Former equestrian star blazes her own trail

Cal Poly grad was first black rider on the U.S. team; now she helps care for animals

slinn@thetribunenews.comMarch 23, 2014 

Donna Marie Cheek always knew she wanted to go to the Olympic Games. 

“As a young athlete, it’s all your life,” explained the Atascadero resident, who became the first black member of the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1981. “As soon as you have a concept of the Olympics, then you start working (toward them).”

Yet, despite undeniable talent, years of training and scores of celebrity supporters — including Muhammad Ali, Marvin Gaye and Quincy Jones — the young equestrian constantly struggled to secure the financial backing needed to compete at the top of her game. Unlike Cal Poly graduate Gina Miles of Creston, who won a silver medal in equestrian eventing at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Cheek never made it to the Olympics.

Even now, she acknowledged, “The playing field in my sport is far from level.”

While her disappointment comes through in conversation, Cheek makes it clear that she long ago moved on — channeling her passion for animals into careers as an equine trainer, marketing professional and public broadcaster.

Childhood interest

Cheek, a graduate of Morro Bay High School, Cuesta College and Cal Poly, discovered a love of horses at an early age. 

“My parents were very observant and they were like, ‘Gosh, she’s really horse-

obsessed,’ ” Cheek, 50, recalled with a laugh. “ ‘We might want to see what that means.’ ”

With their support, Cheek started taking English-style riding lessons at age 7. 

“Everything about the dirt and the flies and the smell and the danger, I loved it all. And my parents were supportive of my love,” said Cheek, who moved from the Claremont area to Atascadero with her family at age 10. 

By 11, Cheek was competing at top-tier equestrian events across California, Arizona and Nevada, specializing in show-jumping.

“That’s when my father and I had a little sit-down talk … about what is the difference between being average and being the best, and how that is reflected in your day-to-day activities,” recalled Cheek, whose father, Donald, was a Cal Poly education professor from 1977 to 1999. “He was saying, ‘You can’t take a day off because that might be the day when your competitor is really digging in. ...’ ” 

Observing her competitors, she noticed that “nobody went to the gym. It was like the horse did all the work,” she recalled. Since she couldn’t afford multiple mounts, Cheek — like her father, an avid track athlete who’s still competing at age 83 — focused on physical fitness. 

“With me, I’ve got a VW against the Ferrari, right?” she said, referring to her available choice of mounts. “I’ve got to gain some skills so my VW can compete with their Ferrari.”  

Cheek’s status as an African-American in a predominantly white sport earned her as much attention as her talent. 

“I was really used to being stared at, and I didn’t think that being stared at was a bad thing,” she said. But, she added, “There were some not-so-welcoming incidents.” 

Once, the 16-year-old was training in Bakersfield around 1980. The girls whose family owned the facility invited Cheek to swim in their swimming pool, so she changed into her suit and walked up as their mother was watering plants.

“Their mom dropped the hose, and as she did that she said, ‘Linda, you know how I feel about those people,’ ” recalled Cheek, who left immediately. “Obviously I wasn’t wanted, and obviously I wasn’t going to have fun.”

In the spotlight

In the media, meanwhile, Cheek was hailed as a “horsey teen with high hopes” of becoming the Jackie Robinson of the equestrian world.

Profiled in Ebony, Jet and Look magazines, she did jumping demonstrations at fundraiser galas attended by athletes and entertainers including Diahann Carroll, Dusty Baker, Rick James and Ken Norton.  

She even starred in her own afterschool special, NBC’s “One More Hurdle: The Donna Cheek Story,” which won an NAACP Image Award. 

“I should have been caught up in the fact that, wow, this was all for me,” recalled Cheek, who performed her own stunts in the 1984 film. “You know what I liked the best, out of all of it? I loved the food!” 

Through “One More Hurdle” and other projects, “I became defined as ‘Donna Cheek the equestrian.’ …. That was the way I was marketed,” said Cheek, who represented the United States in the 1982 World Show Jumping Championships in Mexico City, finishing fourth.  She also served as an exhibition rider and motivational speaker representing Coors and RJR Nabisco. 

“After Mexico City, my sponsor started to have major business problems and I did not have the funds to continue at an international level,” explained Cheek, noting that the costs of competing on the road, which include housing, feed and transportation, run about $10,000 a week. At that level, she added, “show jumping … is strictly for the 1 percent.”

Cheek, who was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Distinction in 1997, said she resented the fact that “I had given all I had to the sport and it didn’t give back.”

“Horses can suck the life out of you. ... That’s why I’ve never married and I don’t have children,” Cheek said. “(Horses) made me happy. But it was still a sacrifice.” 

Life after competition

In 2001, Cheek started Equine Consign, a horse consignment and training center in Paso Robles that she co-owned and operated for eight years.  

“There are so many different things that a horse can do … and so many different disciplines with the sport that it takes someone like me to ride them and figure out what could make them happy,” explained Cheek, who closed the business after splitting with her business partner in 2008. 

About three years ago, she launched EquineTrainersNewsletter.com, a personalized marketing site for tech-averse horse trainers. Cheek creates twice-monthly newsletters to be sent to clients.

The former broadcast journalism major has also branched into public radio — covering animal-related issues as a volunteer contributing producer for the KCBX show “Issues and Ideas.”

Her segments, which air the last Wednesday of every month, cover everything from police dogs and homeless parrots to groups such as Partners in Equestrian Therapy in Atascadero and North County Paws Cause in Templeton. (The latter organization traps, spays and neuters feral cats.)

Cheek, who shares her 50-acre property with her Anatolian shepherd, Zola, and cats Hobo Joe and Matti, hopes one day to open an animal sanctuary for unwanted cats and dogs.

“Horses are my business,” explained Cheek, who is semi-retired from equestrian life, capping a 41-year career. “But dogs and cats are my life.”

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