How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?

I’ve never thought “an equestrian” was a label or something that could be described to be honest. Horses are a part of my life and a part of who I am. They’ve been the constant in my life.

Wherever in the world I was, whatever point in life I was in, however many dollars were in the account and whomever was around me at the time… horses were there. I made sure of it.

How did you get involved with horses?

Growing up in South East Asia, horses and horse riding were very rare and hard to come by. There were very few places to do it and very limited resources. My father actually rescued, rehabbed, and re-homed off-the-track racehorses. I learned to ride on them.

I think this has heavily influenced my equestrian lifestyle today because I don’t think that little girl who spent hours in the field earning the trust of a barely broken 3-year-old has ever left me. The hours I spent working with many different types of horses influenced my approach to horses and my program.

How do you racially identify?

I was always asked this question when I was modeling and acting because you have to check a box. I was always labeled “ethnically ambiguous” which was like a golden ticket in that world – I could be cast in any number of roles. And on the flip side, I lost jobs because I was either not Asian enough or not white enough.

Now that I’m no longer in that industry, I don’t know what the right answer is. I’ve been told for so long what I’m supposed to be, but deciding for myself can be a bit stressful. Genetically speaking, my mom is Filipino and my dad is white. But I’m just me – I’m just Ellesse.

How has your culture and/or race influenced your equestrian lifestyle?

Living in Wellington, a town where the barns are much nicer than what we ever had growing up, I still appreciate where I came from and also strive to be the best equestrian. I want to fit into the culture of the town I am in, but not forget my roots and the core of who I am as an equestrian.

Today I am a “young” (though not so young anymore I guess) professional who trains and develops and competes horses up to the highest level. I am sponsored by some of the biggest brands in the industry and have competed in some of the biggest arenas in the world.

But in reality, when I am in the saddle and working with a horse, it’s just that little girl who’d spend hours in the field with her horse.

What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?

I think a lot of people expect me to have faced challenges because I’m a rider of color and maybe I have met such instances. But I haven’t recognized them as challenges and I certainly haven’t let them slow me down or stop me from doing anything.

I think this mindset comes from my upbringing. Growing up in Malaysia, I was not in the minority. Here in the US, I often have to remind myself that I am in fact a minority, but I focus on the events in my life where my race wasn’t my label.

My first international competition was on a borrowed horse in Germany through a program called Horses & Dreams. The riders came from all over the world and they asked everyone to bring a bottle of water from their country. When we got there, we all poured our water into a fountain because water is water. No matter where we came from, we were all there to do one thing: ride horses. I’ll always remember that. We were all like-minded kids from all over the world and nobody cared where we came from – only the riding.

So were there challenges in the past that I faced? Perhaps. But I don’t use my color or other people’s perception of me because of color as the reason for my challenges. It’s motivation.

What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
Up to this point, qualifying for the World Equestrian Games and the World Cup Finals in 2018 was a proud moment for me. It wasn’t just about riding; it was also an accomplishment in the management and care of your horse and the team that works alongside you.

But to be honest, I feel like the moment is still coming. And that is also part of my culture. Asians are not good at celebrating victories but we are good at working toward them. We are always hyper-focused on what can be improved and what the next hurdle is.

I may never have an answer to this. I appreciate and honor my culture because Asian women are so strong and so independent and so fierce which means I’m always going to be hungry for what’s next.

In what way have you been most disappointed as an equestrian of color?

I probably have been disappointed by how I’ve been treated in the past but Asian culture also conditions us to persevere, to not dwell on the roadblocks, and to just work harder. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve surprised people in positive ways rather than reaffirm their stigmas.

But I do experience indirect disappointment in how the community of Asian riders are automatically perceived before they even enter the ring. When I hear, “Wow that’s a great result for THAT country” it stings, but it also drives me that much more to normalize Asian countries in the top 3. When you’re a little bit different, you have to try even harder to prove you belong.

For sure when I see another Asian rider, I take a closer look and show more interest. It’s really awesome to see other riders from Asian countries at higher levels and coming in top 3. I cheer them on!

What words of encouragement or advice would you have for other equestrians of color?

I would encourage everyone to do the sport and be part of the equestrian community for one reason and one reason only… for the love of the horse. Surround yourself with others that share this love and lift each other up because of the love you share.

Amazingly supportive people do exist in the horse world. Once you find them, hang on tight to them. Nurture, honor, and value those relationships, and start building your tribe. And then turn around and be that support for others.

Everyone should feel safe at the barn, safe on horses, safe with horse people. My hope is that equestrians of color find a place in the horse world that feels encouraging and the equestrian community becomes more understanding.