How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I am a very adult, very amateur lifelong pony rider! In almost 40 years of riding, I have really enjoyed equine sports on horses of all sizes and breeds. But I always come back to riding (often really naughty) ponies of all sizes mostly in English disciplines. And there are a lot of disciplines I still want to learn or try, with horses big or small. I’m currently doing dressage with my large pony – hopefully he will be my daughter’s partner when she is ready.
What role do horses currently play in your life?
I am juggling a career in surgery, two school aged kids (one with special needs), a spouse, and a household to run. So, I am an owner, a rider, a competitor, and a spectator all at very low levels. It is a struggle to carve out time for horse ownership and riding, but one that is an important form of self-care. I prioritize horsemanship and riding and I try to ride or at least spend some time with my pony 3-4 times a week.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
I would say that my Asian upbringing is not one that was particularly supportive of being an equestrian. My parents are immigrants; my mother is not an animal lover and was dismayed by my insistence on riding lessons as a kid. My animal-lover dad, however, humored me with lessons until I was in high school, but owning or leasing a horse was out of the question until I was making enough money to afford it on my own.
As the eldest child of immigrant parents, I was most definitely steered towards academic excellence and a traditional career path in medicine. And frankly, representation matters. When I was a kid, there were no Asian faces in the equestrian world, which I am sure influenced my parents’ attitudes about riding as a sport.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
My happiest moment as an equestrian was a culmination of several ongoing endeavors. Rather than success in the show ring, my special needs daughter wanted to ride our sweet “project” pony independently all around the arena. To see my generally not-brave and often not-strong kid insist on riding our pony herself was already a joy.
To watch the pony, who has been brought along by myself and my amazing trainer, carry my daughter happily around like he was born to do the job was a whole other level of equestrian pride. I hope to have many more moments like that, even if we never get to the show ring.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I would not say that I have ever experienced outright racial discrimination in the equestrian world, but there are definitely examples of microaggressions and assumptions which might still limit someone’s involvement in the sport, as a competitor or as a parent/supporter. The biggest challenge for me has been the lack of support or interest by my family; in our culture, honoring one’s parents is the highest priority, so my passion for horses has always taken a back seat.
However, even externally there are assumptions which limit involvement for perceived “outsiders.” For example, at a schooling show with my daughter, I was overlooked as a parent who could help out… while I was in the process of grooming another child’s mount! Unintentional, I’m sure, but clearly the assumption was that I had no knowledge of horses, although none of the other parents involved have much or any equine experience.
And again, representation matters. I don’t think I ever considered pursuing the higher levels of any equestrian sport. (Not sure I have the talent either, but honestly the thought never crossed my mind until reading about many of the inspiring EOCP participants!)
I was pleasantly surprised to see an Asian teenager in the jumper ring at a rated show recently – and a little disappointed to realize that this was not only notable to me, but that she was the only other Asian person I saw that day. I know now of a young dressage professional of Japanese descent in Texas… but again, she is remarkable in that she is the only one. I hope these young women can serve as role models for the next generation.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
There is always room for others in the horse world, even if it is not evident at first glance. Hard work, persistence, and good horsemanship are recognized and respected no matter what language you speak or the color of your skin. Do better than your predecessors and be an example for the next generation. The participants in the Equestrians of Color Photography Project have inspired me so much – these stories make the equestrian world so much richer.
Erica Hills is an equestrian lifestyle photographer located in Florida. She is one of the founders of this project and is committed to fostering growth and development within the equestrian community through the inclusion of all riders and all disciplines.