• Eliza Chang

This Black History Month, We’re Celebrating Trailblazing Black Equestrians

It’s Black History Month, and here in Ocala, we’ve been reflecting on the impact of Black Americans on equestrian culture. When it comes to horseback riding, the Black community has a rich history across racing, show-jumping and rodeo, dating back to the early 1800s.

This may come as a surprise to many, as it is rare to see a Black jockey or show-jumper today. In fact, Black riders currently make-up less than one percent of U.S. Equestrian, and a Black equestrian has never competed for the U.S. in the Olympics.

Inspired by a hope for a more inclusive future, we’re celebrating those trailblazers that have paved the way for the next generation of Black equestrians.

Black Jockeys: Oliver Lewis, Isaac Murphy, Willie Simms, Cheryl White & James Winkfield

When the first Kentucky Derby was organized in 1875, Oliver Lewis—a 19-year-old Black man from Fayette Country, Kentucky—claimed victory. Riding on a horse named Aristide, Lewis defeated fifteen other jockeys, thirteen of whom were black.

While Lewis went onto achieve additional racing success that year with Aristide, he never graced Churchill Downs again, retiring at season’s end for unknown reasons. But Oliver Lewis’ big win in 1875 was only the beginning of Black jockeys winning the Kentucky Derby. In fact, across the first 28 years of the Derby, 15 were won by a Black jockey.

Among the list of noteworthy winners, includes Isaac Murphy, Willie Simms, and James Winkfield. Murphy, a former slave, is among the most celebrated jockeys of the 19th century. Winning an astonishing 44 percent of his races, Murphy was the first jockey inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame and held the record for the most Kentucky Derby wins, until Eddie Arcaro won his fourth in 1948.

Like Murphy, Willie Simms and James Winkfield hold impressive records of their own at the Kentucky Derby. Simms, also a member of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, became the first (and only) Black jockey to win a Triple Crown—placing first at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in a single year. Winkfield is one of just two jockeys to win back-to-back, and notably the last Black jockey to win the Derby.

Following World War I, Black jockeys were excluded from riding, until the turn of the 21st century, with Marlon St. Julien becoming the first Black jockey to compete in 79 years.

Cheryl White also made history as the first Black female jockey, beginning to compete in 1971. While she finished last in her initial race, White quickly found her footing and enjoyed much success in the years to come. Not only did White win 750 total races during her career, she also laid claim to several additional “firsts,” including first Black woman to win a thoroughbred race, first female jockey to win two races on the same day in two different states, and first female jockey to win five races in one day.

Black Hunter/Jumpers - Jordan Allen,

& Mavis Spencer

Inspired by a passion for horses and animals, Donna M. Cheek started taking riding lessons at the age of 7. Through the support and sacrifice of her family, Cheek was able to compete at the highest levels of hunter/jumper competition, eventually becoming the first Black member of the U.S. Equestrian team in 1981.

Other highlights of Cheek’s career include becoming the first Black rider to represent the U.S. internationally in show-jumping and the first equestrian to be inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Distinction. Through these accolades, Cheek certainly paved the way for the next generation of Black hunter/jumper equestrians, like Jordan Allen and Mavis Spencer.

A star on the rise, Jordan Allen, has been making a name for herself by sweeping top competitions across the last few years. Most recently, she added Grand Junior Hunter Champion at the National Horse Show and Grand Champion at the Capital Challenge and West Coast Junior Hunter Finals to her resume. The newly minted amateur rider—having just aged out of juniors—is also the only Black member of the University of South Carolina Equestrian Team.

Spencer, the daughter of actress Alfre Woodard, is an up-and-coming Grand Prix Jumper and ambassador for U.S. Equestrian. Having worked her way up from grooming for top-ranking jumpers, U.S. Equestrian views Spencer as the future of the sport and an inspiration to young riders of all races and backgrounds.

Black Cowboys - Nate Love & Cleo Hearn

Although they are underrepresented in popular culture, in the heyday of the Wild West, an astonishing 1 in 4 cowboys were Black. In fact, immediately following the Civil War, being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to Black men. And they were certainly qualified, as Texas ranchers depended on their slaves to maintain their land and cattle herds during the war.

Nat Love, a Black cowboy in Dodge City, Kansas in the mid-1800s, lived a life that was straight out of a Western film. Born into slavery near Nashville, Love went onto move large herds of cattle as a cowboy, drink with Billy the Kid, take part in shoot-outs with Native Americans, and participate in early rodeos.

Today, Cleo Hearn, who has been a professional cowboy since 1959, produces rodeos for Black cowboys through his group, Cowboys of Color. While Hearn has claimed many “firsts” as a Black cowboy, including first Black Marlboro man and first Black man to attend college on a rodeo scholarship, the road wasn’t always easy. Hearn faced discrimination in his sport because of his race, and was even barred from entering a rodeo in his own hometown when he was 16. As a result, he began producing rodeos for Black cowboys, and Cowboys of Color now has over 200 athletes competing at different events throughout the year.

Celebrating Black Equestrians—Now and into the Future

While these iconic Black equestrians have enjoyed great success and opened up opportunities for future generations, each individual faced significant hurdles and discrimination in a sport that is predominantly white.

Recently, there has been a push to change the sport and make it more inclusive, with U.S. Equestrian pledging to take measures that include performance-based grants for riders, education within the industry, anti-racist and unconscious bias training for staff, and the diversification of marketing materials.

This Black History Month, we recognize the Black Equestrians that have paved the way, and remain hopeful that the sport can continue to build toward a more diverse and inclusive environment for all riders.

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