I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with Shaq Blake, also known as The Black Equestrian on Instagram. She is an incredibly inspiring young woman, passionate equestrian, and phenomenal writer. We went all-in with today’s spotlight, talking about life, horses, racism, and everything in-between.
Hi Shaq! I am so honoured and grateful that you have taken the time to chat with me today. First, please introduce yourself!
My name is Shaquilla Blake; I go by Shaq. I am 27 years old and I live in Massachusetts. My interest in horses started when I was born, as my dad was a huge racing fan. From the time I was 1 years old, he would take me to the racetrack in Barbados (where I was born) every Saturday to watch the races. When I moved to the United States, horses were no longer a part of my life except for a handful of lessons when I was around the age of 6.
My obsession with horses was reignited when the Saddle Club first aired on TV. I got back into riding as an adult when my husband booked a surprise trail ride for the two of us for my 25th birthday. I signed up for lessons before we left the barn. After bouncing around to a few barns, I found an older warmblood gelding for lease at a barn about 45 minutes away from my house, and I have been riding consistently for the past 9 months. I recently bought my first horse, a 5-year-old, 17 hand off the track thoroughbred gelding named Bear, who I plan on making my showing debut with in the hunters and the jumpers.
That is awesome! I would’ve thought that you’ve been riding everyday of your life. You are a phenomenal rider, and from what I have seen on Instagram, you are bringing Bear along beautifully. Tell me – what inspired you to start your own blog?
Writing has always been my outlet and the one thing that comes to me easily. I’ve always written, but rarely share what I write. Writing for me, is therapeutic; It helps me to gather my thoughts and to process my emotions. I am the type of person that loves guidance and instruction when starting something new.
Getting into riding as an adult was scary! I am lucky to have so many people willing to teach me and share their knowledge, and I couldn’t help but think that someone else starting their journey, who may not be as fortunate as me to have multiple sources of help, would appreciate me sharing the things I am learning along the way. My blog – theblackequestrian.com – was created to share my journey; all of the ups and downs, falls, and accomplishments. I also wanted to share my journey from the perspective of a black female in this sport.
I want to inspire other riders of colour to get into the sport if it’s something they’ve been interested in, as well as to highlight diverse riders. I also want to pull back the curtain on the image of this sport and to help create change in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
“Police officers go home at the end of the day and take off their uniform and there is nothing that identifies them as an officer. As a black person, I do not get a break from my blackness. I cannot take my skin off and hang it in the closet when I need a break or when I need to feel safe.”
~ Shaquilla Blake
What are your sentiments towards all the current events taking place in our world surrounding BLM (protests, riots, looting, movements on social media, increased police brutality, etc…)?
These last few weeks [back in July] have been intense. I have lost friends and acquaintances due to differing opinions on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movements. I have always stood firm in that I am not encouraging rioting, looting, or violence, however I understand. The Black community has faced years or racial injustice, police brutality, and discrimination in this country and people are tired of it. To live with fear every day that your loved one may never make it home from going to the convenience store to buy a bag of skittles is such a heavy feeling and not what this country claims to be about.
To hear people, rebut with “All Live Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” when Black people chant “Black Lives Matter” is incredibly offensive and disrespectful. I watched protestors storm the capital with rifles on their back to protest the COVID-19 quarantine because they wanted haircuts and massages, to then watch PEACEFUL protestors be shot at with rubber bullets and maced for exercising their first Amendment right to peacefully protest the government.
I have seen so many people committed to their ignorance and refuse to acknowledge that law enforcement reform is needed and that these actions are racially motivated. Police officers go home at the end of the day and take off their uniform and there is nothing that identifies them as an officer. As a black person, I do not get a break from my blackness. I cannot take my skin off and hang it in the closet when I need a break or when I need to feel safe. Systemic racism and oppression is an issue in our country and in our sport and to watch such influential people, such a Missy Clark, completely debunk the personal experiences of people of colour is outrageous and shows that Black people will always be viewed as less than, unless we continue to fight and demand change.
Have you ever been subject to racism, inequality, prejudice, and / or injustice in the equestrian community (either in-person or online)? How have these encounters impacted you?
I have unfortunately faced racism and prejudice in my short equestrian journey so far. I have been kicked out of a lesson program at a very well known show barn in my area, and told after my first lesson that they didn’t think that they could help me and that they had no room in their program. However, a friend of mine called to set up lessons after this incident occurred and they were happy to have her. I later learned that this particular barn had NO students of colour and no staff of colour. They are actually well known in my area for being very “exclusive” and only accepting students that fit their image of an equestrian (white and thin). I have also had people make racial jokes about the black community while I was at the barn.
It is unfortunate, but my love of horses and of the equestrian sport are stronger than the challenges I face. That being said, I have my days where I am angry, sad, and feeling hopeless. I have cried many days because I am sick of having to smile in the face of people that I know do not like me. I am sick of having to appear as cheery and high energy as possible to make the people around me comfortable and I am sick of being anxious when my husband comes to the barn with me and no one even says hello. There are many days where I wonder if it is worth it, but I am lucky to have found a barn where I am comfortable and accepted.
What was one particular situation that presented a variety of mental and / or emotional challenges for you? How did you work through these challenges? How have they affected you today?
Facing instances of racial injustice sometimes makes me question if riding and being a part of a sport that is lacking in diversity and inclusion is worth it. I never want to give up the joy that horses bring me because of the ignorance of others.
For a while my coping mechanism was to shrink myself. I made myself smaller in the company of others at the barn; I didn’t speak much, ask questions, or do anything to draw attention to myself – I tried to be as perfect as I could. I found myself getting frustrated after a few months of making sure to go to the barn as late in the evening as possible because it is the only time I could be with my horse and not have to worry about others being around to judge me or make me feel unwanted. For a while, riding and going to the barn was more stress than it was joy and I would find every excuse not to go.
I found a wonderful barn (where I am now) and have found that the past experiences I have had are still affecting me. I still wonder if I should wait until later in the day to go to the barn even though I know that when I pull in I’ll have a few kids screaming “HI SHAQ” and my trainer screaming “HEYY!” My farrier is always quick to joke with me when he sees me around the barn and the barn owner never passes by on the gator without stopping to say “hi,” and chatting for a quick minute. I have been fortunate enough to find two barns that welcomed my family and I with literal open arms and treated us as if we had been there for years. The effects of the prejudices and racial injustices I have faced in the past are still with me, and there is a lot of work I have to do within myself to undo that damage. It is something that I work at every day.
“Outside of the moral obligation to be inclusive of all members of the equestrian community, I would think that from a marketing standpoint — wouldn’t brands want to reach as many customers as they could? Exclusion of equestrians of colour sends the message that my skin, my hair, and ME as a whole, are not marketable or worthy.”
~ Shaquilla Blake
As a member of the BIPOC equestrian community, how does it make you feel that there is an immense lack of diversity and inclusivity in the equestrian industry (i.e. in marketing, advertising, promotional campaigns for riding apparel brands, show advertisements, etc..)?
It can be disheartening when I flip through a Dover catalog and see no one that looks like me. In a catalog of over twenty pages, it’s easy to feel like the products are not being marketed to you when none of the models do. I think about the young girls looking in the catalogs or watching competitions on TV and they do not see themselves in any of the riders. I remember what that felt like, and it made me feel like I should be in another sport.
The first time I thought that I could ride was when The Saddle Club aired on TV and Carole Hanson was the best rider and most knowledgeable persona at the barn. I remember how excited I got and I became OBSESSED. The Saddle Club has been off the air for years, so for the little girls of today they do not have a Carole to look up to. I would never want another girl of colour to feel like they cannot be in this sport and achieve great levels of success because they cannot picture themselves in a Grand Prix jumper ring.
I am a black woman with dreadlocks, helmet shopping is a NIGHTMARE. Samshield, One K, and the other big brands use models with long straight hair. As a person with kinky hair, it is discouraging to never see curly or kinky hair modelled. Outside of the moral obligation to be inclusive of all members of the equestrian community, I would think that from a marketing standpoint – wouldn’t brands want to reach as many customers as they could? And the answer to that is not that black equestrians do not exist, because they do.
It has been incredibly disappointing to see brands whose products I love, stay silent for the past few weeks regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and their stance on being more diverse and inclusive. In the past two weeks I have met over twenty black equestrians and equestrians of colour. There is a larger population of equestrians of colour than what is assumed and to have them feel excluded is morally wrong and strategically a huge missed opportunity. Exclusion of equestrians of colour sends the message that my skin, my hair, and ME as a whole are not marketable or worthy.
What is some advice you would give to another BIPOC equestrian who is struggling with prejudice, racism, negativity, toxicity, and bullying, from others in the community, and general society?
The best way that we can be our own advocates are to speak up. Shying away when you are faced with instances of racism or prejudices send the message to the offender that they can continue. Being vocal about our discomfort does not make us weak or sensitive – it demands respect.
There are many allies out there, and I encourage riders of colour to find barns, trainers, farriers, etc., that they feel comfortable and safe with and who treat them with respect and take them seriously. It is never okay to dismiss these situations or to brush them off and push forward with a brave attitude. So many of us have done that for so long, it is our right to speak out against the people who treat us poorly based on the colour of our skin.
Social media is a powerful tool – use it to connect to other riders of colour and reach out to share your stories or ask for advice; We are all facing the same situations there is no reason to face it alone. Most importantly remember this: your worth, your value, your talent is not determined by the ignorance of others. Do not ever, even for a second, doubt how valued, how beautiful, or how loved you are. I know that in the moment it is hard to see anything beyond the anger or pain you are feeling but you have an entire community of others behind you, rooting for you at every turn.
I encourage everyone, riders of colour and white riders, to continue to have open and honest conversations. Getting involved, being vocal, and being allies are so important to moving forward to create change. This is a group effort to dismantle racism in this sport and to make it an inclusive place for all riders.
If you are interested in keeping up with Shaq, feel free to connect with her on Instagram HERE. Be sure to follow her personal blog for more of her incredible insight – WWW.THEBLACKEQUESTRIAN.COM. Check out some of her other works: “Who gets to be an Equestrian?” by Elle USA, and “We need more diversity in equestrian sports” by Heels Down Mag.
I hope you found today’s TPE Spotlight enlightening and inspiring. Shaq has so much to share and offer this community, and I am grateful to have made her acquaintance. I want you to all remember that each and every one of us can very easily start implementing new actions in our daily routines to ensure we are encouraging and promoting diversity and inclusivity in horse sports. Change starts with YOU and I – we need to become the changes that we want to see and be the best version of ourselves. If not for one another, for our horses. So have the tough conversations, ask questions, educate yourself and others, share resources, and most importantly, continue challenging yourself and this industry.