It is a sweltering July morning at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds, but Erica White has to leave the shade of a large tent to change into the heavy formal uniform she wears when competing in horse shows. She is changing so that she can be photographed for a newspaper article. That means that, along with the heat, she has to endure the good-natured teasing of the other teen-agers sitting at picnic tables waiting for the day’s events at the Vigo County Fair to begin.
“Why are you just taking pictures of Erica?” one young man asks, smiling. “What about the rest of us?”
There are two answers to his question. The first is that Erica stands out. When she competes with her Palomino quarter horse Misty, 16-year-old Erica is the only person of color showing any kind of animal at the county fair competitions. During this week’s Indiana State Fair, which features agricultural and animal demonstrators so monochromatic that it is sometimes jokingly referred to as White Expo, Erica will be the only African-American among the hundreds of competitors in the various horse events.
The second answer to the young man’s query about Erica’s notoriety is that she is a champion. Like Tiger Woods in golf and Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, Erica has not been satisfied with merely filling out the field in a traditionally white sport. Instead, she usually leads that field. At this Vigo County Fair, Erica and her horse have won blue ribbons for horsemanship, reining, Western riding, showmanship and halter. Misty’s stall at the fairgrounds is plastered with ribbons and banners recognizing her as Grand Champion Mare and Erica as the fair’s Senior Showman and Grand Showman. At the 2001 State Fair, Erica won top honors in her halter class. In 2002, she won for showmanship, which measures how well she controls and presents her horse to the judges.
Also in the tradition of Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters is the family contribution to Erica’s success. Her father Bobby White is her trainer. Her mother, Donna, oversees the complicated logistics of training, competition and transportation that is a part of showing horses throughout the Midwest. Bobby has five other students who he mentors in the Terre Haute area. Long interested in horses, Bobby developed most of his training and showmanship expertise by hands-on experience in the last decade. “I saw some horse shows and it just grabbed hold,” he says. “Then I decided to take it seriously. I knew that if my daughter was going to get into it, it wasn’t going to be some giggling thing.”
The schedule is certainly no laughing matter. Bobby, who works in security for a mental health facility, is up before dawn to exercise the horses. After work, he returns to the barn until well after sunset. He and Donna don’t even try to keep track of how many hours a week Bobby spends training Erica and his other students. “Let’s just say this: When I’m not punching the clock, I’m messing with the horses,” he laughs.
Terre Haute resident Joe Biggs, whose two daughters are students of White’s, says Erica’s championships are no surprise given the work ethic and horse sense she inherited from her father. “People are always coming up to Bobby from other counties asking for help with their horses,” Biggs says. “Bobby can read a horse and see the minor changes that make all the difference.”
Being the only African-American among dozens of white competitors is no big deal to Erica — “I’m not bothered by it at all,” she says — but her father is more conscious of how the family stands out in a fairground full of rural whites. The good news is that in a subjective competition where the judges are always white, Erica and her family say they have never seen any direct prejudice. Bobby has felt the rumblings of resentment at times, but he attributes that more to Erica’s dominance in the ring than to her race.
Bobby White sees a couple of reasons why there are no other African-American competitors at most of the 4-H and Indiana fair competitions. “We don’t have a lot of African-Americans living in rural areas here,” he says, noting that some states like Oklahoma will have more integrated horse competitions. White also says money is a factor. “This is really a high dollar sport. To be competitive for the top spots, you have to have trainers and show at some sort of circuit, not just at fair time. If I had to pay a trainer the way my clients pay me, I know I couldn’t do it.”
The photo session is complete, and Erica is leading Misty around in the dusty ring. The whole family is relaxed now, but they admit that not every day at the fair is laid-back for them. The picture-taking was re-scheduled from a day of competition, because the family is too preoccupied to do much posing when the judges are present. “That is our ‘let’s get the plaque’ day,” laughs Bobby.
Like the love of horses, that attitude has passed cleanly down from father to daughter. When asked what is her favorite part of the sport. Erica has a quick answer.
“When you win,” she says.
Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - ...