Cultivating inclusive spaces for transgender and nonbinary athletes in equestrian sports is not only as a moral imperative but also a role the sport is uniquely suited to fill, panelists said Monday during the latest installment of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s DEI Community Conversations series.

“We have a special opportunity that I hope we’re going to seize,” said Katie Schaaf, president of the board of directors of the Interscholastic Equestrian Association, which partnered with USEF to present the panel discussion. “In equestrian sport, all genders compete together on equal footing, even in the Olympics, which is so cool. And that means we can demonstrate leadership, and we can be particularly inclusive. And I really hope that’s what we’re going to do.”

Held via Zoom on June 13, the panel discussion also included Liam Miranda, research and training director for The Inclusion Playbook; Kate Sharkey, owner and trainer at Sharkey Farm, coach of the Sharkey Farm IEA team and IEA Zone 9 administrator; and Lex Novak, a former member of the Sharkey Farm IEA team. Ashley Swift, USEF’s affiliate and communications manager, moderated the discussion. The community conversation series was established by USEF last year to address diversity, equity and inclusion issues within horse sports.

The discussion focused on simple ways to make transgender and nonbinary equestrians feel welcome in the sport. Miranda noted that the conversation was taking place during a particularly bleak time for trans and nonbinary youth.

“In 2022 alone, legislators in 25 states have introduced legislation to prohibit trans youth from accessing sports,” he said. “This is really jarring, especially with what we know about trans youth and mental health and vulnerabilities.”

According to a national LGBTQ mental health survey conducted in 2021 by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQ youth, more than half of trans and nonbinary youth seriously contemplated suicide in the past year.

“When you look at the context of this, we know sports is this really protective thing—when folks have access to sports, we see benefits of physical health, we see benefits of mental health, social health and emotional health,” Miranda said. “And then we see legislators trying to ban—or organizations trying to ban—trans youth from accessing these sports. It’s a big public health concern, because trans and nonbinary youth are being barred from the benefits that sports create, and the benefits that we all know sports have on our lives and in our physical lives and our personal lives and our social lives.”

Panelists offered practical advice on a wide range of topics, from how to ask someone for their pronouns without making it awkward, to shopping for riding gear in line with differing gender identities, to being mindful of the U.S. Center for SafeSport code while supporting trans and nonbinary riders. Here are some key points:

Signal Safety

“A lot of us on this call, or folks in our lives, are probably wondering, ‘How can we, as a coach or an adult mentor, help create these spaces for trans and nonbinary athletes? And how can we signal to folks that we’re open to these conversations [about gender identity]?’ ” said Miranda. “I think it’s a really delicate balance, right? Because you always want to allow your students or other individuals to first approach you about anything they want to talk about regarding their gender. It can be really jarring if you initiate the conversation with somebody who’s not ready for that; it can feel like you’re putting somebody on the spot, and that could be a really negative interaction. So it’s important to let that person come to you.

“But then there’s also the question of, how do I signal that I’m open to that, if people want to have some indication that the person they’re talking to is open-minded and will treat them with respect,” he added.

Some small efforts that will be very meaningful to trans and nonbinary riders include things like using gender-neutral language.

“Inclusive language itself acknowledges diversity by conveying respect to everyone,” said Novak.

Instead of a coach referring to a lesson group as “girls,” for example, a term like “riders” could be used.

“You’re using a gender-neutral or just broader term that can include everyone, even if they’re not necessarily out to you. And it just gives more wiggle room without accidentally misgendering someone,” Novak said.

Miranda also emphasized the importance of asking open-ended questions, without making assumptions about riders’ gender identities.

“We want to talk to our athletes and talk with people in our lives, but a lot of times we ask questions that kind of put people in boxes,” he explained. “I had a coach who once asked a bunch of athletes that they assumed were girls about what kind of dresses they were wearing to the prom, and things like that. So I think making sure that the questions we ask folks are not really putting folks into boxes, are not really rigid or enforcing gender stereotypes is another important way that we can be thoughtful as mentors and leaders in creating more inclusive environments.”

And sometimes, Sharkey commented, the smallest gestures can be the most meaningful.

“I have a tiny Pride flag stuck onto my lesson whiteboard, and I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “I didn’t think it meant anything. But a parent of a student who is transgender came up to me and and told me what a huge statement that makes to their child every week when they come in. And I hadn’t even begun to think about that. It didn’t occur to me but that that tiny gesture made a big difference.

“Another thing that I do is—and I will guarantee it felt weird in the beginning—I started asking all of my parents when their kids sign up or they start taking lessons what their kids’ preferred name and pronouns are. So by doing that, I could signal to them right away that I’m open to that conversation and I’m going to include their kid,” Sharkey said.

“It’s important to recognize that what might seem like a really small thing to you is a big signal to trans and nonbinary athletes,” Miranda added. “I feel like we walk around sporting spaces with, like, antennas, just looking for a little signal or a sign that our coaches or our teammates or the folks that we’re working with are inclusive spaces for us to share our identities with. So things like using inclusive language or putting up a flag, or just calling out a comment like, ‘Hey, that’s not a thing we say around here’ are really big signals to trans and nonbinary athletes.”

Be Proactively Inclusive

Often, coaches and team leaders are caught flat-footed when they become aware that they have a transgender or nonbinary athlete in their ranks, and they want to be supportive and inclusive, but haven’t thought through how to actually accomplish that, Miranda said.

“Creating an inclusive environment is beyond just the coach-athlete relationship, right? It’s about looking at your entire barn, and the culture and the policies and the practices that are there,” he said. “I think a lot of times, folks wait until a trans or nonbinary athlete has come out on a team or joins a team to start being like, ‘Oh my gosh, what kind of facilities do we have? What kind of policies do we have? What kind of training do our staff have? Like, are we ready to support this athlete?’ That’s good to have that reaction, but that reaction would be better had before a trans or nonbinary athlete joins your team, and kind of has to pioneer and wade through that uncertainty.”

Thinking these things through and putting policies in place before they’re actually needed will make the experience that much better for the trans or nonbinary athlete who does later join your team or organization, Miranda said. “[It will] also signal to athletes that may be on your team and not out that this is a safe and inclusive space for them to come and share that part of their identity with you.”

The work of inclusivity doesn’t end once inclusive policies are put into place, Miranda added. Coaches and team leaders should expect to work continuously toward the goal.

“We’re not expecting perfection anywhere; there’s going to be slip-ups, there’s going to be mistakes, there’s going to be challenges. And it’s not a problem to have those,” he said. “It’s a problem to have those and let those slide, to let those go unaddressed, right? So if you have a culture of inclusion at your barn and you hear comments or you see something happen that is compromising that culture, it’s important to address that in the way that makes the most sense for your community, for your athletes, for your parents, for your barn. Whether that be bringing it up to a group or talking to somebody individually, or scheduling some kind of additional training or conversation with folks, it’s just really important to keep working on that culture. 

“Inclusion is like a sport, honestly; we have to practice it,” Miranda added. “And every time we practice, we get a little bit better. It’s muscle, it becomes muscle memory. But you know, we keep having to enforce that memory. So it’s really important to keep on top of that and act if that is compromised.”

Trans And Nonbinary Riders Are There To Ride

Miranda returned to the topic of legislative bans surrounding trans youth in sport, and emphasized that it’s a tough time in general for trans and nonbinary athletes, and they might be in need of a little extra support. 

“They’ve done lots of polling of trans and nonbinary youth who are exposed to news about trans inclusion in sport,” he said. ”They report, overwhelmingly, the majority of trans youth reporting symptoms of depression, anger, sadness, feeling stressed, just by nature of seeing that news floating around in the ether. 

“But I do want to underscore with this point: Trans or nonbinary athletes are not on your team to always be grounded in that reality, right? They’re riding horses because they love riding horses, because they’re athletes, because they want to compete, they want to be the best they can be because they love the sport,” he added.

Miranda said it’s important to find the balance between being supportive and overcompensating.

“It’s important that we know the reality and we know the barriers for trans and nonbinary youth,” he said. “And we know how to check in and talk about gender and be allies for folks, but also not reduce our trans and nonbinary athletes to just that, right? To talk to our athletes, about their horses, about their practices, about their lives outside of their gender. And so I think that’s always an important point that I want to underscore is, don’t forget that your trans and nonbinary athletes are athletes, and they’re there because they love the sport and they want to compete at the same level as everyone else.”

The webinar will soon be available to view on-demand in the USEF Learning Center. Click here to read more about USEF’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.