Leaning over to sweep dirt into the dustpan, Philesha sighed with frustration. Rather than working in the barn, soaking up all that she could as a working student, she was given the task to deep clean the trainer’s home. While other working students kept busy cleaning leather and learning about horse care, the 15-year-old Black teenager was occasionally asked to clean dirty dishes, scrub bathrooms and vacuum the house. Despite the hurtful experience etched in her memory, that barn became a second home to Philesha for over nine years.
“At that time in my life, my grandmother had a cleaning service clean our house so I didn’t have experience cleaning a house so thoroughly in my life — the trainer just assumed I would be the best out of the bunch based on the color of my skin,” Philesha said, recalling the memory. “Even at that time I knew better than to tell my grandmother because she would be furious — I was afraid she would make me stop riding. There are countless stories of when I experienced racial prejudices in the equestrian industry.”
Etched Memories of a Challenging Past
Philesha’s paternal grandmother, Dr. Anna Chandler, was a third-generation college graduate passionate about education. Raised in Washington, D.C. by her parents who were proud federal government employees, Dr. Chandler received a full-ride scholarship to Howard University and later completed her doctoral studies at Wayne State University in Michigan. An avid painter, she pursued public school teaching positions, bringing art education to students and organizing summer camps through the Unitarian Church which focused on teaching racial understanding.
“Back in my days working in Pontiac, Michigan, it was really segregated,” Dr. Chandler began. “Michigan had to be federally court ordered to desegregate their public schools in 1971. You were matched with another school and they bused the kids, some white kids, but mostly black kids, to the schools. The night before the school year started, the Klu Klux Klan bombed the buses. It was intimidation but I put my kids on the bus the next morning. Some of the white parents held their students out of school until after Fourth Friday. That’s important because funding is based on the population of the school on the fourth Friday of the school year. It was their way of pushing back and putting pressure on the school district to undo the desegregation.”
A few decades later, Dr. Chandler accepted a position for a public school board, relocating with Philesha to Kansas, which at the time had around a 4% Black population. Five years later, she became a professor and the Program Director of Ethnic Studies at the Wichita State University.
“I was used to being in a place where I would be the only black person or one of only a few black people in the entire area,” Dr. Chandler explained. “I was used to negotiating that kind of thing. Watching our mothers, grandmothers, great aunts, teachers — seeing those strong Black women, seeing how they negotiated, taught us what we had to do. And we learned to pay it forward. But being ignored like you didn’t exist and no one speaking to you — it gets to you. If they did speak to you they would ask, ‘Are you the delivery person?’ or, ‘Who are you visiting here?’ They didn’t assume you were a professor.”
Growing up in the midwestern plains, Philesha spent countless nights dreaming of galloping horses. Though no one in her family owned horses, her grandfather loved attending the local horse races, and Philesha enthusiastically bounded along with him to cheer on the Thoroughbreds.
“My husband, Henry, and I wanted to get Philesha interested in activities as a kid, so I had her in dance and gymnastics classes. She told me one night, ‘I want to ride horses.’ I said, ‘Yeah right,’” Dr. Chandler chuckled. “But Philesha looked through the yellow pages and found a stable in the area and off we went; she was about eight years old. She was fortunate her first instructor, Lydia Wainwright, was the nicest, most positive person that you can imagine. She worked her tail off to ride and she got to be quite good even though she only had the opportunity to work with Lydia for a year before she had relocated her business.”
Under the rafters of a barn that smelled of old wood, musty hay and leather conditioner, Philesha devoured books about riding. As she listened to Wainwright, soaking up as much as she could from her lessons, the horse-crazed girl faced the world, seemingly of infinite possibility, ready to welcome as many new riding experiences as she could.
However, as a child, the intricacies of racism in America were difficult to grasp. There may not have been members of white supremacy groups patrolling the barn, but she certainly noticed the looks. She, too, noticed how she was excluded from events with her riding friends outside of the barn. She, too, noticed the color of her skin marked her as different from the other riders trotting down centerline.
She discovered dressage as a teenager after watching the North American Junior & Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC). While the cross country and show jumping classes intimidated her, she quickly fell in love with the sport of dressage and began competing.
“Throughout my childhood, we’d go to shows and people would stare. It made you feel like you didn’t belong there, especially showing in the Midwest. We would be showing in some towns that did not have any black people living there,” Philesha said. “All these years going to those horse shows — Grannie was always there. I was in my 20’s before my Grannie missed a show. It was out of support but I also believe it was her making sure I was safe and treated fairly. When other students were allowed to go off to shows alone, she said to me, ‘If you go, I go.’
“As far as show organizers go though, they were always supportive and nice to me,” Philesha continued. “I’d show a lot down in Oklahoma growing up and one of the main organizers there, Bee Pape, was so kind to me. I felt comfortable going because the leaders set a standard of how to behave and treat their participants. Even if new people who were unfamiliar with me came to the show and started acting rude toward me, they would quickly understand the precedent the show organizers and fellow riders set on being respectful.”
A common story of a passionate young rider, one thing led to another and the family purchased a young Thoroughbred named Emerson she competed with up through Second Level before she outgrew the gelding’s ability. With the financial help of a friend they were able to purchase a 5-year-old Trakehner gelding named Marsel. At the time, the gelding struggled to canter even a single 20-meter circle, but due to Philesha’s dedication, they developed him from Training Level to Prix St. Georges, collecting their USDF bronze and silver medals and qualifying for the Region 4 NAYRC team with one of the highest qualifying averages of the team.
“Unfortunately, my Young Rider experience absolutely sucked. When I started training to qualify for NAYRC, my trainer would not show up to my lessons and at times I found out she was getting her nails done with other young riders from the barn. I was working my butt off bringing Marsel up the levels, plus I was working off my lessons. Even though she didn’t show up to our lessons the week leading up to my first qualifying competition and she showed up late to warm-up for my test, I received scores of 68 in my Team Test.
“Following that experience, I switched over to a different trainer, but she passed me along to her son so he could gain experience being a trainer,” Philesha continued. “At times, it was degrading. He asked about my hair and how I stay clean if I don’t wash my hair every day. What does that have to do with setting me up for success heading into one of the biggest shows of my life?,” Philesha recalled. “He shows up to coach me before my first test intoxicated. Six minutes before we go in the ring he told me I had memorized the wrong test so I hurried to memorize the test he told me. I was so nervous and wanted to do everything he told me, but he didn’t take it seriously. Before I go in, he goes “Never mind you had the right test!” and I frantically tried to recall the correct version. People told me afterwards that he was giggling while coaching me, yet no one stopped him. I go in the arena and the scores were hideous and I went off course. I worked my butt off and my Grannie worked so hard to afford to give me the opportunity of a lifetime to compete at Young Riders – yet he thought it was a joke and told others when I returned home that I froze up.”
From the Midwest to Wellington
Philesha juggled her riding while studying college coursework for her degree in Criminal Justice, Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wichita State University. She was a senior in college when she heard about Olympian Robert Dover’s reality dressage show competition. After enthusiastically filming and editing an audition tape, she was selected out of nearly 500 entries for the top six finalists of “America’s Next Equestrian Star.” She packed her bags and headed to the winter equestrian capital of Wellington, Florida to begin a whirlwind season of filming which culminated in her winning the entire show that aired on Fox Reality Channel in 2007.
Following her graduation, she became Dover’s assistant trainer and continued training with the industry’s best to develop her expertise as a trainer. Following her stint with Dover, she became Tuny Page’s assistant trainer and also was hired as flat rider and trainer for Olympic show jumper, Kent Farrington. While schooling Farrington’s jumpers, she would frequently get confused with Mavis Spencer, another Black rider, though their appearances are vastly different.
Confident in her training skills and business knowledge, Philesha made the next big step in her career: becoming an entrepreneur by launching her own training operation called Chandler Dressage and growing her clientele of students and sales horses.
Looking back over her first few years in Wellington, Philesha wholeheartedly believed she was treated more respectfully and professionally due to Dover’s backing.
“That is not uncommon with Black folk,” Dr. Chandler affirmed. “One person will go out of their way to give you all the support they can, while there have also been people that set up roadblocks. The reason I finished my masters and doctorate was because of the support from my advisor, Dr. Smith. I was working part time and raising Philesha, so it took me more than a decade but I could always find him when I needed help. Not only could I call him, he called me. In life, you come across good people. It’s not that they don’t see color, because you can’t help it, but if they see you trying to do something and if they can help, they help. I think Philesha found the same thing in the horse industry. Philesha had dressage people in Wichita and in Wellington who were on her side that helped her.”
The Call Heard ‘Round The World: “I Can’t Breathe”
Sparked by the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the world and black squares flooded social media to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Within the sports world, college football players to gymnastic stars spoke up about their experiences as Black athletes. Even the typically insular equestrian world has been touched by activism with several viral statements published by notable riders and trainers. However, other equestrians seem reluctant to recognize social injustice within their own community.
“It’s heartbreaking to see the people that are blatantly racist and against equality. Or they feel that, in some way and somehow, equality for others means less for them. To me, that is so disappointing,” Philesha said. “It’s usually easier to remain complacent, rather than acknowledge there are members of the community who experience life very differently than your own. But then, I also see people who I never would have expected stand up and speak out to fight the injustices and show support for equality. I feel like that is really important at this time.”
For many horse enthusiasts, regardless of racial background, the equestrian environment teems with passion. Yet simultaneously it may be one of the least diverse learning environments they encounter in their lives. With this unique opportunity, the equestrian community is facing a juxtaposition: Engage with different viewpoints and listen to understand others’ experiences, or gravitate to a place of familiar comfort?
“There are people who are apt to attack right from the get-go when discussing racism because they feel defensive or feel their character is being threatened,” Philesha acknowledged. “I’ve never spoken publicly about what I’ve gone through in this sport because usually you are told, ‘Oh, that person didn’t mean it that way’ or ‘You are just being sensitive’ as people search for a more comfortable excuse.
“Many times I’ve had experiences turned around and manipulated so that it feels like it is my fault, so I am very careful,” she continued. “Since I am often quiet people think, ‘Philesha has been in the sport for many years and she hasn’t had too many issues. She may have had that little issue here and there but nothing too horrible!’ But that is not the case.”
With the long overdue spark of awareness for racial injustice reignited, comments flooded Internet forums with some brazenly asserting that the equestrian community is free from racism.
“Those people obviously looked the other way. It exists,” Philesha said. “Just because someone doesn’t come to you directly and say, ‘Hey, so and so did something to me,’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Many times people don’t speak about it as they are not comfortable sharing those experiences with you. They may not be coming to you because they know how you feel. Why would I come tell someone who I’ve heard make racist comments? I know my opinion and feelings have no value to you because the color of my skin has no value to you. People who experience it are not going to go to those people. They are going to go to people they trust. They know it’s safe. A lot of times they don’t want to create a risk because in this world; they have to survive, eat, and feed their horses. In the past, it seems that if you are outspoken, you are a problem.”
When prompted to discuss the weight she may feel representing the black community a certain way or how she may disarm someone’s apparent discomfort, Philesha was quick to explain. “That has been ingrained in me since I was a child and before I even started this dressage journey. With every conversation, lesson and performance in the ring, I represent the Black community. Many people in the equestrian world may never even know a Black person, so they are naturally going to base their opinion on their experience with you. You have to carry yourself a certain way. In some instances where someone else may get away with speaking their mind, you risk your livelihood by speaking out.”
“It’s a lot to unpack,” Philesha elaborated. “These words go deep. I’ve been riding for over 30 years and these are experiences that have happened my entire life that I’ve had to work through, deal with, and learn how to bury them inside in order to keep going with a smile on my face and still be happy-go-lucky and approachable.”
The Chandlers hope one day racial injustices will be eradicated. They believe the peaceful protests and the flood of support for addressing racial inequality taking place across the world will spark change for the better.
“I’ve seen wide ranging changes in my lifetime. But I am optimistic,” Dr. Chandler expressed. “There have always been people who have been compelled to do something. Take for example Viola Liuzzo, a white mother of five. She’d gone down from Detroit as an activist to support the civil rights movement after watching the news about Bloody Sunday. She was driving a black man back to his home after the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march when she was killed by four members of the KKK. So you see, there have always been white people who support changing things in this country to make it more equitable, but recently I’m seeing more and more. We are getting a lot of young people and I think that’s very positive. ”
She continued, “I don’t care if you are riding a horse or painting a portrait like I did, you have to find a positive in it. That’s how we survived. Philesha is stubborn. She was not going to let anyone drive her away from what she loved. She tells me even now, ‘When you do what you love, you’ll never go to work.’ But we have a lot of work to do.”
“Now is our time to decide what we are going to do to make the changes we need to make. Now is the time. We got everyone’s attention. Now we need to decide as a group what we are going to do,” Philesha said.
With the social, economic and political driving forces within the equestrian industry, the community has a unique opportunity to set an example of inclusion and support to make clear change.
“The dressage community should welcome the opportunity to educate themselves on racial inequality and not shy away from it,” Philesha continued. “Friends have asked me, ‘What steps can we take to help make the dressage world more inclusive?’ My answer would be first to admit racism exists and discuss the steps people have taken throughout history as well as today to address it. If you cannot acknowledge its presence and educate yourself, reconciliation is impossible. Secondly, as a personal goal, try to be more welcoming, especially of all newcomers to the sport, regardless of their race, sexual preference or socioeconomic background.
“People need to know that if someone, not just a person of color, but if anyone comes to you and trusts you enough to tell you about a situation that happened to them which made them feel a certain way, then you need to listen. Don’t victim-blame them for why they feel the way they do or why they experienced the negative encounter in the first place. I notice that a lot,” Philesha said with a sigh.
By acknowledging the presence of Black riders in the sport, as well as recognizing their accomplishments as competitors, trainers and entrepreneurs, equestrians can continue elevating the conversation in solidarity. If the community pulled together to develop resources to help remove obstacles that stand in the way of dressage reaching a wider audience, the work would inherently create a better and more equitable future in the sport.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to be treated equally,” Philesha continued. “When we go down centerline we want to be afforded the opportunity to ride that test and have it be scored appropriately for the ride that day. That is what we are looking for.”
With the love of the horse a unifying factor, continuing the conversation to develop a more accessible space will only make the dressage industry more resilient and welcome more people to the sport.
“I know and you know that dressage is very expensive, but I truly believe it’s going to be better because there are good people out there,” Dr. Chandler concluded. “I remember one of the young ladies from Philesha’s childhood barn who happened to be white. She is now a lawyer in Chicago and when all of the protests started happening she called me to see if I was alright. And then she took it a step further to tell me what she is doing in Chicago to make things better. People like that are out there and I really cherish that. On an individual level there are these bright spots, but as an institution there is a lot to be done. But it’s going to get better. We have to believe that.”