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“I Have Found My Community” – I Am US Equestrian with Rob Van Jacobs

Equestrian and licensed official Rob Van Jacobs discusses his experiences in riding, training, and representing the LGBTQ+ community in the equestrian world.

by Rob Van Jacobs | May 28, 2024, 12:45 PM

Rob Van Jacobs explained that continuing to show makes him a better judge, and judging makes him a better exhibitor. Photo: Julia B Photography

While my love for horses started around the age of six, I didn’t start riding until I was in seventh grade, which is a little later in life than most of my colleagues. I grew up in a suburb in Maryland a few miles outside Washington D.C. I've always loved horses and thought they were incredible animals, but I did not have immediate access to them, and no one in my family knew much about horses. The first time I sat on a horse was at River Valley Ranch, a Christian overnight summer camp in Maryland. There were many activities to choose from during our free time, including trail riding. During that week at camp, I had the opportunity to sit on a horse and go on trail rides. That was my first time really being exposed to horses, being able to touch them and ride them. Everything grew from there. When I got back in town, I told my parents that I’d finally found my sport.

My parents signed me up to take lessons at a hunter, jumper, and equitation barn close to our house. That facility was called Willowbend Farm. They had lesson horses, so I could take lessons once or twice a week and just learn how to ride. I learned about flat work first, and then when I was ready and able, I learned how to jump.

Fast forward to college; I decided to become a licensed official after I took a judging class in college, in 2009. I took the class because I loved the trainer and professor who taught the class. I didn't think I was going to love being a judge or even want to do it, but I realized, “Oh my gosh, I actually really love this, and I'm actually quite good at it.” Once I graduated college, which was in 2011, I started judging at the local level starting in 2012. I've been doing this now for about 12 years.

My judging style is different than some of my peers’ and colleagues’. There's no right or wrong way to judge; every judge must do what is best for them. For me to get the order and the placements correct, I need to write on my paper less and watch more. One of the best parts is mentally riding the rounds with the riders, thinking about what they could be feeling and enjoying the round with them. Another enjoyable part for me is rewarding a quality round from a rider if it's equitation, or rewarding a quality mover if it's an under saddle, or a quality jumper if it's the hunters.

Rob Van Jacobs said that the equestrian community is "open and welcoming to all types of people." Photo: Thistle and Poppy Photography 

I would not be the same person I am today without horses. There have been times where I have done other things professionally, but this is definitely something I am passionate about, something I'm quite good at, and something I just love. I've definitely found a community in the sport and have moved all over the country with horses. It's nice to have really good friends all over the country. When I'm judging and traveling, I'm usually not that far from someone that I have met along the way and perhaps have become close with.

In my opinion, this industry is open and welcoming to all types of people, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community. Very early on, I quickly identified two ways within the sport that I am different—there are not too many Black people in this sport, and I am also a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Still, I never felt out of place in the sport. Although our sport is not incredibly diverse, I would say the equestrian industry is probably more diverse than most people’s high schools, so I felt a little more comfortable with being different.

Back in February, I received my “R” judge’s card; USEF has confirmed that I am the first Black USEF “R” judge. That was surprising, but also an honor and something that is very important to me, for sure. It was special to have this confirmed during Black History Month.

In this sport, you can never become stagnant. Things change, and you have to continue developing your skill set. I will continue learning and growing so that I will have opportunities to judge at some of the best horse shows in the country. I want to judge at Devon at some point. I want to judge the National Horse Show. I certainly want to judge the Capital Challenge Horse Show because it’s a special horse show to me. I grew up riding at that equestrian center and even had a chance to compete in a few prestigious classes there as a professional. I just want to continue perfecting and developing my skills so that I will have opportunities down the road to judge at some of those top venues. Being an “R” judge helps me in my daily training of the horses and riders. I’ve a true understanding of what we look for as judges and how different mistakes impact the overall score.