Thursday, June 18, 2020

keep calm + give back

There are a lot of really important conversations going on right now, basically everywhere it seems. Conversations about systemic racism, inequality, and representation (or the lack thereof)

Especially in the horse world, perhaps the most important aspect is that people in positions of power and influence are finally acknowledging that the very very white skew of equestrianism and the lack of accessibility are, in fact, problems

Kiiiiinda big problems, actually. But not so big that we can't all play a part in making things better. The question that keeps coming back to me is, what role do I have in making horses and horse sports more accessible? And I've got a couple ideas. 

pics today are all from past volunteer gigs

1. Resist Tribalism

Equestrians can be an opinionated and tribal bunch, let's be real. We all have fairly strong feelings on what constitutes ideal horsemanship that extend well beyond the equipment we use, how we ride and train, and the ways our horses live.

And sure, a lot of this derives from our chosen sport or discipline, right? It's natural that different sports engender the need for different attire, equipment, and considerations for horse wellness. And it's also totally natural that we as riders might want to "fit in" with our tribe.

There is literally nothing wrong with wearing a skull cap + custom silk cover bc other eventers do too. Or Tailored Sportsmen breeches bc they're de rigueur with the hunter jumper crowd, not to mention the cute colors. Go ahead and replace all your leather with biothane & sheepskin padding bc ain't nobody wanna chafe after 50 miles. And wrap your dressage horse's legs from the knee down in the fluffiest fuzziest bandages + bell boots bc that's how you #DQ.

Honestly - that is all good. Have. At. It.

But.... we shouldn't let our own desires or aspirations to fit in or succeed get twisted into setting standards that keep others out or block access. Do you know what I mean? 

Like.... Remember that judge who felt like it was insulting for big name trainers like Philip Dutton to have beginner riders in their clinics? Or, remember Good Guy Greg with his lame trail horse Blue? Or maybe you've heard someone say that "So and so isn't a real rider bc {xyz}," or "they shouldn't be allowed to own a horse if they're not going to do {abc}!"?? 

There are tons of experienced and knowledgeable horse people out there who will happily offer diametrically opposite opinions on topics like hoof care, turnout, training, equipment usage, nutrition, etc etc etc. 

let's leave the indignant judgment where it belongs: back in the dressage ring with bitchy "r" judges
But really, so long as a horse's basic needs are met, so long as folks are healthy happy and having fun in their horsey adventures, does it really matter how they go about it? Does it really matter what "tribe" they're from? 

Basically, if we want to talk about access, we need to not be gate keepers, or try to define what it means to enjoy a horsey life.

Because everyone does it differently, right? That's a huge part of what makes horses so special -- just about anybody can enjoy horses regardless of background, resources, or interests, and it isn't up to us to create rules or guidelines for the "right" vs "wrong" ways to do it.

In my mind, increasing access means creating a bigger tent and rejecting exclusivity. It means focusing on and amplifying the massively positive impact horses can have in our lives.

2. Reconsider "Voting with your Wallet"

Oooh boy. Equestrians LOVE solving their problems with shopping. Lemme tell ya. Can't get your horse on the bit? Buy a new one! Having trouble holding a secure position? Time for a custom saddle! Horse seems sore? Go order that fancy anatomic girth and hi-tech half pad! And if none of that works, dive in to the amazing world of nutra-ceutical supplements!!!

Lol... Just kidding. Sorta....

For real, tho. I hear the phrase "vote with your dollars" used most often in relation to boycotting one brand or supporting another as a way to address racism and lack of representation in our sport.

Which. Ok. Yea, maybe don't buy a t-shirt from the company popping off with hateful bigoted language on insta. That's.... probably a given. And sure, supporting small or local businesses dedicated to a better world is a nice way to feel warm and fuzzy while still indulging in retail therapy. Even better if they're donating profits to a deserving cause!

this filly is #unimpressed by slacktivism
But.... Let's be real here. Capitalism (or slick PR) isn't going to solve this problem. Hell, American capitalism was literally born on the plantations. And there are hella more problems with our current retail supply chain than just racial injustice -- like massive global environmental and workers rights implications (all of which, you guessed it, also further reinforce inequalities and disproportionately affect minorities).

Again, I'm not saying don't buy that cute t-shirt off Etsy bc it'll look good in your IG selfie (appropriately hashtagged for inclusion in the movement!). #Slacktivism can indeed be effective in raising awareness and driving public sentiment, so ya know, that's good!

But.... Also don't forget that the origin of the phrase "Vote with your Wallet" means to choose according to what is best for you financially. Buying that cute t-shirt might be the easiest and most cost-effective way to 'be a part of the movement,' but donating actual money (or even better --- your time) might go further.

3. Volunteer

There are already a lot of great links and resources being shared across various social platforms right now. This post by L Williams is an excellent starting place. Others tho seem to have been copied and pasted, with the same (deserving) organizations and entities highlighted again and again as worthy of attention and amplification. Which -- obviously -- they are.

My challenge to myself, tho, and also to you, is to get beyond the 5 or 6 national headliners and instead focus within my own community. What's going on in my back yard? How accessible is my horse community? Are there opportunities to get involved? Especially right now, when so many organizations are already struggling bc of Covid...

Realistically, most of us have a LOT to give, and I don't just mean money (tho obvi donations drive change too!). This community is so full of enthusiastic, generous, smart people who know a LOT about horses plus all sorts of other interesting and useful skills. Combining that passion with volunteerism can have a massive impact.

local riding associations are a great way to get more involved -- esp if you have ideas for expanding programming!
I bet any of us could spend a little time digging around online and discover local opportunities to give back. There are literally limitless causes and organizations that need help (especially right now) - and as they say, "every little bit helps."

For equestrian-specific pursuits, there are a number of easy options. Obviously, volunteering at horse shows is a great way to get started. There's a robust system for finding and signing up for events (, and volunteer positions are well defined.

Schooling shows and especially local riding associations and organizers have possibly the most flexibility when it comes to community outreach and programming relating to expanding access and membership. Day camps, therapeutic riding centers, rescue / adoption facilities, and beginner lesson programs are also often in desperate need of help and have likely felt the pinch from Covid.

Just googling around led me to Volunteer Match - a specialty search engine allowing would-be volunteers to search and filter opportunities by location, program type, and interest area. A few clicks later and I found a therapeutic riding school literally right up the road from Isabel's old farm, but that somehow I never knew about.

A blog reader also sent me a CotH article on City Ranch (thanks Meredith!) - a local horse farm dedicated to providing accessible and affordable horseback riding to urban children and the greater Baltimore community. Which, obviously, is relevant to my interest in being involved in ways that perpetuate and spread the joy I personally derive from horses.

really tho, any time kids + ponies can connect has gotta be a win, right?
Not everything always has to be quite so formal, tho. For instance: 

-- Trainer P at Charlie's farm holds a weekly lesson slot for city public school children who come up as a group to get that horsey experience. Barn rats help out in exchange for free rides.

-- A former board member had Isabel's old barn approved as a worksite for community service. About once a month, groups of people who needed to earn community service hours would come spend a morning or afternoon on the property doing various group-based projects and chores around the horses. We just supplied the equipment and the board member ran everything.

-- I've seen quite a few different barns do annual "Community Days" where the farm is open to the public for tours, demonstrations, pony rides or mini lessons (dependent on insurance...), food, face painting, and more. Basically transforming the farm into a Community Fair for the day haha.

Any of the above ideas could be integrated into just about any lesson barn type setting if someone or some group had the interest and follow-through to make it happen.

There's more to modern volunteerism than what we'd typically think of, too. Organizations need help in a variety of other areas, including behind the scenes administrative tasks. Data management, entry and cleanup, resource utilization, communications, website administration, social media management, phone calls, networking, fundraising... 

Much of this can be done offsite from the comfort of our own sofas - and might make use of special technical skills you have that wouldn't otherwise be available to smaller organizations.


These might all seem like small ideas in and of themselves. And maybe they are. Tho I'd argue they're probably more productive than getting into a flame war on facebook or posting a selfie on insta with all the latest trending hashtags. But ya know. Ymmv haha.

My experience with volunteering tho is that it can have a really positive snowball effect. The more I do, the easier it becomes to do more. 

When I first made volunteering at horse shows in particular part of my goals, I aimed for volunteering in at least one activity in 7 months out of the year. That proved to be extremely attainable, actually, and feels like a good starting metric for expanding my involvement beyond horse shows to more social causes. 

So that's my new goal going forward. Any of you think you'll do the same? Or maybe you're getting involved in other ways?


  1. Thank you for highlighting and sharing this - the last few ideas are so cool as well!

  2. Love that community days idea your barn does! What a great way to give back.

  3. Definitely some great ideas here! Most of my horse care I learned as a volunteer at Ryerss Farm ( ). Up until that point, I just had riding lessons and knew how to do basic grooming. When I started volunteering (I basically spent 70+ hours a week there the summer I graduated high school and continued through a least my first year of college at least 1x/week), they taught me everything else. I fed, I turned out, I learned about working in a herd, I learned basic medical care, and I even did less than fun jobs like cleaning sheaths. I got to work with babies when they had PMU foals there for adoption as well. (I also gave tours which was a regular responsibilty once I was there for a few weeks and they realized I caught on quickly and could give a good tour... lol. I was volunteered for those just because I was over 18 and good at them which is funny because in my current job I am a terrible tour guide if I need to library tours. Or maybe my tours were straight forward and to the point? I got people in and out?). I struggle to go back now (it's right by my mom's house) as all "my" horses have passed on, but I said many goodbyes. Working with senior horses is hard! They do get my Amazon Smile donations even though it isn't much.

    But, the point of all this is volunteering does so much good both for the organization as well as for the volunteer. There is no way I could have the confidence to have horses at home today if I hadn't had the extensive volunteer experience at Ryerss.

  4. This a great post - thanks so much for sharing. Lots of great ideas to think about and research for my local area.

  5. Oh boy, I'm literally drafting a post right now about the tribalism. It hit me when I read the Missy Clark manifesto where she said that hostility doesn't keep people from the sport. Like, even without a discussion about representation, horse people are incredibly hostile. The amount of victim blaming from Safe Sport made that painfully obvious. Barns advertise themselves as "drama free." It's no surprise that people respond to the term "White privilege" with vitrol.

    1. ugh for real. that missy clark screed was.... wow, problematic is a nice word for it. actually, the second link in this post (the one about people in charge finally realizing they're culpable) links to an AP News article, of all things, about the horse world dealing with this issue, and calls out missy's post in particular....

      anyway tho. yea. the hostility, tribalism, and general cattiness in horse sports is pervasive. your safe sport example is spot on. looking forward to reading your take on it all too!

  6. Gate Keeping is such a huge hurdle to overcome! We talk about this a lot in comic book circles since the barrier for entry seems to be some old white dude behind the counter giving the most judgmental look to any title a girl buys (and boys frankly too).

    I can't tell you how many times I've gotten the comment "I couldn't board at a barn that didn't have pasture/12 hours of turnout/etc etc" Like cool don't move to California then because you ain't getting that! Even I need to be less judgmental or fearful of judgement. Being at a less than top notch barn right now I can say everyone keeps there horses in variety of ways, some bed to the elbows, others don't bed at all, some feed extra hay, others do not and as long as the horse is in good weight (barring age or other problem), healthy, happy, that is all that should really matter!

    1. tbh, learning more about west coast horse keeping (and actually getting to visit you all!) was pretty eye opening for me, bc i'd always just assumed that the way we do in maryland was the way it should be done everywhere. obvi that's kinda a stupid assumption haha. but unless we ever have reason to step back and think more deeply about a thing, it's easy for even the stupidest assumptions to calcify into judgments or standards on how a thing should be.

  7. These are all great ideas. Clearly you have been doing some thinking, not just creating dance clubs for mice. :)

  8. I've often struggled with the cost gate-keeping in horse sports (and the corresponding complaints about it) because at the very bottom of the issue, keeping horses is expensive! It is expensive to own the land, use the land, maintain the land, buy the hay, feed the hay, clean the stalls, dispose of the waste.... I don't think that anyone is suggesting horses be kept in shitty conditions just to make the sport affordable, but I was struggling to see how even eliminating all the costs of paying people you could make horse sports more accessible. Even if you had a generous benefactor covering all the costs for one person -- or many of those generous benefactors -- that still doesn't eliminate gatekeeping across the board. But there are clearly a lot of ways to get started, and I need to just sit down (or stand up?) and get involved!

    1. don't forget: there's an entire world of horses to be enjoyed without the prerequisite of ownership, and this is probably the area where we can have the greatest impact in terms of increasing access. for example, i've been active with horses since i was a very little girl, but didn't become an owner until my 30s.

  9. I totally agree with what you've written- especially about gate keeping and keeping your thoughts local and seeing where you can make a difference locally.
    For me, a lot of the problem is that horses are inaccessible to a majority of people and if you want to partake in horses you have to commute to parts of town that typically can't be accessed by public transportation. Which, just makes it difficult for a lot of people. How do we make it a sport that isn't just for the elite? Can we? I'm trying to figure out what role horses can play in people's lives who are there for the beneficial aspects of the human-animal bond. I guess I'm motivated by people looking at me wide eyed and with awe when I say I have a horse. I live in a rural area and so many people have never pet a horse. Anywho..lots to consider and work on!

    1. the issue of transportation and actual geographic proximity to horses is very real. check out the above links to the CotH article and City Ranch website for more info on how this one particular organization addresses that issue: they bring the horses *to* the schools.

      you and i are obviously both pretty familiar with the logistics of moving horses around from place to place -- it's really not that challenging with the right organization, logistics and determination to do it. donations also help keep these types of outreach programs running.

  10. Thanks for a thoughtful & actionable breakdown! I am loving seeing all these conversations happen.

  11. In response to the gatekeeping, a group that has organized around Brianna Noble has created a fledgling organization whose aim is to promote inclusion in all equestrian disciplines. Check out Inclusive Equestrian Conference, as well as Heels Down, Fists Up on facebook for more grassroots organizing within the equestrian community.


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