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Ethnicity

Filed under: Current Articles,Editorial,Featured |     

by Susan Winslow

Is the lack of racial diversity in show horses a sign of social differences or something more?

ethnicityDoes ethnicity play a role in showing horses? In some areas, the horse world hasn’t been immune to the racial stereotypes and negative attitudes in America, but the biggest barriers to elite competition are more straightforward. In many parts of the country, horses aren’t readily accessible to people, especially those who live in urban areas, and the financial outlay required to compete on the world stage is beyond the means of many people, no matter their race. The Equine Chronicle spoke with the parent of a successful exhibitor, who also has a passion for horses and showing, as well as a judge and a trainer for their thoughts on this subject. While we would like to think that our industry is welcoming and inclusive, there have been times when good people have been subject to racial stereotypes and ignorant behavior.

Dr. Deacue Fields III is the Chair of the Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology Department at Auburn University. He is also an accomplished second-generation horseman who has been involved with showing horses since the age of 13. A few years ago, he was at a show in Jackson, Mississippi, working in his horse’s stall on the frustrating task of attaching a tail extension. His concentration was interrupted by a man stopping outside the stall door who shouted, “Hey, what are you doing in there? Get away from that horse. I’m calling security if you don’t get out of that stall.”

Dr. Fields kept his cool and calmly introduced himself. He replied that he was trying to install a tail extension on his own horse, but if the fellow knew anyone in security that could help him, he’d welcome the assistance. Another time, Dr. Fields was at a show fluffing shavings in his horse’s stall when a competitor who didn’t know him stopped in the aisle and asked if he would please get over to the other aisle and take care of his horses too. Then there are those occasions when people assume he’s either a professional athlete or blue-collar worker. “Since my hair started turning gray, that doesn’t happen so much,” he says with a laugh. “Now they think I’m a football coach.”

Dr. Fields has the confidence, grace, and acuity to view these moments as an opportunity to educate rather than confront. Although these incidents are few among many years of positive experiences in the horse industry, those moments when he was judged for his skin color have stayed with him. This gifted horseman and dedicated family man is not bitter, but he is very honest about the occasions when he has experienced racial bias in the horse world. He explains, “The horse show world is still very conservative, as is the field in which I work, Agricultural Economics. There aren’t a lot of black people in these areas, so what I try to do when I run into that type of situation is correct the person in a positive way to change their perspective and educate them.”

He believes racial bias can be overt or subtle, saying, “There have been certain judges through the years who have overlooked me repeatedly while placing those same horses when shown by other people. It’s especially obvious when two of three judges place you high, and one particular judge consistently places you much lower. I keep track of my show record and just try to avoid judges that have consistently overlooked me or placed my horses very low. If I have a question, I have no problem calling a judge to ask what they saw that I did wrong, because that’s how you make yourself a better competitor. Most judges are really great about that, but there have been times in the past when I had my white friends or other trainers show my horses in a big competition because it just takes race out of the equation altogether.”

He continues, “I’ve been in horses for a long time, and I do think things are changing for the better.” As a youngster, he started showing halter and performance horses at the age of 13. His father, Deacue Fields Jr., was an avid horseman who shared his love of ranch and cutting horses with his son. Coming up through the ranks of amateurs, Dr. Fields always had an eye for a good, young horse with potential for halter competition. He says, “Growing up, we had a farm with show steer and some performance and halter horses. I had to prove to my dad that I had the responsibility to go out there on my own and compete. When I did, he let me out there with the truck and trailer, at the age of 15, and I showed all over the place. My dad, who retired as the Assistant Commissioner of Elections for the state of Louisiana, also worked for the FDA and was a minister, so he couldn’t go to most of the Sunday shows. I loved the halter horses because as an athlete myself, I appreciate the combination of natural conformation, exercise, and diet that goes into developing a top halter horse. And I love competing. It’s very rewarding to find a horse that’s a diamond in the rough and develop that horse to the champion level.”

He recalls those early days of showing with a laugh, “It was a pretty steep learning curve for me. There were times when I thought you just worked the horse the morning of the show to make him look good, and then hosed him off outside the arena to get ready for the class. I remember trainers coming up to me and saying, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ Then, they would give me some pointers on the right way to prepare for a class. Even though there were some rough times, there were also many, many friends and trainers who helped me out while I was new to the sport. I always had a good eye for a horse, but there was a lot to learn to compete and win at the upper levels.” The hard work paid off. Deacue Fields has found and started four horses that have gone on to win World Championship titles, and his son, 11-year-old Caleb, is quickly making a name for himself in the halter world.

In August, Caleb won a Reserve World Championship in Yearling Geldings at the AQHYA World Show with his gelding, Truizm, a feat that still brings a smile to his dad’s face. “He did an incredible job, but it wasn’t easy getting there,” says Dr. Fields. “He placed 15th in 2012 after working really hard all year in preparation for the show. I thought he might come out of the ring kind of discouraged, but instead, the first thing he said to me was, ‘What do I have to do to make the top 10 next year?’ He’s that kind of kid with such a positive attitude and drive.”

Dr. Fields bought a horse that had the potential to go to the top with Caleb in 2013, but things didn’t go as planned. He says, “The horse we bought didn’t work out at all, and I had to tell Caleb I thought it wasn’t going to happen this year, which was tough. My dad saw how much this meant to Caleb and told me to do what I had to do to help give him a shot for 2013. We found Truizm, but we’re a one-horse-at-a-time family, with [the other] horse in the pasture unable to compete.” Putting his role of dad before horse trainer, Dr. Fields broke his cardinal one-horse rule, worked out a deal to obtain Truizm, and Caleb began training with Chris Arentsen.

“Both decisions turned out to be totally worth it,” says Dr. Fields. “Chris respects my knowledge, and he is a great trainer who was open and willing to work with us. We are so proud of Caleb, and he is already talking about next year. Although our son, Cade (10) isn’t into the horses like his older brother, Collin, who is 6, he is already talking about mounted competition, so we’re in this for a while.”

Dr. Fields and his wife, Dale, have talked to their sons about the possibility they may encounter racial bias on occasion in the horse world. He says, “My wife wouldn’t go to a lot of shows for a while for that reason. It’s like anything in life… we’ve tried to educate the kids about those times when people are ignorant, and how to handle it well, but you can never fully prepare anyone for that kind of thing. Fortunately, most people at the shows know us now, and we have many friends in the industry. By far, the good has definitely outweighed the bad, and we love this sport. We even joke about my dad getting into Select competition, so who knows.”

R. David Terrell of Millington, Tennessee, is another African-American who has made a successful career in the equine industry. He started out as a cowboy-loving kid who was determined to find a way to live out his dream of becoming a professional horseman. Today, he has not only accomplished that dream, he has far exceeded it.

“I really enjoy what I do,” says the well-respected judge who holds cards in the AQHA, ABRA, APHA, ApHC, IBHA, NSBA, PHBA, ARHA, PtHA and NRCHA. He says, “I remember when I went for my first card, back in 1996. It was the ApHC card, and I didn’t make it. I came home and complained to my friend Bill Oglesby that even though they treated me with the same respect they treated everyone else. I wondered if there could have been some racial bias. He turned to me and said flat-out, ‘DT, no. That’s not it. You just weren’t prepared. Quit your whinin’, study up and do it again.’ I did, and I got it and never looked back. Each year, I would work toward another card. This industry has been very good to me, and [while] judging horses, I have not felt any racial overtones. My job, as I see it, is to represent the integrity of the AQHA or whatever card I’m judging and give every horse and competitor a fair shot.”

He admits that in the early ‘70s, people looked askance at him as a lone black man breaking into AQHA competition. “I was definitely one of a very few, but in this sport, until they get to know you, everyone is kind of like that with someone new, no matter what your race. If you get out there and prove you know what you’re doing and treat your horses well, people will respect you as a horseman and accept you.”

David is quick to add that his faith has played a major role in his success in the equine industry. He says with undisguised joy, “I am a believer that my Lord, Jesus Christ, has gone before me to set this path. My tough times have come when I’ve strayed from that path and haven’t talked to Him about it. My faith gives me strength and I have truly been blessed. My experience in judging has given me the opportunity to judge World Shows, travel to Australia, and meet wonderful people all over the world. It’s been very positive for me.”

Trainer Kathy Smallwood has worked with Youth competitor Alexandria “Lexi” Tan for many years. The talented youngster from Sherman, Texas, captured the World Championship, the Intermediate First Place, and the 13-and-Under First Place titles in Yearling Fillies at the 2013 American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Championship Show in Oklahoma City with her horse Oh So Righteous.

When asked if Lexi or the Tan family has ever considered ethnicity to be an issue in the horse show world, Smallwood responds, “Lexi and the Tan family haven’t had any issues with this at all. People have really embraced them as part of the horse community without giving ethnicity a thought. Lexi is an incredibly knowledgeable young woman with that sixth sense about horses that only a few people really have. She carries herself well at the shows, and she is very gracious whether she wins or loses. She makes friends easily, and I don’t think there are any barriers today, and I don’t think Lexi ever thinks of any barriers. She just goes out there and does the best she can with her horse.”

While the horse show world, like our larger world, isn’t immune to the harsh reality of human ignorance, times are changing and the horse world is changing with it. There is a more diverse population with the means and opportunity to become involved with horses than even twenty years ago, and that’s a good thing for the whole equine industry.

Click here to read the complete article from the Equine Chronicle November/December 2013 Issue, Vol. 16 Number 7.

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