate a lesson or two to be raffled off. In non-pandemic times riding clubs and academies can have open houses for people to come check out the stables and see a demonstration of working in a barn or what riding lessons looks like. It does not need to be a huge or fancy production, a low key — family oriented event would suffice.

Lyssette Williams and Blitzkrieg Bop. Photo by Kat Cloke.

  • Supporting urban/therapeutic riding organizations: Detroit Horse Power, Giant Steps Therapeutic, Work to Ride, Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, Fletcher Riding Club, Compton Jr Equestrians, City Ranch – the list goes on and on and on. There are many non-profit organizations that are bringing horses to disadvantaged communities as therapy, from inner-city youth to combat veterans.  These nonprofits need not only donations of product, but also money and volunteers. Many magazines, larger governing bodies of equestrian sports, tack stores, and horse show management companies could donate advertising or allow them to have vendor space at horse shows to do outreach work. Two great examples I have experienced include speaking at length with one of the Directors of Compton Jr Equestrians at a West Palms Events Horse Show in Del Mar (I came as a spectator for the Grand Prix). Also, several years ago a tack store I used to frequent in Northern California, Carousel Saddlery, was taking gently used breeches as trade in for a discount on new breeches and donating the used breeches to a local therapeutic riding center. There are so many ways that organizations and for-profit entities can partner with non-profit community-oriented riding centers.
  • Mentorship pipeline: It can be extremely hard to find opportunity as a junior or young professional in this industry. All the time it comes down to who you know, and already having money to get to the level of being noticed.  Working student and mentorship opportunities should not be exclusively for riders who spend all year chasing ‘Big Eq’ finals and North America Young Riders championships. Professionals that are at the top of their sport have so much they can give back just by providing their time and sharing their wisdom with riders who may lack the means. Professionals at every level of the sport can donate their time to talk to or teach clinics for non-profit riding groups, 4-H and USPC. Mentorship of course is not limited to riding professionals – brands, magazines, and even the governing organizations at large should create internship/mentorship opportunities. How many brands have ambassador programs for juniors but never offer a spot to a BIPOC young rider? How many magazines have junior bloggers to help with content and publicity? How many of those kids are BIPOC? The next generation of riders, trainers, writers, and product managers is here to be inspired. So, it is time for those in a position of power to step up and be inspiring!

Lyssette Williams and Sonder. Photo by Lauren Mauldin.

Horse Showing for Everyone

  • Lower rated shows need to be viable again: Growing up in Northern California, I spent most of my time showing at unrecognized schooling shows in my town during the school year – but in the summer I’d get the chance to attend 1 ‘B’ rated hunter show, which I had many to choose from. That is a relic of the past. In my adult life I have only seen 1 ‘C’ rated one day horse show in Northern California and after my move to San Diego I have seen 0 in my area. USEF needs to find a way to make this option, especially the one-day format, a viable option for show management companies and facilities. Horse shows should be an ecosystem where a flourishing circuit of lower recognized and unrecognized shows feed into the larger shows. These smaller shows are where most kids get experience horse showing. By edging them out of existence we continue to make equestrian sports too expensive for the majority. 
  • Reduced fees, entries, memberships: Showing is expensive for everyone involved with horses and one way to increase the membership base, and participation is to lower costs. All the very big horse shows have sponsors, but I am not sure what the sponsors are paying for when horse show fees are still so high! Some horse shows on the west coast have been reducing stall fees and entries for young horses (Blenheim Equisports is an example) while others have added off track thoroughbreds (OTTB) to the list for reduced entries (Nilforushan Equisport Events). Many BIPOC riders go the route of getting an OTTB or young horse (myself included) because it is what we can afford. I have personally avoided horse shows that do not provide young horse discounts because it would double my show costs. I do not need fancy exhibitor parties, or swanky rider lounges. I would happily take reduced prize money if it meant overall costs were lower. I would happily return my ribbons for a discount on my final bill. I have fully stripped my stall at the end of a horse show because the facility offered money back at closeout if you did so.  Horse shows in Northern California used to offer prize money won deducted off the bill in lieu of mailing you a check later – I always took this option. We can find creative ways to lower the costs for everyone.
  • Scholarships: While one-time cash infusions are nice – the BIPOC equestrian community needs sustainable programs established to build equity. Scholarships are helpful only if they become annual. Nation Media is the first publication I know of offering BIPOC riders a scholarship, I commend you on being a leader. Show management companies and local/regional associations can brainstorm creative ways to partner with local businesses, equestrian businesses, and non-profit organizations to provide scholarships to BIPOC and other financially distressed youth in their communities. An example on the west coast is West Palms Events offers scholarships and grants for riders 14-25 who have the passion and drive to compete but that lack financial support. Any organization or magazine can find a way to create equity through scholarship opportunities by getting creative.
  • Local day: Show management companies across the country should institute ‘local’ day or ‘local’ divisions. Large hunter/jumper horse shows like Devon, the Pennsylvania National horse show, and the Washington International horse show still actively host ‘local’ divisions and classes. To participate, entrants do not need to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to chase points to qualify for these prestigious shows – instead, they just need to have a zip code within a certain radius of the horse show. 
  • Licensed Officials: We need to see more diversity in our licensed officials. Stewards, Judges, Course Designers, etc. – the vast majority of those that are licensed are white, because our sport is overwhelmingly white. There needs to be a concerted effort from the top of the sport to inspire the next generation of equestrians to becoming licensed officials.

These efforts will help not only BIPOC riders but even non BIPOC riders who may struggle to find a leg up in equestrian sports. It will not be easy; it is an uphill climb that will require everyone who cares for the longevity of equestrian sports to do the work. The love we have for horses should be what brings us together and raise us up, not tear us apart.

Get Involved: Lyssette brings to the table an actionable list for organizations to start conversations internally. Now, how do we connect this list with those organizations?

Just as the act of writing, emailing and calling elected local, state and federal legislators is a component of a functioning democracy, contacting the officials and policymakers of equestrian sport to make our views heard is key to advocating for change. Join us in reaching out TODAY to both USEF and discipline-specific governing bodies to let them know that we are counting on them to prioritize diversity and inclusion efforts.

United States Equestrian Federation: USEF Staff Directory
Combined Driving: American Driving Society (ADS) Staff Directory
Dressage: United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Staff Directory
Endurance: American Endurance Riding Conference (AERC) Staff Directory
Eventing: United States Eventing Association (USEA) Staff Directory
Hunter/Jumper: United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) Staff Directory
Para-Equestrian: United States Para-Equestrian Association (USPEA) Staff Directory
Reining: USA Reining Staff Directory
Vaulting: American Vaulting Association (AVA) Staff Directory

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.