How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I see myself as a very natural horsemanship equestrian. Truly, I focus 95% of my energy on the relationship I have with my animals and 5% on everything else. I could care less how fancy my horse can move. I care how healthy he is, what his quality of life is like, and the way in which he views our relationship.
In that way, I am very holistic about my approach to horsemanship. I firmly believe that you can’t possibly ask your horse to perform at his highest level if he is missing the key components to do so; nutrition, mobility, mood, and capacity. In fact, I would never even consider saddling up my horse if any one of those areas was lacking. Having my horse with me for many years is more important to me than a good ride.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
I enjoy improving the lives of horses and their relationships with humans through my cultural teachings. When I have had really grateful clients and positive feedback I always take that as an opportunity to educate people on indigenous issues in this country (and others).
Unfortunately, the history of native relations in the United States is less than palatable and I feel that it is important to acknowledge and correct these wrongdoings if we are to move forward past them. When people are elated that I’m able to help them with their horses, I tell them that until as recently as 1978, my methods and horsemanship were illegal and nearly wiped away from existence by genocide. I use my horsemanship as a means of advocating for my culture, my people, and our rights in this country, and that is truly a gift.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
I am happiest or most proud when I go to the 5 acre turnout to get my horse, bridle in hand and he comes right to me. Or when it is time to come in from turnout they both go right into their pen with no fuss. I think that says a lot about our relationship.
Most recently we had an incident where both of my horses were chased through a barbed wire fence by a dog. They were both cut up and had been bitten pretty badly. After they had escaped the dog they stayed nearby my property line and when I went outside and called to my gelding he and my mare came straight to me. I put a board over the barbed wire and led them both across. Even though they were both distraught and wounded, they trusted me in that moment to lead them back to safety without a halter or lead rope and to doctor their wounds.
The bottom line was that they trusted me to be their leader and protector and that I had built that relationship with them by myself without any help, harsh tools, or bribery.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I think the biggest challenge I have faced so far and continue to face is simply the resistance or lack of acceptance around natural indigenous horsemanship. It is because of this very reason that I don’t take many training clients. I am very strict and mindful about my horsemanship practices and truly refuse to deviate from them. This is partially in an effort to maintain my cultural practices and sustain them for the next generation of indigenous horsemen, my own children.
However, this is also because I am steadfast in what I believe is right and wrong as it pertains to interacting with your horse. The reality is your horse already knows 99% of the things you’re trying to “teach” him to do. Collection? He can already do that. Extended trot? He does that every morning in the turnout with his friends. Flexing the head and neck? He does this all day long when he’s scratching his belly. It is YOU that must learn how to ask him! A horse is born knowing how to do all the things horses do, and then some. However, you are not born knowing how to ride, communicate, nor care for a horse.
But most people think and feel through their ego. Once the ego becomes involved surrounding a situation where there is a lack of understanding or ability, the energy rapidly turns to frustration, anger, and blame. But when I try and explain these lessons that have been passed down to me from both the two and four-legged, I am called a hippie or told I am being too easy or soft on my horse.
In what way have you been most disappointed as an equestrian of color?
It is very disheartening to me to see Native people portrayed in movies as amazing horsemen, yet still “uncivilized” or “savage”. Just because we are different, have a different culture, language, and traditions doesn’t mean we are LESS THAN. People are quick to ask for my help or advice or ask me to share my cultural teachings with them when it comes to their animals, namely their horses. But those same people will still make all the same ignorant, harmful assumptions about my way of life, intellect, and culture. Which is it?
But honestly what hurts the most is when I take the time to teach people and share with them how to better their relationship between horse and rider, and they turn around and go back to their old harsh ways. Attaining the kind of relationship I have with my horses is NOT impossible. But it is NOT easy either. It takes time, dedication, compassion, understanding, compromise, and letting go of your ego.
What would you like people to know about your experiences as an equestrian of color?
People are quick to make assumptions, both about other humans as well as their horses. It seems that even in 2021 people are still only comfortable seeing and hearing Natives in movies shirtless with a feather in their hair holding a bow and arrow. Or about their horse, “He’s just being a jerk”. “He is bucking because he doesn’t want to go to work”. All of those assumptions are wrong. If you are EVER to amount to anything as a horseman and leave a worthwhile legacy as a human being you must arrest this type of thinking.
Just like Natives are still very much around today, thriving, and we all look just as different as you and the people you know, your horse is not bucking to get out of work or just being a jerk. He is telling you that you haven’t earned his trust or respect and that YOU are still behaving like the lion who wants to eat him.
We are not Native JUST when you need help with your horse, or hunting, or fishing and farming. We’re Native when our women go missing and murdered in greater numbers than ANY other demographic. When we pay our way through two masters degrees and part of a doctorate. We are Native when we are having to reconnect and relearn our traditions and native languages because they were forcefully taken from us. When we are healing from the generational trauma caused by genocide, sterilization, the 60s and 90s scoops, and residential schools. We are Native if our hair is short or if it is braided and whether we have regalia or not.
If my appearance and experience as an equestrian of color could serve to teach people anything in 2021 I would hope it inspires others to learn about and advocate for Native people, even in the face of discrimination, difficulty, and even when others around you are not doing so. I hope that my experience in this life inspires the next generation of equestrians to be allies for Native people.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Horses are medicine. They are a great gift and blessing in your life and make no mistake – horses haven’t found you by accident. If you have found yourself crossing paths with one of these charismatic beings, slow down, take notes, and pay close attention to what they are trying to teach you. They might not be able to talk like you or I can, but make no mistake, their lessons are loud and clear if you are willing to pay attention and learn to communicate with them. Not the other way around.
Being an equestrian doesn’t have to be expensive, fancy, or complicated. Being truly present with your horse won’t cost you a dime. Spending the entire day watching your horse and learning about him and his individual personality is completely free. Do not be afraid of braiding your cultural teachings into your horsemanship. But, more importantly, don’t minimize your heritage or culture because you are afraid you won’t be accepted in the equestrian community.
As an indigenous person, it was not all that long ago that we were stripped of our culture, our language, and our rights to practice our traditions. We are very fortunate to have that which was robbed from our ancestors and we honor them by carrying those traditions into the future with pride. Whether you are tribally enrolled, reconnecting, mixed, or are just starting to learn your native language, there is a place for you in this community. And if there isn’t yet then you will forge one. Prejudice will continue to exist even if you never sit in another saddle again, but there will be less prejudice in the world if you do.
Maureen is a traveling equine photographer based out of Akron, Colorado where she lives on her ranch with her husband and two children breeding North American Destriers and shorthorn cattle. A lifelong creative and horse girl, Maureen enjoys expressing herself and telling a story in her artwork. When she isn’t behind the camera Maureen can be found creating content for her growing TikTok following, cuddled up with a good book, and working on her latest liberty routine with her horse Chap.