How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Being an equestrian has defined me and my life in so many ways. When you choose this life it feels like it almost swallows you whole, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
Being an equestrian has taught me so much about myself as a person. I can’t imagine who I would’ve become or what my life would be like without horses in it.
How did you get involved with horses?
My mum is the person that first introduced me to horses. She rode horses when she was young and felt that it was a hobby she and I could share and bond over.
Like most kids, I started jumping lesson ponies until my parents felt I was serious enough for them to buy me my first horse. He was a plucky little brown quarter horse, and I absolutely adored him. He was kind and forgiving, and took care of me every minute of our time together. My mum had a horse of her own, a former thoroughbred race horse named Camelot.
Fast-forward a few years, I was living in Miami and had taken over the ride on Camelot from my mum. He was fiery and sensitive, and taught me to be fearless. With limited training opportunities in Miami I decided to semi-retire Camelot when I left for university. It wasn’t until I had graduated from university that I was brought back into the world of horses but in a very different and unexpected way.
My mum and I, still very much in love with horses, went on a week-long Dressage riding holiday together in Portugal. By the end of that week, I had bought a barely started 3-year-old Lusitano mare and the rest is history.
How would you describe your racial/ethnic identity/background?
This has always been an uncomfortable question for me mostly because I find there is no right answer. Whatever you say it will categorize and define you forever to the person asking this question. As I’ve faced this question throughout my life, I have grown to fear and dread it. There have been times when I’ve felt my answer has negatively impacted a person’s perception of me, and even limited my opportunities.
We as humans are inherently biased. So it’s no surprise that when I answer this question, it will trigger one bias or another in someone else as they generate an opinion of me as a person just from this one small fact about me. Here goes nothing!
My mum is from Mexico, with earlier generations originating from Spain and Portugal, and my dad is Cuban-American with earlier ties to Italy. What does that make me? Honestly, it’s hard for me to define myself. I feel like I’m from everywhere and nowhere. I spent my childhood in Mexico City, but have spent the last 20 years in the US and am a proud citizen of this country. I’m a hybrid of many different cultures and I’m constantly evolving and changing my own perception of my racial identity.
How has your culture and/or race influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
Sadly I would say it has not had much of an influence by my own doing. Since entering the equestrian world as a professional I have actively worked to keep my cultural and racial identity private out of fear of being limited by it. In my mind, I wanted to be recognized by my efforts and abilities and not by my heritage.
It’s taken many years to finally feel comfortable expressing this part of myself. I have to credit projects like this that have brought so many extraordinary people into the spotlight. Reading about equestrians of all backgrounds that are proud of their heritage has been a big inspiration for me.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I feel the challenges equestrians of color face in the equestrian world are similar to those we face in life in general. There will always be a certain degree of conscious or unconscious bias that we must navigate. It is because of these biases that we have additional pressure put on us to be perfect. We must work twice as hard and can never make a mistake or show our humanity, because it becomes a justification as to why we are not fit to be a part of the sport.
Representation is also a significant challenge for equestrians of color. When you look at the higher levels of sport, it is very rare to see racial or cultural diversity. This can be discouraging to people trying to come up the levels. It gives the impression that there is no room for anyone that is different – that if you don’t fit the mold, you won’t succeed no matter your talent or abilities.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
For me, just the fact that I get to wake up every day and spend it with horses makes me incredibly happy. I’ve learned to be grateful for every moment I have with each of my horses, both good and sometimes not so good. My horses have helped make me a better person in every way.
Of course I have goals and ambitions in the sport but I try my best not to impose those on the horses. Every opportunity I have to compete is just a cherry on top of the already amazing privilege I have in being able to dedicate my life to these animals.
In what way have you been most disappointed as an equestrian of color?
The lack of representation and diversity has been my biggest disappointment. More specifically, the lack of dialogue and unwillingness that the sport and community show towards acknowledging and changing this.
Creating diversity in the sport must be an intentional initiative by organizations like the USEF as well as the equestrian community at large. This doesn’t mean taking the spotlight away from deserving athletes. To me, creating diversity means widening the spotlight so that equestrians of color can also be seen, heard, and celebrated as much as their non-minority counterparts.
What words of encouragement or advice would you have for other equestrians of color?
You belong here. Your love for horses makes you as much a part of this sport and community as anyone. Do your best always, and keep learning and growing to be the best version of yourself for the sake of your horse.
Don’t let the challenges you may face overshadow the joy and privilege of having horses in your life. Remember that on the hard days when you feel alone in this sport, that you are not alone – you have a forever partner in your horse.
Lastly, whenever you feel doubt ask yourself: if not now, then when? If not me, then who?
The answers should always be: now and me.
Bethany Pastorial is an equine portrait and branding photographer based in Missouri. She is one of the founders of this project and is motivated by a need to create representation she would have looked up to as a young equestrian of color.