Deonte Sewell: ‘A King and Queen’s Sport’

In summer 2020, we launched a 1st Annual $5,000+ Diversity Scholarship with the support of generous donors, inviting minority equestrians to contribute to the discussion of diversity and inclusion in equestrian sport. It is the mission of this annual bursary, which we intend to expand in coming years, to call for, encourage, elevate and give a platform to minority voices in a space where they are underrepresented.

How do we build a more diverse, inclusive and accessible sport? In the coming weeks, we will explore this question alongside many of the 27 Scholarship recipients as they share with us their essays in full. Collectively, their perspectives coalesce into a body of work that will no doubt help inform a viable path forward for equestrian sport, and we are committed to connecting their actionable ideas with the public as well as leaders and stakeholders of the sport.

Today we welcome Maryland eventer Deonte Sewell.

Deonte Sewell schooling Justine Dutton’s 2016 Nations Cup horse Huck Finn before he heads back out on lease! Photo by Lisa Madren.

The closest I ever got to a horse as a kid was on the TV screen or playing with a toy horse from my local Walmart. I grew up in a middle- to low-class home and no one else in my family was involved with horses besides my grandfather. I remember watching the Olympic games with him and listening to all of his stories with the horses. I would ask him if he did all the things the people on the TV were doing. He replied ”no.”  I asked him why not and he just simply said,” It’s a king and queen’s sport.”

Being so young I didn’t understand what he meant. I thought it was a good thing! I looked at him and said, ”I want to ride horses! Maybe one day I’ll go to the Olympics.” I’ll never forget him laughing with the biggest smile on his face. Granting me his blessing to pursue a career with horses but also warning me the road would be tough.

I still couldn’t exactly wrap my head around why he called it a “king and queen’s sport.” I was a kid and didn’t really care! I just knew I wanted to ride! I wanted to make it to the Olympics. My heart was set out to do it no matter how it would happen. I knew what I wanted.

When I got a little older my mother signed me up for various interscholastic sports, none of which I felt much love for. I knew what I wanted to do and that wasn’t it. Coaches, fellow classmates, and even some family would ask me what I had planned for the future and of course I would tell them about my epic idea of riding horses for a living and one day making it the Olympics. I was usually met with a pessimistic laugh and an ironic “good luck” comment. However, I was fortunate that there were some who truly wanted to help.  They even helped me find a place to ride and finally have a lesson where I could learn the ins and outs about horses.

The doubt from people hurt but not enough to steer me away from my goals. I just didn’t understand why it seemed so hard for a black person to ride horses. However, my first horse show was a real eye-opener. I felt as out of place as a big red dot on a pristine white piece of paper. I remember the piercing stares from all the little kids on ponies and others seeming confused as to why a black man was riding at a show. I heard the whispers as I rode around the ring in my jeans and polo shirt. My mother couldn’t afford breeches that would fit me and I paid for that show with my earnings that I had saved from the summer. My coach at the time was of minority descent. He noticed how self-conscious I felt and reassured me that I belonged there just as much as everyone else. That day I finally realized why my grandfather had called the horse world a king and queen’s sport.

That day made me think about why in most old Hollywood movies the farmhands/grooms were always of a minority descent. They seemed to always know more about riding and horses than the actual trainers but never portrayed the trainers or professional riders themselves. Why does it seem that the only place in the show world for minorities is to pick up after the kings and queens of the sport?

I started working on the track after high school.  I was nervous about starting a real horse job with real pay but it honestly couldn’t have worked out better for me. I started out as a groom but the more involved I became at the track the more I noticed some black guys on horseback! It gave me hope to want to move on beyond the grooming stage. I worked hard and eventually landed some rides on the pony horses. I still felt the stares and heard the not-so-quiet doubts but in general, the people at the track were more accepting of me trying to move beyond being a groom.

Although working with racehorses wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, I felt too nervous and out of place to try and reach out to the show world of riding. I found peace with my new job. Grooming horses, mucking stalls, catering to the exercise riders, and occasionally riding here and there. It was so perfect!! It just felt like I was supposed to be working with horses. I also became friends with a lot of the Spanish grooms. I noticed that some expressed quite interest in galloping but because they were good at grooming were never given a chance. I was just happy that my boss let me ride the pony horses occasionally but wondered why these other guys always seemed to hit a ceiling once they became grooms.

I’ve always looked forward to mid-October because that meant Fair Hill International had rolled around. It was my hometown’s biggest event and all the top event riders would be out! One year I was hanging around the stables just hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the riders I had always idolized when I spotted a black male driving in. I raced over to him before anyone else could. I thought, “Wow, what a great groom he has to be if he’s at Fair Hill!” I couldn’t wait for the next day at jogs to catch a glimpse of him amongst the other grooms holding buckets and rugs and see who he was working for.

However, on jog day he wasn’t standing in the paddock with the other grooms but running down the jog strip, horse in hand! He was a rider! A competitor! I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking if he could run down the Fair Hill jog so could I. I looked forward to going back and watching him ride! It was the highlight of my week. Randy Ward opened my eyes to the fact that it was possible for black riders to compete at the top levels of the sport. I wasn’t just dreaming anymore! I just saw my first black event rider! I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps, opening doors for other young black riders in eventing even if he didn’t realize that’s what he was doing! We could be more than grooms.

My boss gifted me a horse and a nice sponsorship to help me get a start in the sport. I was so excited! People finally wouldn’t look at me as if I didn’t belong. I was finally heading in the right direction to ride professionally. I felt like I was finally going to be able to ride with the kings and queens. More blessings began to pour in as I pushed further into my journey. I was getting to ride with some pretty awesome people that I’d only ever seen from afar. The dreams were becoming reality! People started to look at me with a bit more respect. People started rooting for me to succeed. My community noticed that while it was still really strange to see a black man on a horse I seemed to be making it happen.

I finally landed a job teaching kids in my hometown. I was excited! I was an instructor! Finally no more confusing looks and assumptions that I was a stable hand. Sadly that excitement quickly diminished. My role in the barn was yard boy. When I was able to teach I was met with the wide eyes, awkward smiles, and the beating around the bush question as to why it wasn’t the young blonde teaching. It was a big blow to me. But I felt like I had worked hard to get a chance to teach and wasn’t going to give up.

After each new lesson parents would always end their conversations with, ”For a black male you really know a lot. By the way, no offense!” I was offended every time I heard that stupid remark. Why was it so hard for me to be taken seriously as a teacher and not a groom or stable hand?  But then again, had I not also assumed that the only black man pulling into Fair Hill must have been a groom? I slowly started to build a defense by laughing it off and sarcastically tell them never to judge a book by its cover and letting the comments go. I was in my happy place! I had multiple students from different ethnicities. Parents were pleased to see their kids are learning.

Like most common stories everything comes to an end. I had to retire my best friend from the sport. I was so close to riding in the big boys league! Not only that, I had just landed a sweet new job working for two professionals! Bummed was an understatement. I felt like I was back at square one again without my horse. I chose to pass him along to a close friend whose kid could get rated mileage in the hunter ring. I knew I wasn’t going to get any money back on him as he wasn’t re-sellable but I was OK with my decision. This was an opportunity for my friend’s daughter to make a pathway of her own. I was happy to be an asset to her career.

Having this new awesome job as an assistant, I thought it was definitely going to be different! People would see me riding more. People would see my determination and drive. They would see me giving more just to be seen as an equal. This job gave me the opportunity to make a lot of connections. I started to believe that I was actually a valuable asset in the business. In making these connections, I found that often people would try to relate and show support by using Randy Ward as a connection, while at the same time forgetting his name. It was frustrating to feel like these types of comments were necessary in order to talk to me. Me being a good rider and hard worker were not enough.

Receiving this grant would definitely mean the world to my career. Just like many young amateurs pursuing a professional career, I struggle financially. Nothing in life is cheap, especially in the equine business. The grant could help me find a partner to continue my career, cover lessons, or afford new tall boots. For me the price of new tall boots is far more expensive than a paycheck. It would definitely give me an advancement in bringing awareness to inner-city kids with dreams of riding and maybe one day I will be running down the Fair Hill jog strip.

Nation Media wishes to thank Barry and Christine Oliff, Katherine Coleman and Hannah Hawkins for their financial support of this Scholarship. We also wish to thank our readers for their support, both of this endeavor and in advance for all the important work still to come.

Can you help? Deonte writes of competing in his first horse show in jeans because his mother couldn’t afford to buy him breeches. The Rider’s Closet is a non-profit whose mission is to ensure that riding apparel is accessible to scholastic riding programs, pony clubs, equestrian camp programs, equine charities and individual riders in need. The program serves riders of all ages and at every level of horsemanship. The Rider’s Closet accepts new or gently used show shirts, breeches, show coats, schooling attire, boots and half chaps in adult and children’s sizes. If your items can be worn again with confidence by another rider, The Rider’s Closet can help find them a new home. Learn more here



UPDATE! Since Deonte’s piece was published this morning, Mountain Horse USA has offered to sponsor him for a new pair of boots that he needs!  Thank you, Mountain Horse!