How did you get into horses and what is your current relationship with them?
Books and TV. I was obsessed with The Saddle Club, Heartland, Thoroughbred, the Ponysitters Club, the Hoofbeats series, Stabenfeldt International’s PONY books… the list goes on. None of my schools offered sports or extracurriculars so when I was seven my mom took me for my first riding lesson and I never stopped.
I spent the majority of my childhood and teenage years learning as much as I could. In my senior year of college, I worked on a horse farm in South Africa as a trail guide and at a ranch in Wyoming as a wrangler. Now, I teach lessons at a local stable and work for my trainer. My goal is to continue learning everything possible to be a better horsewoman, as I hope to purchase my own horse soon.
How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
As an equestrian, I am very curious. I always have a lot of questions. It has definitely annoyed people in the past, but I am very focused on learning as much as I can to make informed and independent decisions. If I see something new, I want to know what it is, why somebody is doing it, what it’s supposed to do, etc.
Sometimes I ruffle feathers and I’m labeled as argumentative because people perceive this as me challenging their methods, but I truly just want to know every tiny piece of information that goes into making a decision. And as I get older, I often wonder if that knee-jerk reaction is itself a microaggression.
I am also constantly reading books, listening to podcasts, and going down internet rabbit holes to learn more about whatever I don’t know – which is a lot.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
I value the difference in perspective. Being an equestrian of color, and being aware of the challenges and obstacles that I face, makes me even more appreciative of my ability to participate in the sport that I love so much. Knowing how much blood, sweat, tears, money, and energy this sport takes while also being acutely aware of how finite those resources are in my own life has fostered a healthy sense of gratitude. I also appreciate that I am in a position to create positive change in a community that I care about for others like me.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
As a rider: While working on the horse farm in South Africa, I rode through vineyards, mountains, beaches, and woods. My favorite was the vineyards and mountains because the nature was unreal.
One day, I had to ride a horse from one location to another by myself. It was a five-mile ride through a nature reserve, large vineyard, and mountain road that I had done only once or twice before. I survived, and had a blast cantering through the vineyards along a dam. I was so proud of myself for not getting lost! It was a big confidence-boosting day for me and my skills as a rider.
As a horsewoman: A few months ago, a lesson horse at the barn where I work began bucking under saddle and most of the staff assumed she was just developing a behavioral problem and collectively stopped using her in lessons.
One day while grooming her, I noticed her leg was inflamed, hot, and looked like a freshly popped splint. A visit from the vet confirmed my theory. I was so excited that I could correctly diagnose this and prevent our pony from unnecessary discomfort and punishment/frustration!
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I’ve always felt very excluded being an equestrian of color, especially because I don’t have generational wealth and don’t come from a traditional horse family – both things that might make it easier otherwise. I can’t afford working student positions – without a car, a second parent to drive me, or public transit, these jobs are not easily accessible to me.
To afford riding, I’ve worked many part-time jobs that leave me with little time to actually ride. So the disconnect is physical as well as mental. I’m also uncomfortably aware that many of my peers have voted or spoken in ways that actively undermine, disenfranchise, and further oppress or marginalize both myself and other BIPOC. I still don’t know what to do or how to feel about this.
It is also really difficult for me to process and address microaggressions at the barn. I’m still developing the ability to recognize them and to trust my gut instinct. I am often undermining my own value and sense of self by rationalizing microaggressions at the barn.
On a separate note, I struggled for YEARS to find a properly fitting helmet. As a kid, I always had headaches every time I rode. I thought it was normal until several years in when my cheap plastic helmet melted in the car. I bought a new one and suddenly the headaches disappeared. But as I progressed in my riding, the $40 plastic helmet wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
I would go to the tack store every year and try on every helmet they had to no avail, and each year they told me that all the Asian riders in the area had the same challenge. Our heads were just a different shape. Round fit helmets weren’t widely on the market yet, and I couldn’t afford the odd $400 version. I finally found and bought my first proper fitting helmet when I was 22 years old. It always made me sad that I was excluded from proper-fitting safety equipment, either by design or by budget.
In what moment have you been most hurt or disappointed as an equestrian?
I broke my back once! But in all seriousness, I almost hit a breaking point last year. I hadn’t been riding regularly for a while, and what little riding I was able to do just didn’t challenge me. I wasn’t clicking with the trainer or her horses and I was really struggling. I was feeling extremely isolated from the other folks at the barn and felt extremely burnt out from the news cycle and current events.
I had been rejected from several horse-related professional opportunities for reasons that I suspected were race-related, which was really upsetting to me because I want to continue in this sport and industry as much as possible. But I felt like there was just no room for me. There were no open doors, no closed doors, no seats at the tables. I wasn’t progressing in my riding, and it was all feeling really pointless.
I felt like the blood, sweat, tears, energy, and money that I poured into my riding somehow wasn’t enough, and this was really painful for me because horses and riding as such a crucial part of my identity. I explained it to my therapist as “I love horses but I can’t love them into loving me back.” My outlook has since changed overall, but I do still worry that I will never be able to be as involved with horses in the capacity that I want to be because of systemic reasons beyond my control.
Horse Breed: Welsh
Horse Color: Black? Or grey
Discipline: Eventing! Or endurance.
Treat to give: Nature Valley Oats N Honey Granola Bars
Place to ride: My farm’s XC fields are my second home… but the mountains in South Africa were unforgettable.
Anna Smolens is a fine art and equine portrait photographer located in Maryland. She is one of the founders of this project and strongly believes that now is the time for more open conversation about race and equality. By using our collective voices, we can make the equestrian community stronger.