May 20, 2010

Joe Louis, The Saddleseat Rider; Also Entitled, This Post's Devolution into Questioning the Lack of Diversity in the Horse World

I was poking around the LIFE magazine online archives and came across this wonderful gem -- Joe Louis, famous heavyweight boxing champion (yeah, that Joe Louis), was a bit of a horse fanatic.  He rode, he bought a gorgeous farm which he turned into a riding stable and horse show grounds, and he was even instrumental in organizing "America's first all-Negro horse show," as LIFE magazine terms it.  AND, all you saddleseat fans, he appeared to be a saddleseat rider!

I'm not a fan of boxing, but I have more than a passing interest in it.  It's not like I'll watch bouts on television, but it's more a matter of me becoming a bit obsessed with some boxers themselves.  I suppose it's because I've always had a bit of excess agression in me, to the point where I could understand why you would want to go stand in a ring and abuse yourself (and your opponent) like that.  There's just this deep, primitive understanding of it that resides within me.  Don't worry -- I don't plan on beating anyone least not yet, but my husband stands warned.  :)

And now I find it even more fascinating to discover that two boxers, in whom I have always taken a bit of an interest, were / are true animal lovers, in a way that I find very tender and endearing -- Joe Louis, with his horses and Mike Tyson, with his pigeons.  If you're interested in a really moving portrait of Mike Tyson as more than just a emotionally damaged, violent force of nature, I cannot recommend more highly, Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird by Andrew Blechman.  Not only will it compell you to completely reconsider how you feel about pigeons, there is a wonderful chapter on Mike Tyson and his love and obsession with pigeons, specifically racing pigeons.  If I remember correctly, the author was not even really permitted to speak with Tyson -- apparently Tyson takes his birds so seriously, that it seems he was fearful to allow that side of him to be exposed to public scrutiny -- but he still manages to humanize him in a way that I never before considered possible.  I honestly cannot recommend this book enough, if only for this chapter.

But now the discovery that Joe Louis was also an animal lover.  And more importantly -- HORSE lover!  I have been truly won over.  Someday soon maybe I will post on the long tradition of black saddleseat horsemen in this country; it is a rather fascinating phenomenon to me.  Saddleseat obviously originates from the need for comfortable, quiet horses to oversee the large estates in the South, but what no one really likes to admit is that the horses and trappings associated with the discipline were also signifiers of a certain class.  Which inherently means that not only were the most beautiful, smoothest, most high-steppingest horses signifiers of wealth, but also of race.  It was the purview of the wealthy white citizens to spend time showing off their best horses.

Yet, similar to the world of horse-racing, Saddleseat became dominated by a load of now-semi-forgotten, talented black trainers whose prowess with handling and gentling the best of the best movers could not be denied.  So, in a strange twist of events, this genteel sport was subverted by these gifted trainers, and despite their skin color, they crossed class boundaries.  Seems like Joe Louis understood this, especially when you consider that he put on the first horse show for African-Americans only.  And there he was, front and center, decked out with a horse originally bred to be proudly ridden by the type of folks who claimed to 'own' his grandparents.  He made it to the big-time and bought the ultimate status symbol.

Yeah, yeah....who cares if that wasn't his main goal in doing saddleseat.  Sure, he probably just loved horses and saddleseat was in its heydey in the 30s and 40s.  Frankly it doesn't matter what his motivation was, he was still defying class and race distinctions and I love it.  The problem I have has always been this: where is the diversity in riding nowdays?  I don't often see people writing about and speaking about this, but it has always been a point of worry and guilt in my mind.  Maybe it was just especially apparent to me growing up in Virginia where my class at school was over 50% non-Caucasian students, but not once did I encounter a person of color riding a horse during the 8 years I rode there.  Something about that never set right with me, but I either never dared speak about it or I just never could articulate my concerns.  Even now, it still appears to be a sea of only white skin.  Oh, forgive me, except for the groom and stablehands...even the jockeys (one of the more lowly positions in the horseracing world it seems to me).  Those are the positions in which I see a preponderence of diversity and I gotta be honest:  That really makes me uncomfortable.  I wish more people were willing to talk about this in the horse world.  


Robin Rosenthal said...

Bunnyrider, really interesting info about Joe Lewis, and I sure know what you mean about the lack of diversity in the horse world. Out of similar concerns, I'm making a documentary about Mexican and Mexican American riding traditions, specifically the women's Escaramuza Charra teams in the Mexican Rodeo, focussed on a team from California. Here's a link to the teaser:
I see you are a racing fan. Do you know our last doc--"On the Muscle: Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable"?

Paigley said...

Personally (this is just my uninformed opinion)
but lots of people of color aren't exposed to truely good riding, such as the top dressage, showjumping, hunter jumper, even western riders and horses. just the other day i was talking to a classmate who was mixed and they asked how high horses could jump i told her the official highest jump recorded eight feet. they didn't believe me because the only horses they had ever been exposed to was the equivilent of horsey trailer trash. i can't wait to show all of them good riding one day, even the caucasians they were just as clueless.