Jan 09, 2024

The Importance of Allyship in Eventing

By Lindsay Berreth - USEA Staff
Deonte Sewell (left), Heather Gillette (center), and Sierra Rager (right) spoke about Strides For Equality Equestrians at the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention. USEA/Lindsay Berreth photos

In recent years, the importance of diversity in equestrian sport has taken the spotlight, and Strides For Equality Equestrians (SEE) is working towards making all disciplines, including eventing, a more friendly and welcoming place for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), as well as underrepresented groups.

Heather Gillette, a five-star eventer, co-founded SEE with equestrian, author, and professor Anastasia “Stacy” Curwood in 2020, and since then, the organization has provided several scholarships for young people to help them succeed in equestrian sport and is working towards improving access, allyship, and funding.

At the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention, held Dec. 7-11, 2023, in St. Louis, Missouri, Gillette spoke to members about SEE’s mission and how everyone from riders to coaches to organizers can help foster an inclusive environment for BIPOC and underrepresented people in eventing.

Then, scholarship recipients Deonte Sewell and Sierra Rager spoke about their experiences as BIPOC equestrians and how the scholarships changed their lives.

Gillette started her presentation by saying that the eventing world in particular is a very welcoming place, but could be more colorful. She encouraged people to work on the concept of allyship.

“Allyship is a word that not many people understand, and honestly, three or four years ago, I didn’t know it was a thing either until my friend Stacy, who is a person of color, told me I was one, and I have been her ally for 25 years. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s great! What does it mean?’ It means she can count on me to support her in her safety—feeling comfortable in the sport and the world she has chosen to be in, which is horses—and that she knew if she was having problems, I had her back. If she met any problems, conflicts, or issues, she knew I wasn’t going to be a shrinking violet and walk away from the conversation. I was happy to be it.”

Gillette said being an ally was easy and didn’t take a lot of thought. Just being a good friend is the first step. “Allyship is how it started, and it has grown,” she said of SEE. “Now we’re trying to improve access, which in a nutshell means making the sport more available. Trying to expose folks from communities that don’t necessarily know that horses are a thing. We need to be able to find a way to provide access to the sport and the horses for those people.”

SEE has provided guidance through their network. The state of Maryland reached out about improving diversity, equity, and inclusion on the Maryland Horse Council, and the Maryland International Equestrian Foundation included SEE in their LEG UP Scholarship to give local people access to Loch Moy Farm, which hosts the Maryland International and several recognized and unrecognized horse trials and schooling opportunities throughout the year.

Besides funding, Gillette said that mentorship and friendship is one of the most important parts of promoting allyship.

She’d like to see more trainers volunteer their time to help riders of different backgrounds.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time. It takes effort and will, but I have to say, this is the most rewarding work I have ever done,” she said.

So, what can you do to promote allyship? Wear a SEE pin, wear SEE’s signature color purple, and show visual support. Say hello to people at events and get to know them and cheer them on in competition. Post about SEE scholarship applications online or get involved in community riding centers.

“Allyship needs to be out loud support, not just quiet support in the background,” said Gillette. “Put banners up at your event or on jumps. Wear a pin, wear purple, say hello and mean it.”

SEE is working on grants for licensed officials and the USEA Eventing Coaches Program, and currently they offer the Ever So Sweet Scholarship, which is awarded bi-annually and provides a fully-funded internship with upper level rider Sara Kozumplik.

Sewell spoke to the audience at the Convention about his experience with SEE and how it’s helped give him a boost to become an equestrian professional. He grew up in Elkton, Maryland, and was inspired by Phillip Dutton after seeing him compete at nearby Fair Hill.

He started his journey with horses by volunteering at a local ranch before working for Dutton, then for Chris Barnard and Justine Dutton. Now he’s working for grand prix show jumper Collin Reynolds.

In 2022, Sewell was awarded the Peterson & Smith Barnstaple Educational Three-Day Grant, funded through SEE, allowing him to attend an educational three-day event at Barnstaple in Florida.

“I tell some of my stories to say that the allies I’ve met along my journey is everything that the SEE Program is going to do,” he said. “2020 showed us that there are multiple people of color with the same goal as myself, and the program has done an awesome job at giving some of us the opportunity in a safe space to push forward with more representation. It’s given me a leg up in my career. Receiving the grant for Barnstaple not only gave me the education and experience to attend a long format as a competitor, not as a groom, but it also helped me reconnect with [former ride] Delta Queen.”

Sierra Rager and Sebastian.

Rager earned the second Ever So Sweet scholarship in January 2022. She grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her grandmother ran a lesson barn, and Rager got her start in the hunter/jumper world with catchrides. Even so, she found a lot of socioeconomic and financial barriers to the sport.

After her scholarship ended, she was hired full-time by Kozumplik and now competes Kozumplik’s former two-star horse Sebastian.

“What they say about allyship, it’s really true,” she said. “I’ve been in this industry forever, and I know the horses and the hunter/jumper world quite well, and as much as you need people really rooting for you, it’s nice to have people behind you, but you really can’t make it unless you really have people gunning for you and trying and really supporting you. This program is something that does not exist anywhere else. I’ve now been with Sara for over a year.”

She enjoys feeling camaraderie at events and helping SEE build a sense of community. She said the easiest thing anyone can do at an event is to acknowledge a BIPOC rider and say, “Good luck; have a good ride.”

“Find those people and stick with them,” she advised BIPOC riders. “Know there is a place, and it’s not only at the bottom as a groom. There’s tons of opportunity in all aspects—even in show management.”

“There is a place for you in the sport, and it’s going to take time to get there and find the right people. It’s very apparent when people are allies,” Sewell added.

Gillette finished the session by encouraging riders to apply for the grants. Any underrepresented person is invited to apply, including transgender and para equestrians.

And for those wanting to be allies, she added, “You might screw up, but tell them you’re learning, and you might screw up, and how can I do better?”

About the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention

The USEA Annual Meeting & Convention takes place each December and brings together a large group of dedicated USEA members and supporters to discuss, learn, and enjoy being surrounded by other eventing enthusiasts. The USEA organizes multiple seminars in addition to committee meetings, open forums, and tons of fun! The 2023 USEA Annual Meeting & Convention will take place in St. Louis, Missouri, on Dec. 7-10, 2023. Click here to learn more about the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention.

The USEA would like to thank the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention Sponsors: Adequan, Bates Saddles, Capital Square, D.G. Stackhouse & Ellis, Kerrits, Horse & Country, Nunn Finer, Nutrena, Parker Equine Insurance, Rebecca Farm, RevitaVet, SmartPak, Standlee, and World Equestrian Brands.

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