Knowledge Is Power
Equestrian sport has traditionally been inaccessible for Black riders. Meet Lydia Heywood, who is determinedly setting out to change this
By Jessica Morgan
Illustration by Cat Sims
“We’re a few years away from seeing a Black representative on the British equestrian team,” says 24-year-old Lydia Heywood. The equestrian world has long been associated with wealth and royalty. However, like the majority of sports, there has been a growing movement to increase accessibility for the masses. One such leader within the equestrian world is British-Jamaican, Lydia Heywood.
Lydia was born to a British mother and a Jamaican father, and she cites her mother as her inspiration and entry into the horsing world. When Lydia bought her first pony Bella at 11, she enjoyed the time spent with her mother in the Gloucestershire countryside. However, Heywood didn’t only want to ride the horses, she wanted to compete. “I was brave and very impatient to get competitive. I loved Bella to bits, but I was frustrated that other people were able to complete a show jumping course and I couldn’t,” she says. “Bella was referred to as a ‘Ford Fiesta’ and later I went onto a ‘Ferrari,’ my new horse, who was really competitive in show jumping. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so brave anymore.”
Lydia persisted and went on to compete at national level with the help of national trainers in Gloucestershire. For years, she has shown great promise in Eventing (a three-programme event consisting of dressage, show jumping and cross-country) and began to get noticed as a result of her consistent wins with that pony. However, as a self-funded athlete, aged 13 Lydia had no other option but to delve into the world of auctioneering in Ireland to make money, which she enjoyed. But it came at a price. “I remember a lot of people double taking at the auctions. People would come to see my horses and I’d have a sale. They’d arrive on the yard saying they were looking for Lydia and were shocked when they were faced with a teenaged mixed-race girl.”
Holding dual nationality — owning both a British and Jamaican passport – has led Lydia to becoming an international event rider for Jamaica and holding a place on Jamaica’s Board of Equestrian Federation. Despite taking home impressive accolades, such as the Sarah Staples Memorial Cup for the best placed regional rider and the RJR Gleaner Athlete of the Year 2019 in Jamaica, Lydia is used to shocked reactions at her success.
Growing up in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire (the home of equestrian sport), she would often get stared at, both at school and in horse riding circles. “I went to school here in Cheltenham where I was in a similar white to Black ratio as the equestrian world,” she says. “I was one of three mixed-race people in the school, so the lack of diversity wasn’t a challenge for me in the horse world. However, people would stare and do double takes at me at every competition.” But now, she uses her ‘otherness’ to her advantage. “I’ve seen it as an opportunity to grow my profile and ride on fantastic horses,” she laughs. “Although it hasn’t exactly worked out that way because my phone isn’t ringing off the hook with offers to ride. But I’m just going to continue doing my thing.”
While Lydia has gained enough attention and awards to put her at the forefront of the horse world, people have mistaken her success for arrogance, an example of the microaggressions she has faced as a Black rider. “I was once told that I should be kept on a tight leash because they felt I was cocksure. So does that mean I can’t walk around confident in my ability because I’m Black?” Now, she’s made it her mission to fly her flag with pride, which proves to the industry that she’s an international rider. “It gives me extra credibility because Black riders aren’t always credible sometimes,” she says. “I think it’s important for people to see flags and increase diversity.”
With 13 years’ experience under her belt, Lydia climbed the ladder and dropped it down for the next generation of Black riders to follow by launching Cool Ridings, an organisation aimed at supporting Black riders at grassroots level. “I launched Cool Ridings in April last year during lockdown,” she says. “I know that there are talented riders who have the ability to represent developing nations out there and we are able to share knowledge together, process it and celebrate together.”
She adds: “I felt it would be easy for Black riders who have a horse already to practice. There were initiatives popping up at riding schools across the country at the foundation level of the sport. I just felt like the ones who are in the saddle with big goals didn’t have community, or there’s no clear route to the top. Riding schools in the UK offer scholarships, but if you’re looking to represent developing countries, there aren’t any.”
All the riders at Cool Ridings are aged between 10 and 30, and have the ability to, in time, represent developing countries such as Ghana, Mauritius, Jamaica, St Lucia and Pakistan. Members of Cool Ridings do not have a central base where they train together, but instead they meet where they can share ideas and train at their own levels. Most recently they attended Deer Park Cross Country Course in Gloucestershire. “I keep an eye on everyone as I’m the most experienced cross-country person, but I’m aware that everyone is at different levels,” she says. “We accept any ability and have a photographer present because we like to make sure we can offer our sponsors some content.” Lydia also volunteers as a mentor at the Brixton-based Ebony Horse Club, an organisation that aims to help the younger generation take the reins in all aspects of life, regardless of postcode. Joining forces with Ebony Horse Club has enabled Lydia to contribute to changing the demographic of equestrian sport with Cool Ridings.
While the equestrian world can seem out of reach for many — especially since some horses can fetch up to £350,000 each (the price of a four-bedroom detached house in the region) – Lydia is an example for those looking for another way in. Without support from internationally funded programmes, Lydia’s initiative to invest and fundraise in horses has been imperative. Lydia’s mother, Claire, has played a monumental role in her riding journey, motivating her and saving money for various costs over the years (entry fees, training, and so on). Lydia is also a valuable employee of a National Insurance broker, which contributes to the costs.
“Cool Ridings works with a lot of cool brands,” she says. “We know that giving children the opportunity to do photoshoots would increase their visibility. I have been involved in quite a few shoots, and I’ve been told that I am good, which is why I get so many calls. But I don’t want to say yes to all of them, I want to distribute the opportunities. We’ve got some fantastic things lined up where I can give these opportunities to our members so they can grow — knowledge is power, and I want everyone to get that knowledge too.”
There are alternative routes into equestrian sport if you don’t want – or can’t afford to – compete. “There are so many different roles within equestrian sport, such as physiotherapists and trainers,” she says. “You must have passion to get into this world and first-time horse purchases are always very difficult. But if you have zero budget then you might want to consider a career in horse riding, where you can pick up jobs in stables that include riding and training daily.” She also adds that meeting people at different stables will also help to bolster your career: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and if people have a connection to Cool Ridings, you might be able to progress.”
Going forward, Lydia is excited for the career ahead of her and said she has her eyes set on the Olympics. She cites UK-based Chinese event rider Alex Hua Tian — who competed at both the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the Rio 2016 Olympics – as her inspiration: “He has built an impressive team around him and he’s sponsored by Aston Martin. He’s quite cool, I’d love to emulate him.”
In the meantime, Lydia is still working behind-the-scenes to ensure that the sport is more accessible and inclusive. She works closely with the Jamaica Equestrian Federation, exploring ways to increase funding and help grassroots. But Lydia believes more should be done and it should come from high powers that be. “They should be building equestrian centres in towns for people to use free of charge. Horses are good for the soul, so it would be great to see government intervention here. In the meantime, I’ll keep pushing.”