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‘Neutrality Is Racism’: How a Teenage Horse Riding Champion Called Out Inequality in the Equestrian World

Sophie Gochman is a hero to some, a pariah to others.

Sisters Mimi (left) and Sophie Gochman with their horses Code Red BH and Carola BH, respectively, at Baxter Hill, the family farm in Wellington, Fla. ROY BEESON

The killing of George Floyd last May released a wave of pent-up rage against racism and police brutality that swelled into a global rallying cry for equality and justice, echoing through the small towns and big cities of the United States but also heard as far away as war-torn Syria and even the racially homogeneous societies of South Korea and Japan. Yet life continued as normal in many wealthy American communities, the storm a mere darkening of the distant horizon. One such isolation tank, according to Sophie Gochman, a teenage show-jumping champion, was the elite equestrian enclave of Wellington, Fla. Sophie, whose family owns a large horse farm in Wellington’s Grand Prix Village and an estate in nearby Palm Beach but who attends a private high school in Manhattan, set out to burst that bubble.

A few days after Floyd’s death, outraged by the lack of response from her Florida friends, Sophie, then just 17, fired off an angry opinion column to the venerable equestrian periodical The Chronicle of the Horse, which published it online. In it, she denounced the exclusive equestrian world as an “insular community with a gross amount of wealth and white privilege” that had chosen “the path of ignorance.” She accused trainers of outwardly supporting President Trump’s anti-immigration policies while hiring undocumented Latino grooms, and Olympians of “silently support[ing] social inequity.”

“Neutrality is racism,” she declared, vowing to “tear down the dazzling structures that uphold my privilege.” Addressing the equestrian community directly, she announced: “I’m disgusted by your willful ignorance, and I refuse to accept anything but action.”

For a sedate country sports journal, the reaction was “very heated,” in the words of the Chronicle’s executive editor, Beth Rasin. Comments oscillated from vituperative to supportive to unprintable. One read: “Way to go Chronicle! Ruin the horse community now. The only reason this sheltered little rich girl got an article published is bc mommy and daddy bought her way in. Talk about white privilege!?”

Sisters Sophie (left) and Mimi (right) Gochman with their horses at Baxter Hill, the family farm in Wellington, Fla

Sisters Sophie (left) and Mimi (right) Gochman with their horses at Baxter Hill, the family farm in Wellington, Fla.  ROY BEESON

In real life, the response of the Wellington community has been to close ranks, says Sophie, who describes being snubbed by most of her Florida friends for her breach of equestrian omertà. So why did she speak out? And why did her wealthy family raise her to dismantle the very privilege from which they derive their affluence? Is it accurate to say, as Sophie does, that the horse-show world has “a very silent culture that it’s OK to be racist”? And, perhaps most importantly, do Black riders feel their voices are being heard in the mêlée?

“Sophie is a powerhouse,” says her mother, Becky Gochman, 57, over macarons in the expansive living room of the family’s Fifth Avenue apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. A diminutive woman who speaks with a languid delivery—unless she’s admonishing one of the family’s two lively terriers—Becky positively glows with maternal pride at the very mention of Sophie and her younger sister, Mimi.

The family’s wealth comes from the Texas-based sporting goods empire Academy Sports + Outdoors, inherited by Becky’s husband, David, 55, who sold a majority stake in the business to private-equity firm KKR in 2011 for $2.1 billion, according to Forbes. After many nomadic years on the road (or, rather, in the air) following the horse-show circuit, the Gochmans have recently chosen to let the girls complete their high-school education at a private girls’ school in New York, where Sophie is a senior and Mimi a sophomore. Still, Mimi will work with tutors in Florida for the entire Winter Equestrian Festival, and Sophie will pop down for certain competitions. But in a typical pre-pandemic year, Becky recalls, “we would spend the fall in New York, then doing all of the indoor shows. We would be going to Washington, D.C.; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Maryland; Lexington, Kentucky… jumping from one to the other, and the girls would keep up with their schoolwork on the road.” In November and December, “we would have a little bit of a break,” and the girls would attend school. January to early April would be spent competing in Florida, followed by the spring shows in Devon, Penn., and Upperville, Va., then on to Europe, for the international competitions.

“At one point,” Becky recalls, “I was up here [in New York] with Sophie, David was down in Florida with Mimi, and we traveled back and forth. Then we tried having Sophie live with a tutor up here, and I’m not going to say that any of this was easy.” The problem was that Mimi, a sporty, laid-back 16-year-old with a dry sense of humor, thrived in the Florida sunshine, while Sophie, now 18 and fizzing with enthusiasm for life and ideas, pined for New York. “I really didn’t fit in with my classmates in Palm Beach,” she says. “It was a very conservative school.”

At times, Becky says, the challenge of managing the family’s competing priorities and preferences became “really hard.” But the girls describe a happy, if itinerant, childhood, and they excelled at riding, each gathering ribbons, trophies and gold medals in a range of junior competitions, including at the international level.

Becky Gochman at the stables. Behind her, trainer Amanda Derbyshire leads Cornwall BH

Becky Gochman at the stables. Behind her, trainer Amanda Derbyshire leads Cornwall BH.  ROY BEESON

Mimi is weighing a professional show-jumping career, while Sophie has now turned her considerable energies to the prospect of college. In December, she accepted a place at Harvard University. “I feel like I am someone who is, like, meant for college,” Sophie says. “I’m really excited to start studying what I love.” This fall, she swapped the horse shows for what she calls a “really fun” job at a clothing store and says she does not intend to ride professionally.

“I have a piece of my heart that hopes that they do stay with the horses,” Becky says, though, like every strategic parent, she is biting her tongue, worrying that “the more I say that, they might want to fly away from it.”

Horses have always been Becky’s passion. As a little girl growing up in semi-rural New Jersey, the adopted daughter of a speech pathologist and an accountant, she says her earliest memories would always be “wishing for a horse and finding a four-leaf clover and expecting to come home and see a pony in my backyard.” Her parents partnered with friends to fix up an elderly neighbor’s barn in exchange for its use, and left the kids to it. “Four of us young girls really made all the decisions of how we fed our horses, how we trained them,” recalls Becky. “We would just pack a picnic lunch and take off on the trails and do silly, stupid things. But we survived, and we had a ball doing it.” She worries that her daughters experienced neither the freedom nor the early responsibility that she enjoyed, because they have been given so much.

In her view, horses have been a way, perhaps counterintuitively, for her children to push back against the privilege of their upbringing. “They got to ride a lot of nice animals. They also got thrown off a lot and they ended up in the dirt and they had to wipe away their tears and move on,” she says. “The lifestyle was not easy on any of us, especially since I was pretty hyper-competitive. I feel like I always pushed them and I always had really high expectations. Putting your horse first, listening to your trainer, being polite.”

Unlike his wife and daughters, David is not a rider, Becky admits. “That’s not really his thing,” she says, adding that, as a real-estate investor, he is lucky to be able to work anywhere. The couple met when Becky was working as an art teacher in Austin, after a period when she “followed the Grateful Dead around in a van.” A law student, David invited her to dance at the Continental Club, where he taught her the Texas two-step, and they married in 1995. It lasted only one year.

“He had just started taking over his family’s sporting-goods business,” she said. “I had had back surgery. It was a weird first year of marriage.” After divorcing, the couple stayed friends. One night, some five years later, “we just decided we really should be with each other.” In 2001, when Becky was 38, they remarried and applied to adopt a baby from China. “I was adopted, and that’s ultimately what influenced our adopting Mimi,” she says, adding that China “seemed like a good match for us” because David has a master’s in Asian studies and speaks Chinese. In the middle of the process, Becky discovered she was pregnant. “So we kind of had both things going. But the adoption process took a little longer than we thought, so it worked out fine.”

Being a racially diverse family has given her daughters “a little more power and courage to speak up for others,” says Becky. Mimi’s race regularly attracts comments that Becky describes as “unfeeling and politically incorrect. The kids will say there’s too much education out there to put up with that. I still believe it’s our job to continually educate people. Also, we’re all still learning about this as we go along.” In the early days of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, she recalls, “I would say to Sophie, ‘Well, don’t all lives matter?’ That’s embarrassing to me [now]. I think I’ve learned a lot from our teenagers.”

A sampling of Sophie’s and Mimi’s awards

A sampling of Sophie’s and Mimi’s awards.  ROY BEESON

Political discussions have always been part of Gochman life. David’s father was a civil-rights lawyer before he joined the family business, arguing a key Supreme Court case about fair taxation for schools. Sophie, inspired by her grandfather, intends to follow in his professional footsteps. The family administers the Gochman Grant, which each year funds attendance at the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Pony Finals for three talented young riders who could not otherwise afford to compete.

The death of George Floyd ratcheted up the family’s political engagement several gears. It has been a somewhat painful awakening for Mimi, who, despite the occasional ignorant remark, feels like she has never been treated differently by equestrians, perhaps, she says, because she comes from a white family. “I’m a person of color in the horse-show world, and I wasn’t aware of any of the racial or class injustices until George Floyd’s death,” she says. “When I learned about it, it’s really obvious. I can count all the people of color that I know personally in the shows on maybe one hand.” Her predominant feeling is one of sadness rather than anger.

According to figures compiled by the USEF, the average proportion of people of color in the top echelons of US equestrianism in 2017 was 1.4 percent. Only skiing (at 1.2 percent) and ice hockey (0.4 percent) were lower, while other “elite” sports such as archery and fencing were 20 percent and 23 percent, respectively. People of color make up 40 percent of the US population and a fraction over 50 percent of those under 16, according to the Brookings Institution.

Sophie says her New York friends would tease her about “doing the whitest sport in the world,” and their activism in the wake of Floyd’s death helped inspire her to speak out about what she saw as the complicit silence of the Florida set. “So I was just angry about it. I wrote [the article] in, like, 30 minutes and then just sent it,” she recalls. She consulted no one, until the Chronicle told the then 17-year-old to get her mother’s permission, which Becky gave.

“We did ensure that a parent was aware since she [was] underage and was exposing herself to a lot of strong opinions via our social media,” says Rasin. “I respect that she went out on a limb to share her opinions on important topics and that she wasn’t intimidated, knowing that her opinions would be unwelcome in some quarters.”

Mimi recalls coming home the next day. “Mom was screaming. She’s like, ‘Mimi! Did you see Sophie’s article?’” she says. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ She was like, ‘The Chronicle!’ Then I read it, and I loved it.”

In Florida, however, the response was to pull up the drawbridge. Sophie speaks haltingly of it, the pain still fresh. “I didn’t really think that people would care,” she says. “But, yeah, my friends did care. In fact, most of them basically stopped talking to me. There were some friendships that had lasted my entire life, so that was really hard.”

After playing down their political differences for the past few years to keep the friendships intact, Sophie says she’s hurt that her fellow equestrians have turned their back on her. “Do I continue being the person who I want to be, unhindered and unchecked?” she asks. “I feel that sometimes, when I go to the horse world, I have to check myself to appease a lot of people.”

Though being shunned is “a very hard thing to go through,” Sophie says, she concluded that if people “are going to get mad at me for saying Black Lives Matter, then that’s a pretty big red flag to not be friends with them.” She was cheered by the fact that “a lot of Black equestrians reached out to me, and so I got to make some friends, so that’s been cool to follow and talk to them about their experiences, because some of them had really terrible stuff happen.”

Negative reactions to Sophie’s article extend beyond mere social ostracism. Missy Clark, one of America’s best-known show-jumping trainers, who is also white, asked the Chronicle for the opportunity to respond. Her opinion piece, which followed Sophie’s by a week, stated that she had been angered by Sophie’s “direct aim at our world” and that, in her opinion, the sport was free of racism. “To presume minority communities have been purposely excommunicated from our world of horses,” Clark wrote, “is like saying equestrians are not allowed as participants in basketball.” Rather, she argued, any lack of diversity was due to financial, not racial, barriers.

According to Sophie and Beth Rasin, other equestrians share Clark’s viewpoint. But it ignores the links between poverty and racial discrimination, and the reality of the small but frequent racial insults experienced by those Black riders who can afford to participate, says Caitlin Gooch, a Black horsewoman and co-host of the Young Black Equestrians podcast. “If it was just about money, then if [a Black rider] showed up, you would not question why they were there,” Gooch tells Robb Report. “A lot of the Black people we interview, people ask them if they are a groom. They don’t receive the same treatment from judges. People make snarky comments when a Black person shows up with a better horse or trailer. It would be a lot simpler if it was just about money.”

The Gochman family, with David at the center, cuts loose at Baxter Hill.

The family, with David at the center, cuts loose at Baxter Hill.  ROY BEESON

The Chronicle received so many complaints about Clark’s column that it inserted a trigger warning above her article online and published a statement distancing its editors and owners from Clark’s position and explaining its decision not to remove the text, because it is “a record of where the sport was at this time.” Rasin tells Robb Report, “We believed that she was not alone in her opinions and that recording those views was part of our responsibility in reporting on this topic.” The Chronicle has since published a variety of opinions from Black equestrians. Clark declined comment, but a spokesperson told Robb Report that, in June, the trainer “joined forces” with the Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy to form “Concrete to Show Jumping,” a program aimed at diversifying the sport.

Gooch, 28, who advises the USEF on diversity and inclusion, wishes that more white equestrians would speak up like Sophie and hopes that action will follow words. “Show up in real life, not just in articles and in social media,” she says. “Think about how you can use your horses, or your other resources, to share with others. Find an organization and cover the cost of what they’re doing.”

The Gochman girls are brimming with practical ideas for change, including mandatory anti-racism training, scholarships, outreach programs in schools and greater diversity in show judges and their decision-making criteria. “I don’t think it’s fair for everyone to be judged by 70-year-old white men constantly,” Sophie says. Her sister adds, “The kids that want to come into our sport see the only kids that are successful [in the ring] are skinny white girls or boys. And I feel like people feel hopeless.”

Becky plans to set up a Florida foundation to tackle these issues and takes inspiration from the grassroots political organizing led by Stacey Abrams in Georgia. “When we first moved to Palm Beach,” she recalls, “I was told to be careful of my politics or else I wouldn’t be well liked,” advice she initially heeded. Last fall, however, “fired up” by her daughters’ activism, she decided to celebrate the election result by decorating her house, which is on the same road as Mar-a-Lago, with a CONGRATS BIDEN HARRIS sign made of palm branches.

She has joined a group called Patriotic Millionaires, which describes its members as “proud ‘traitors to their class,’” and advocates for higher taxes on the one percent, a.k.a. themselves. “I feel like we’re really in danger of losing our middle class,” says Becky. “We can look to South American countries and see places where you have to live with armed guards—nobody wants to live like that.”

She thinks the girls may eventually join the Junior League of class treachery, Resource Generation, a group of privileged young people who advocate for an equitable distribution of wealth and power. Becky admits to some misgivings—“I hope that those groups know what they’re doing, while I do believe in them”—but generally comes down on the side of bold action. Working for positive change, she says, is “every fiber of our being now. This is our belief system. This is an exciting time to live!”

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