By Britney Grover
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
If his family financial circumstances had been different, Robert “Rob” Lawrence Jacobs might be jumping Grand Prix every weekend. Admittedly, there are some moments he wishes that would have happened. But when it comes down to it, Rob is actually happy that it didn’t.
“Personally, I do believe in God, and I do believe that everything happens for a reason,” he shared. “I do believe I was created to positively influence people and to give back. I also believe it wasn’t a coincidence that God placed me in a good family — a great family! — but a family that couldn’t afford to just go out and write the checks.”
With unlimited financial backing, Rob’s innate talent with horses likely would have made him a competitive rider. He might have gone to equitation finals and done junior jumpers, rather than only scraping together enough to go to two “A” shows by the time he went to college. Instead, he’s spent his life coaching and teaching riders in North Carolina — including hundreds who would not have been able to afford such an opportunity.
“I think God knew not to place me with a family that could just do that, because I could become lost in my ultimate reason for being here and doing what I’m doing,” Rob continued. “Ultimately, I have a lot of fulfillment and happiness in knowing that it didn’t happen, and because it didn’t happen, I have a very soft spot for riders who really want it and just need some help, they just need a leg up. It helped me keep my perspective and not get lost in that horse show lifestyle that is so not reality — at least, it was never my reality.”
Discovering a Passion
Horses were never the obvious path for Rob, growing up in suburban Maryland. “I don’t exactly know what prompted me to be attracted to them, but as early as I can remember, I was always attracted to horses,” he said. “As far back as 8 years old, I thought they were — probably the word is majestic. They were beautiful and majestic creatures you’d see in movies.”
Despite his early fascination, horses weren’t easily accessible to him, and it took Rob years to finally sit on a horse. In the meantime, Rob’s parents required that he participate in sports. He could choose what he wanted, the only requirement being that he had to do a full season — he couldn’t quit once he started. He began searching for his “thing” with tennis, football, basketball, swimming, track, slowly working his way through 90% of sports offered without finding one that stuck.
Before starting seventh grade, Rob attended a week-long summer adventure camp. Among the proffered activities was equestrian. “When I say equestrian, it literally was just trail riding,” Rob said. “So I signed up to do that the first day, and it was the first time I’d ever really sat on a horse. I trail rode every day that whole week, and at that point I said, ‘I think I’m brave enough to ask to try equestrian sports.’”
Though his parents knew nothing about horses, they were willing to support Rob if he could figure out how to make it happen. He and his mom sat down and opened the phone book’s yellow pages to find a barn.
It might have been luck, that the first and only barn they called offered affordable lessons with good trainers who would lay a solid foundation of horsemanship for Rob. More likely, it was another instance of things happening for a reason. Either way, it unleashed Rob’s passion for horses.
By the time he started learning to ride, Rob was already too tall to start on ponies. Instead, he set out to learn whatever he could — and rode whatever he could, short or tall, hot or cold, Thoroughbred, Arabian, Warmblood. He took lessons once a week and showed as much as his parents could afford — or he could earn for himself.
“My love for the horse, my passion for growth and trying to make myself better as well as to improve the horse to whatever ability I can improve them, I got addicted to that,” Rob said, “I got addicted to learning how I could ride better, how I could learn the horse better, how I could care for them better. Because I was — and am — so obsessed with learning more and always trying to do better and be better, my involvement with horses just kept growing and growing.”
Though he’d only shown at a couple of “A” shows before college, Rob thrived on the St. Andrews University IHSA team and became one of the first members to win an individual national championship.
House of Opportunity
When Rob graduated with his degree in politics and equine business management in 2011, he’d become burnt out. He continued to ride on the weekends, but tried his hand at non-horse-related jobs. That only lasted for about a year before horses and St. Andrews called him back — literally.
The director of St. Andrews offered Rob a position as assistant IHSA hunt seat coach, and Rob took his first professional equestrian job. He taught the equestrian team at St. Andrews, he worked with the team at University of Wilmington for a time and for a private show barn — all while earning his Master’s in Business Administration.
“Those experiences led and encouraged me to try to do something for myself, and that’s when I started my own training business,” Rob said.
In 2015, Rob created RLJ Stables. As it turned out, running his own show and training barn wasn’t the end game for Rob — but it was an important stepping stone. While running his stable, he decided to do something to give back and get his name out at the same time.
“I wanted to have an impact, but I also wanted people to associate my name with doing something positive,” Rob said. “When I was coming up, we had to miss some horse shows and miss some clinics because it wasn’t in our budget. I remember certainly understanding, but being disappointed and having to just go audit and not actually get to ride in clinics.”
From that, the Robert Lawrence House of Opportunity was born. Rob started putting on Opportunity Clinics that were completely donation-based. Riders of any level from walk-trot up can participate for what they can afford, even if that’s a quarter. Rob doesn’t know who’s donating what unless someone’s name is on a check at the end of the day; he gives each rider his time and energy based on their needs, not their means.
“No one can ever say they couldn’t do this because of money,” he said. “I think every person trying to crawl their way up, we all want to get our names out there and some people choose to do that in not-so-great ways; I wanted to have some pull over what people thought of me, when they heard my name attached to this program that makes clinics affordable for every rider.”
The first year, the money from donations and the clinics funded two equestrian scholarships for St. Andrews students. The following year, the funds provided appropriate riding attire and a safe helmet for a struggling rider. This year, Rob is flying a top industry professional in to give an Opportunity Clinic for 15 riders who would otherwise not be able to afford the regular clinic rates.
After minimal expenses, Rob’s goal is to put all the money right back out into the community to do more good. “I think every year I’m going to do something a little different with the money, and for me it boils down to how many riders I can impact,” he said.
Ever growth-minded personally as well as professionally, Rob had decided to pursue a doctorate to make himself more marketable as a university equestrian director — despite knowing most university settings only required a master’s degree. He was also running his stable and working full time as a consultant for the USHJA when, once again, he got a call from St. Andrews.
This time, Rob was unexpectedly offered a position as the associate director of equestrian programs. It was at the perfect time, when he’d realized that, though he learned a lot and had a lot of fun, running his own program wasn’t what he wanted to do in the next stage of his life. Rob closed his stable, worked out his position with the USHJA to be part time and started with St. Andrews in August 2020.
At St. Andrews, he’s in a position to be more visible, to influence and help more people than ever before. It may surprise those who know him to hear that Rob is naturally introverted — but horses have helped put him exactly where he’s supposed to be, with the tools to reach out and help others.
“It wasn’t a coincidence and certainly not a mistake that God made me a Black equestrian. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, well oops, you were supposed to play basketball,’” Rob said. “If I cared enough, I could have learned to play basketball well, but in my opinion that wasn’t what He wanted — I think He wanted me to do something that sort of made me stick out like a sore thumb. Most of my riding life and experiences, that’s what I’ve done, I’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. And that’s not made me feel shy or less-than — actually, horses have helped with that.”
Rob’s passion for horses helped him persevere despite feeling different from those around him, whether it was because of his race, being male or the opportunities he’d had — or hadn’t. He feels his life experience has helped him to not care overmuch about what people may think and the judgements people may form.
“I do believe I was called to be an influencer of people, and I don’t take that lightly,” Rob said. “It sounds like it’s a lot of fun, which I guess it is, but with that comes a great deal of responsibility. As we all know, there are influencers in the world who don’t use their influence the way they should, or do so in a negative light.”
Others have noticed Rob’s positivity and commitment to doing good. Robin Greenwood recently gave Rob the 9-year-old hunter Heir Apparent, known as Harry. Just as Rob believes everything happens for a reason in his life, Harry was bred to be an ultra-fancy large pony — but kept growing, to Rob’s benefit. Rob says Harry has loads of personality, is fun to ride and very well-trained.
While Rob is grateful and excited for the opportunity to show Harry, he’s even more focused on continuing to bring opportunities to others. In addition to working full time at St. Andrews and part time with the USHJA, he continues to grow the House of Opportunity and put on Opportunity Clinics because for Rob, it all comes down to doing good — and, in his growth mindset, to keep doing more and more good.
“It’s really important to me that I keep doing this, because it’s needed,” he said. “As long as I keep growing somehow, whether it’s doing more clinics, or getting more people on board, or that the money can help 20 people instead of 15, I don’t care — as long as it’s doing good, as long as it’s growing, as long as I’m doing something helpful to others.”
For more information, visit robertlawrencejacobs.com
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com, @sasequinephotography