How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I’m a distance equestrian and my focus is on the total health of the horse-human team. The sports I love are competitive distance driving, endurance riding, competitive riding, equathon, and ride-and-tie. And for extra fun, I do some human ultrarunning.
As an equestrian athlete, my primary job is to listen to my horse and do what is right for them. I also coach new people who are interested in learning about distance sports and help them get started.
I’m an athlete. My horses are athletes. The new aspirants I support are athletes. Together, we’re all a team helping each other get to the start and finish lines.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
My ethnic heritage is mixed. Very mixed. And my equestrian lifestyle is also mixed. Very mixed.
I am Melungeon on one side; the other side is African American and Native American. While it is somewhat controversial, Melungeons are a tri-racial group from Appalachia (African American, Native American, and European descent). The term is thought to originate from a French word that literally means “mixture”. Mixture…yes that’s me.
Similarly, I do a mixture of equestrian sports which are very little known. I’ve lived my equestrian life in North Dakota and now in northern Wisconsin. It’s rare to see another equestrian of color. Especially not one deep in the woods on a trail, on horseback or driving in a cart, or running. I love bringing concepts about diversity and distance equestrian sports out of obscurity and into the spotlight.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
It’s challenging to find a sense of belonging in the horse community. I am “not quite white” and “not quite black”, but somewhere in between. Other people of color seem surprised about the sports I do; it has been said what I do is “not a black hobby”. And those who are not of color are frequently shocked – sometimes after knowing me for years – to see a picture of my family or learn about my heritage.
It’s no consolation for me to hear things like “I don’t see color” or “I just think of you as a person” or “we’re all mixed”. I am of mixed race and love that about myself. I have learned to assert and accept myself as “enough” when one side or the other doesn’t.
My mom gave me a signed copy of the children’s book Am I a Color Too? when I was in my 20’s. It is a cherished possession. That is one of my mantras: I am a color too. As an equestrian of color, I celebrate and support others who are different all around me. I’ve evolved into a fierce ally for all aspects of diversity in equestrian sport.
Like many other people of color, helmet fit and my hair is always an issue. But I’ve gotten up to my elbows interacting with awesome companies like Tipperary, Kask, and even the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab on this topic to make better happen for all of us in this space. The best in helmet fit for equestrians of color is yet to come.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
I am most proud on days when someone I coached crosses the finish line for the first time. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to become a distance equestrian.
I am so proud of what new riders accomplish when they step out of their comfort zone, prepare thoroughly, take impeccable care of their horse, and come safely across that finish line.
If they’ve done it the way I taught them to, they come in at a walk, with a cool horse, well hydrated and fed, capable of going farther, and with the biggest smile humanly possible. They are usually too busy continuing to take impeccable care of their horse to see my tears of joy for them. I have cried every time I saw someone I coached finish.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Never, ever stop learning and taking on new challenges.
You can go farther than you ever believed possible. Even though it may require you to wear head protection that looks like a 10-gallon hat for that massive beautiful human mane of yours for now.
As one of my favorite TV characters (Hoss Cartwright) famously said in an episode of Bonanza: “The best fruit is not what falls, but what you have to reach for.”
Horse breed: Every incredible athlete in my pasture and yours; that’s every horse, every pony, every mule, donkey, zebra, zorse, and zdonk.
Horse color: Bay and anything close to poop-colored – that’s my level of enthusiasm for grooming (none)
Discipline: Distance Sports (all of them)
Treat to give: Rest and 24/7 turnout
Place to ride: A trail I’ve never been on before. And no, I don’t know what time I’ll be back.
Erin Beckett is a photographer and filmmaker located near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She believes that by sharing stories of diversity, we can start much needed conversations about race, equality, and why representation matters.