Could we ever live in a world where anyone, truly anyone, could rise up as a rider through all the hype around horse show hierarchies and elite equestrians? I’d like to think so. In fact, I’m willing to bet it all, chasing after this idea.
When I first moved back to my hometown, which had under gone an eight year transformation of redevelopment and revitalization, I fell in love with this vibrant urban area that had become a start up paradise and tech savvy town. An area that had previously been abandoned like a ghost town, due to violence and high crime, was now a comeback story-a trendy hotspot full of young professionals flocking back into the city as part of an urban movement. I was soon disappointed to find that all my fellow city dwellers had done in ditching suburbia, was push the plight further to the fringes, because crime was on the rise within city limits, and cries of gentrification were causing friction, dividing the community even further. I went for a walk through a part of town that bordered both sides of the tracks….literally, and discovered an abandoned and graffiti painted warehouse, next to a stretch of vacant overgrown land, sitting between two state trail systems, near a large green space park, and smack in the middle of downtown. All I could think was, “Wow. Wonder if I could bring horses here?” So, I did some research, and yes, I could absolutely bring horses downtown. This was not an original idea.
Horses have been in downtown Philadelphia, Fletcher Street to be specific, for as long as residents can remember. There are horses in Compton. Oakland. New York City, of course. I found some amazing people and some videos on YouTube that completely disrupt everything perceived by those privileged to be part of this crazy world of grooms, breeches, and expensive tack, who don’t fully comprehended that they are excluding an underprivileged population. Oh, we do a lot of good in the community…we offer up our facilities as therapeutic charity for those who we see suffer..our philanthropic efforts have served military veterans, disabled children and adults, and even first responders….but the poor? Black? Latino? Do we open our fancy farms for those not considered to be in the same schools system, churches, or social circles of society?
The USEF even recently created a “Join the Joy” campaign as a show of support for grassroots riding organizations- those backyard, barrel racing, pony jumping hopefuls, who might be lucky enough to ride for a fabulous trainer one day, with hopes of a chance on a high dollar horse, and then becoming recognizable talent. But, how many kids living in the ghetto have ever seen a horse, much less know the potential of leadership skills or team building opportunities that could come from learning horsemanship, or the possibilities and thrill of playing polo, and the adrenaline of show jumping? Have we ever considered the cost of denying those without the financial means the relationship we’ve been afforded with these majestic animals and massively expensive pursuits in the equine industry, and do we find a way to pass on the benefits of horse riding, and share the joy, rather than forcing someone to “join,” like it’s a country club membership. I understand horses, and the sport, are expensive, and a very lucrative industry generating tax revenue and contributing significantly to the economy, but as with any work force initiatives, it begins educating the underserved populations. And for the inner city, it actually begins with exposure. Awareness, of this whole wide world of vaulting cowgirls, interscholastic equestrian teams, and international venues. Education, exposure, awareness, and in my opinion, intervention.
Most people consider PTSD to only affect veterans, but research is proving that complex trauma has the same harmful ramifications to children and teens. And let’s be honest, kids today walk around in war zones everyday, especially in urban areas. The lower the poverty level, the higher the incidents of violence. The number one symptom of PTSD in teens, is violent and aggressive behaviors. Most violent offenders have been diagnosed with untreated PTSD, but we have an opportunity to change that. The equestrian community has seen how transformative equine assisted activities/therapy (EEA/T) has been with combat veterans suffering from debilitating PTSD, as well as positive outcomes for those with autism, and other physical disabilities and mental disorders. Inner city kids, who have been exposed to countless acts of violence, creating trauma, and resulting in PTSD, could benefit from horses, and could create a connection with them to help heal PTSD with fewer sessions than tradition talk therapy, because of the experiential nature of EEA/T. And as the number of individuals with untreated PTSD is reduced, the reduction in the perpetuation of urban violence will follow. Which begins the intervention, and that leads to awareness, then exposure, followed by education about the equine industry and an entire world of horse adventures, and even careers. Then we’ve created more impact than WEG and Keeneland put together. We’ve impacted entire neighborhoods, and vulnerable groups that deserve to be included as participants if they so choose. And they are choosing to be-when horses are integrated into urban areas, kids are choosing horses over gangs. This is an opportunity to reduce violence and alleviate suffering, stopping the cycle of urban violence in at risk youth.
I believe this is the first step in the evolution of the inner city equestrian. It begins with disrupting trauma, and reducing violence, with EEA/T. Then, create more exposure by bringing horses into these impoverished neighborhoods. Until then, we herd these kids to the horses. One at a time, or one school bus load at a time, if we can. And so it begins, a new breed of riders, and a shift in our sport.
Just like any other major sport, top performers go pro, and those who go all the way are few and far between. Similar to a pyramid, with a large number of amateurs supporting those who rise to the top professionally, but there has to be a trickle down effect from those at the top of their sport, which widens the base, and therefor garners more support. So my challenge to those at the pinnacle of success in the industry, how are we evaluating and incorporating inclusion and diversity in the equine industry? Can equestrian enterprises begin to cultivate communities, and develop new standards, rather than just meet those set by other professional sports-the NFL, NBA, and FIFA? Can we reach back, support underserved populations, and make a sustainable economic impact and a difference in lives? We are the only sport where men and women compete equally, so can we level the playing field for other minorities, and make equestrian sports available to anyone willing to take the reins and ride?