Kyalami, South Africa – Since becoming the first black men to work with Lipizzaners, an elite group of horses bred for dressage, Shepherd Zira and Cyril Thabede are filled with pride over breaking apartheid-era racial barriers in the field of performance riding.
Last year, the South African Lipizzaners, a non-profit organisation, created a development programme catering to economically disadvantaged South Africans.
Zira became their first black rider and Thabede their first black performer.
“Most of us, especially people of colour, we have no idea about horses or anything because this is just a white people’s sport,” Zira told Al Jazeera.
After joining the organisation’s development programme, the 22-year-olds were allowed to train and reach a level of expertise that has now springboarded them into careers in South Africa‘s equestrian industry.
But until last year, there was little to no opportunity for blacks or other minorities to join the South African Lipizzaners, beyond a rare group who could afford riding lessons.
The sport was steeped in colonial history and the high costs prevented many South Africans from joining.
“Equestrianism is a very exclusive, privileged sport,” Bronwyn Taylor, a junior rider, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a very expensive sport to be in.”
The Lipizzaner horses were brought to South Africa shortly after World War II and the breed dates back to 15th-century Europe.
There are only 4,000 in the world and the primarily white stallions are admired for their stellar physique, regal bearing and willingness to be trained.
“I love these horses so much,” Thabede says. “There are very few people who have the opportunity to ride these stallions. When I ride them, I feel like a king.”
However, each time the men step into an arena or teach students, they say, they seldom see faces similar to their own.