How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
This is a tough question. I have spent the last several months trying to figure this question out for myself.
I feel like I have been impacted by a lot in my industry and not always in a healthy way. The horse industry is tough but I never want to lose my love for these amazing animals. I have spent time with some amazing horsewomen who have encouraged me, supported me, and helped shape me into the equestrian I am today.
I would describe myself as having a passion for horses and the impact they have had on my life. I am kind and compassionate to my horse and that will never change, no matter what I am doing. I am passionate about learning all that I can, yet remind myself of my confidence and knowledge in the saddle.
I also want to share my passion for horses with others and I have been able to do that over the last few years by operating a non-profit equine therapy program. I always want to be kind and if possible, make riding accessible to everyone who has a passion for it.
How did you get involved with horses?
My mother was the catalyst for my love of horses. She grew up in the country and was raised conservative Mennonite which exposed her to a farming lifestyle. She is no longer part of the Mennonite community and is the epitome of a strong woman. She was always drawn to horses and their beauty, so she surrounded herself with them. As a child, my mother read me the classics – Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chincoteague. I was hooked!
My first experience with horses was when my parents bought me a pony who ended up being an absolute psycho (I know, it’s a pony!) so we ended up rescuing an old retired cart horse. He had the kindest eye and was my introduction to caring for horses. Those lessons are still pivotal in my life today. I respect any barn I have ever been to because the work is backbreaking.
Over the years, I have loved each horse that has entered my life and felt the heartache of their loss.
Louie came into my life when I lost my previous gelding to Equine Degenerative Myeloecephalopathy (EDM) – a devastating experience. He entered my life through a friend in her barn, and I grew to have a soft spot for him. Months later, his unique personality makes me smile and laugh every time I am with him which helped to heal me. He has truly changed my life.
What would you like our readers to know about your history and/or culture?
I was born in South Africa during Apartheid, which is the systematic segregation of races. I was born a mixed-race child which was highly frowned upon due to illegal mixed marriages. I also had to move about my country knowing what my “place” was and only going to the areas that were designated for mixed-race individuals.
My parents were heavily involved in politics to end Apartheid and to create racial equality in South Africa. Because of this, I was exposed to raids in my home looking for political “criminals.” Seeing heavily armed police was normal in my life. Despite this, my parents were always able to provide a normal childhood, including having a pony and a horse!
When I moved to the US, I still scanned a room to see if I was the only person of color (still do to this day). Being in a room or event of mostly white people still makes me feel nervous and, at times, inferior. This has softened over the years as I have processed what it means to be a mixed-race woman.
I also want people to know that Africa isn’t a country. We are so proud of our heritage and each country within has a unique heritage and culture. In South Africa, we have 11 official languages creating a beautiful mixing pot of tradition. I lived in Cape Town where many South African traditions were represented in markets, food, music, and dress. I am proud to have experienced so many cultures and beliefs because I feel it has made me a well-rounded individual.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
Being South African, we have a strong love and appreciation for culture and animals are a big part of that.
In South Africa, we have the Big 5 (five animals that are considered royalty to find) which many will try and find on a safari. During these safaris, you can see the respect that the traditional tour guides have for these animals. They will never put the animals in a bad place to react poorly.
While I lived far from the deserts of these wild animals, I grew up knowing the respect my culture has for animals. This bled into my love for animals which turned into my obsession with horses.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I think the biggest challenge is the feeling of standing out, however, many will look at me and think I am not a person of color. This puts me in many infuriating situations where conversations containing comments, slurs, and harsh views of minorities are held right in front of me. When I speak up, people look so confused. They expect me to either shake my head in agreement or just keep quiet – neither of which I will do.
I spent the early years of my childhood being segregated – being told where I could go as a mixed-race child. I wasn’t able to go to a public pool until after Nelson Mandela dismantled Apartheid. No one knows this by looking at me, so I hold my breath around white equestrians hoping nothing is said. It can be a very anxious and isolating experience.
In what way have you been most disappointed as an equestrian of color?
I feel the most disappointed at the lack of curiosity and education about race. Instead, it is riddled with stereotypes and slurs. Somehow they will say that it doesn’t relate to “that equestrian” but instead it relates to “those people.” I have been to shows and in barn aisles where I overheard people openly make comments regarding people of color and it scares me.
It scares me because I have lived through Apartheid where people were killed because of their race. It scares me because I don’t want someone to say those things about me or to me. I think about what I have lived through, and this has given me the strength to stand up to it when I hear it. In doing this, I have met a few wonderful allies in the equestrian community.
I really want the equestrian community to do better – do better to open up racial barriers and make riding equitable to all. After all, everyone should experience the freedom and grace of these animals.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
RIDE! Don’t let anyone steal your life’s passion. Find advocates and supporters of race and equality in your barn and create a safe place around that. We have every right to move about this world as anyone else, regardless if this sport is dominated by white riders.
It can be hard at times, but I promise you the love and connection you feel while being with your horse outweighs the hate that some may have. The equestrian world seems to be shifting, ever so slightly, but it feels like parts are moving in the right direction. This doesn’t mean that we need to stop fighting and stop educating those around us.
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.