Tryon – When people think of equestrians, they typically don’t picture a formerly enslaved African-American performing before queens and presidents, or a humble Black man from Columbus, Georgia becoming an international legend.
Today the equestrian world is wrestling with the question of how to include more diversity—especially people of color—in equestrian sports. For the third year, the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) is supporting the Tom Bass Seminar on Diversity in Equestrian Sports. Due to COVID-19, this will be a virtual event on Saturday, November 20 at 1:30 pm.
The seminar explores subjects including reviving equestrian heritage in lower and middle-income communities, building sustainable programs that support diversity in the horse industry and developing stories that accurately reflect the life experiences of equestrians of color. The Tom Bass Seminar is an addition to the annual Day of the African Equestrian (DOTAE) celebration organized by Tryon horseman, Melvin Cox, Managing Director of SportsQuest International, LLC and a Lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).
“We would like young people of all backgrounds to know that this is a wonderful sport that can provide them with guidance, discipline, friendship and a sense of responsibility, without regard to race, creed, color, religion or financial background,” Cox said.
Cox, and his wife Pamela, purchased property in the Green Creek area of Tryon in 2018 and met international foxhunting legend, Tot Goodwin. Goodwin is the second Black Master of Foxhounds (MFH) in the United States, was the first Black person to hunt in Ireland, and the only Black MFH in the US today.
“I had to overcome a lot,” said Goodwin who is originally from Columbus, GA. “But I’m pleased I did it.”
Goodwin was not welcome in many foxhunting circles, being asked if, “they let him hunt too.” In 1997, when Green Creek Hounds in Tryon applied to make him a joint master, some members from the Masters of FoxHounds Association resisted. “Some said ‘we don’t want him,’” Goodwin explained.
Throughout his career as Whipper-In (the foxhunt staff member who assists the huntsman to guide and mange the hounds) for foxhunting icon, Ben Hardaway, Goodwin faced adversity because of the color of his skin. There were many hunts in the US and Europe that didn’t want him to participate. “Ben [Hardaway] just wouldn’t go to those places that I wasn’t welcome,” Goodwin said.
“It’s easy to think this [racial prejudice] doesn’t go on today,” said Goodwin’s wife, Colleen Goodwin. “But it still does.”
Today Goodwin is Huntsman and Master of Goodwin Hounds in Mill Spring and is recognized throughout the world as an authority on hounds and foxhunting. Goodwin and his wife attended the first DOTAE event staged in honor of the athletes from Africa and the African Dispora who competed in the 2018 Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games at TIEC.
Cox said Goodwin, and others, inspired him to launch efforts targeting a greater diversity within all facets of the equestrian industry.
“I look at Tot growing up in the era he grew up in, and experiencing the indignities he had to endure,” Cox said. “I think of Black cavalry officers being barred from competing against their white colleagues. I think of superbly talented riders such as Charles ‘Sonny’ Brooks and Donna Cheek facing the brutal realities of American racism. We don’t want the young people of today to experience that ugliness.”
Including More POC
Cox believes it is possible to reach out and involve young people of diverse backgrounds because the equestrian world is changing. He noted that the rules for the 2020 Olympic Equestrian competition changed from four to three-person teams, allowing more countries to participate in the time allotted for the Equestrian events. Historically, 12 nations, mostly from North America and Europe, sent equestrian teams to the Olympics. In 2020, 50 nations qualified for the Olympic equestrian events including Japan’s Daisuke Fukushima and his mount, Chanyon, who jumped clear in both rounds of the individual jumping final.
“I was so excited to see that happen,” said Cox, who is often one of the few Black persons at major national and international equestrian events. A documentary filmmaker, Cox spent many years traveling the world photographing and filming equestrian sports. In 2005 he and the late Shabbir Husain produced a one-hour television documentary for Horse TV, titled The Spirit of Aachen, which aired nationally.
“I do not want to be the only person of color in the media center at these [equestrian] events,” Cox said. “In an effort to provide exposure, I’ve taken students from UCSC to the last two FEI World Cup Finals held in the U.S.”
“The equestrian industry as a whole has a huge public relations problem—particularly in low wealth and minority communities,” Cox said. “In order for the industry to thrive and prosper, we must diligently teach ethics, accountability, positive communications skills and social responsibility along with the essential theories and techniques of the various equestrian disciplines.”
The first Tom Bass Seminar in 2019 included an informative discussion with panelists from the international equestrian community, followed by a DOTAE reception at Harambee Farms in Green Creek. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 seminar was virtual. Cox and his team were very pleased with the depth and substance of the discussion, especially the topic of how to attract young people of color and diverse economic backgrounds to equestrian sports.
This year’s panelists continue the conversation of opening the sport to more people of diverse color and backgrounds. The program also honors the riders, trainers and coaches of color in the recent Olympic and Para-Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The seminar also highlights the career of Tom Bass, (1859 – 1934), who was born enslaved in Columbia, Missouri. An expert with Saddlebred horses, he won more than 2000 ribbons, including championships at two world fairs.
Though he helped establish The American Royal Horse Show in Kansas City, for many years, Bass was the only African-American allowed to compete. He also worked to make Mexico, Missouri the “Saddle Horse Capital of the World.”
Known for developing the Tom Bass Bit to reduce horse abuse, Bass also performed in front of Queen Marie of Romania, P.T. Barnum and U.S. Presidents. His more prominent clients included President Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, Anheuser-Busch executives Adolphus and August Busch and Will Rogers.
Cox credits childhood experiences at the Latting Rodeo School in Robbins, Ill. and the Hyde Park Riding Stables on Chicago’s South Side in fueling his passion for horses and the equestrian lifestyle.
Having instructors such as the Black cowboys and a former “Buffalo Soldier” (African-American US Cavalry trooper) provided Cox role models that shared his cultural background.
“It’s about breaking down barriers for young people to come into the horse world and say, ‘I belong here,’” said Cox, who pointed out that a major obstacle remains the cost. “Most people can’t afford to go out and buy a million-dollar horse,” he said. “The cost of purchasing and maintaining top-level competition horses keeps rising. It’s mind-boggling!”
Action for Change
The Tom Bass Seminar is just one of several events and efforts to celebrate and encourage diversity in equestrian sports. Other notable efforts include the Legacy Equine Academy in Texas, Horses in the Hood in southern California, the Ebony Riding Club in London and Work to Ride in Philadelphia. The USEF is offering grants to support equine-based learning opportunities among under-represented and/or under-served communities and there are an increasing number of scholarships to support diversity in equestrian sports.