Interracial couple seeks acceptance in horse industry

Walking-horse trainers buck establishment

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 2, 2010 

  • If you go

    Tennessee Walking Horses Dressage Demonstration

    What: Dressage demonstrated by gaited horses. The exhibition will explain the practice, developed by Jennie Jackson and include a demonstration of gaits, ridden test and musical freestyle using Prix St. George movements.

    When: 4:30 p.m. Oct. 3, Village Arena; 4 p.m. Oct. 4, Village Arena; 4 p.m. Oct. 5, Village Arena; 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6, Clinician's Corral.

    Cost: No cost beyond admission to the Games.

    Learn more: Walkinonranch.com

Nathanael and Jennie Jackson are an anomaly in the world of the Tennessee walking horse, a domain that's almost exclusively Southern and white.

The interracial couple and their four children have paid a high price for their love of a breed that has stirred controversy because of the way the horses are sometimes trained.

Nathanael Jackson, who is black, hesitates to dwell on the racial elephant that sits in the middle of his family's livelihood. "I don't want to come across as an angry, disgruntled black man," he said. "Acceptance of something different is still an issue in the world today."

The Jacksons, owners of Walkin On Ranch in Cooke ville, Tenn., are the official breed representatives of the Tennessee walking horse at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Starting Sunday, Jennie Jackson will demonstrate a training technique she has devised called dressage en gait.

The Jacksons are hoping those demonstrations will open the doors to a new dressage discipline that would allow gaited horses to compete against one another.

WEG officials invited the Jacksons because Jennie Jackson developed the test and gait descriptions that were submitted to dressage and equestrian organizations.

That is just another chapter in the lives of a couple who have pushed boundaries in every area of their lives.

The Jacksons have received some push-back for their very vocal opposition to soring, an illegal and painful method used to make Tennessee Walkers step higher and be more animated. The more exaggerated the movements, the more ribbons the owners collect.

Jennie Jackson and a growing number of other trainers and owners advocate a more natural way to improve the gait, but it takes longer for the horse to learn.

In her method, she said, "You have three aids: your legs, your seat and your hands. (Illegal trainers) like to use gimmicks.

"It is like taking a kid and putting him in kindergarten and then skip up to college," she said. "If you want it done naturally, it takes longer."

So the Jacksons are an interracial couple in a discipline that is mostly white, and opposed to methods some in their business use.

Natalie Pritchard, 26, one of the Jacksons' daughters, recalls that her parents were ostracized a bit, but they shielded their children.

However, she does remember the boos and threats hurled at her in one instance a decade ago.

"We were way out in the middle of nowhere practicing," she said. "A truck full of men drove by and said, 'we'll hang you, nigger, if you compete.'

"That scared me," she said, adding that on the day of the show, rubber bands were shot at her and curse words were shouted. "There was not one friendly face."

Although Ronance Hammond, 22, another daughter, said she has experienced stares and snickers, she said her parents never allowed the children to let those acts thwart their efforts to succeed.

"Ignorance and haters exist. It was more motivation to do good and beat people in competition," Hammond said.

Both credit their parents' faith in God for keeping their lives on an even keel.

The couple met in California at a singles retreat Bible study. He was a twice-divorced Vietnam veteran with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder; she was a divorced single mother who loved horses and was eager to learn more about God.

"I was late coming to a meeting," Jennie Jackson said. "I walked in the door and (I thought) the only seat available was next to a very handsome black man. He introduced himself as Nathan. That is how we met.

"He was the most intelligent human being I had ever met," she said. "He wasn't a sweet talker, but a gentleman. I was smitten by that alone."

Nathanael had turned to God, back to what he had learned from his father, who preached to prostitutes on street corners and invited all manner of mankind to his church.

"She looked good and I asked the Lord, 'Is that her?'" Nathanael said of that first meeting. "I had asked Him to bring the love of my life into my life.

They met in April and were married in December over the objections of her family. That was 27 years ago.

Because she loved showing horses, Jennie Jackson took Nathanael with her to shows and he learned to love them, too.

In 1983, Jennie Jackson decided not to use the soring technique, knowing that move alone might prevent her from fulfilling her dream of being named a Trainer of the Year for the breed.

From then on, "they rejected us in every way, in every form and fashion," Nathanael Jackson said. "There were physical threats and slander."

He said competitors also added horses after deadlines to try to push them out from finishing high.

"They would not accept us," he said.

They moved to Tennessee in 2002 working a "mom-and-pop" operation on eight acres.

Both believe God has brought them to the Games. It is a sign of acceptance of a training style that is better for the horses they love so much.

And that's the acceptance they seek most.

Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or mdavis1@herald-leader.com.

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