How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I am and will always be a Black Horsewoman, Cowgirl, and Equestrian. I was raised in the Black Horsemen tradition in Oakland, CA.
After chasing cans (barrel racing) during high school, I flirted with the idea of training horses, but my parents insisted I go to college. I owned horses off and on, but when my son was born I decided that I wanted to get back to horses. As life would have it, my career called and I spent the next decade working for social justice. When my family relocated 5 years ago, we bought a 16 acre ranch in the mountains of Southern Oregon. Getting back to horses was a top priority for me.
I needed a well-broke horse, so I scoured Facebook looking for a horse that was rideable and sane. When I rode JaxieBaby for the first time, I was taken aback by how smooth his jog was. Turns out he had been a pleasure horse for some time but was being “retired”. That was fine with me because I wanted to ride on trails and in the local arena.
In an effort to understand JaxieBaby’s training, I started to research Western Pleasure. The more I learned, the more I wanted to go slow while rocking bling on a slicked-out horse! Thanks to Instagram, I found my coach and began my latest equestrian journey; to be the first Black woman to win a World Championship in American Paint Horse Association history.
In this new phase of my horse journey, I consider myself a Black Equestrian Athlete. This journey to compete at the National level has required me to train like an athlete. From lifting weights to jogging to eating a nutrient-rich diet; my life has shifted to prioritize what I need to perform at my highest level. The names I call myself have changed throughout my 40-year love affair with horses, but one thing has remained consistent: I am a Black woman learning from and with horses.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
I was 3 years old the first time I sat on a horse – a red roan owned by a Black cowboy who agreed to lead me around the outdoor arena in the hills of Oakland, Ca. I began riding lessons when I was 6 and spent the summer riding a mean little pony that bucked me off every day. That little pony was committed to getting me off and when I look back at the experiences that have shaped me most – getting back on that pony over and over is among them.
That pony taught me that riding was more than sitting pretty; it included getting knocked down – a lot. It also included getting back on as many times as needed to complete the task and end on a good note. As a teenager, my parents bought me a young grade gelding with 30 days on him. Magik became my teenage everything. After school, instead of going to hang out on my block, I headed over to the barn where I would spend a couple of hours riding Magik in the arena or on myriad trails of the Oakland hills.
To build the skills and talents of young people of color in Oakland, a Black Cowboy by the name of Sunny ran a program at Wild Cat Canyon Ranch. This ranch was nestled in the hills overlooking the flatlands of Oakland, where most of us lived. Along with other Black cowgirls and cowboys, we learned about the great history of Black horsemen who helped shape the American cowboy culture. The crowning event of the year was riding in the Grand Entry at the Bill Pickett Rodeo each summer.
This exposure to Black rodeo inspired me to try my hand at barrel racing for a few years. For nearly 20 years, I rode with other Black and POC riders who lived in the Bay Area and their tutilage has helped to shape me into the woman, equestrian, and athlete I am today.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
Despite having the honor to compete in some of the most beautiful and popular arenas in the US, my happiest moment as an equestrian has always happened in the stall with my horse. I am so lucky to have had several heart horses in my life, but there is nothing like talking with your horse in its stall. I can share my hopes and dreams and I can listen to theirs. The silent moments shared at the end of a hard day bring me a different kind of peace.
In the last few years, there has been an uptick in interest in mainstream equestrian and cowboy brands seeking partnerships with equestrians of color. Thanks to social media, I have been able to meet a lot more equestrians of color in so many disciplines. Connecting with other equestrians of color online has opened up the aperture of who we are and what is possible.
I am inspired every day by equestrians of color from around the world who are jumping, competing in dressage, rodeoing, and showing. In fact, I have been able to connect with people who inspire me and who I have inspired at shows and events. It is important to remember that we are not alone and that what we are doing is making an impact on others.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
The challenges I have faced as a Black equestrian are the same challenges I have faced as a Black woman living, working, loving, parenting, and playing in America. I have faced both blatant and subtle acts of racism from horse friends and strangers. While I have been able to make friends with a wide range of non-Black equestrians, the lack of racial diversity has led to a culture of whiteness that struggles to see, understand, or appreciate me in my full humanity.
From my perspective, being Black and hailing from the richness of Black culture is a gift. I am deeply proud to be shaped by the experiences I have had as a Black, queer, femme person. Although I understand that the stereotypes of Black people are meant to reinforce the notion that we are lazy, stupid, and inferior, my experience with Black people and my own life are a testament to exactly the opposite.
I stand on the legacy of Black people who are innovators, intellectuals, creatives, and champions. It is this legacy of Black excellence that has led me to this journey to be the first Black woman to win a world title. So, from the very beginning, I was standing in relationships with people who didn’t want to see race or understand that the stereotypes they have learned about Black people are untrue. While I could have allowed this dynamic to run me out of the horse show world, I embraced it and continue to show up as myself.
Initially, I experienced a lot of “colorblind” horse people who told me that they “don’t see” color. People offered color blindness as a way to make me feel welcome and accepted as “one of them”. It was clear that they saw color, which is why they were telling me this.
I look different, talk different, and was raised up in a very different horse culture. Pretending that race wasn’t part of what made me different would reinforce untruths about the accessibility and diversity of the space. That was a lie I wasn’t willing to be a party to and so I just showed up in my truth.
Given my upbringing in the Black Horsemen community, I have never felt the need to respond to the racism I encounter in the horse world. When blatantly racist comments would come up, I would calmly and logically dismantle those ideas; I wouldn’t laugh at casual racist (or homophobic) jokes, and over time people stopped doing it with me.
Ultimately, I hope that other equestrians of all colors remember that it is ok to be on your horse journey for yourself. Despite being the only equestrian of color or a part of an exclusive club of equestrians of color, you deserve to be able to show up as yourself. If your horse can accept you as you are, every else should be able to too.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Equestrians of color deserve to be equestrians. We are a part of both the history and future of the horse industry.
May each equestrian of color inspire another equestrian of color to learn what it feels like to love (and be loved) by a horse.
When the journey is hard, I pray that you will keep going because you know that you can do hard things. I hope that no one ever makes you feel inferior, unwanted, or unsafe in a horse-space; and if they do, I hope that you remember that no one has power over you unless you give them that power.
I hope that you enter competitions for fun and to win. I hope you remember to take pictures of your successes and post them to Instagram and inspire some little kid to go ride horses.
I hope you know that you are never too old to take on a crazy dream (like winning a world title) and that the answer to every challenge involves time with a horse at the end. I hope you remember that what makes you different, is what will make you great. Embrace yourself just as you are and be your own hero.
More than anything, I hope equestrians of color always know that they are not alone and that they are needed, wanted, and important to the horse world.
Horse breed: Paints
Horse color: Frame Overo in any color; Greys, Buckskin
Treat to give: Peppermints
Place to ride: Will Rogers Memorial Center; John Justin Arena. Ft. Worth, Texas
Rebecca Tolman is an equine photographer based in Oregon. Working with clients and their horses, capturing the relationship and bond they share is Rebecca’s passion and reason for pursuing her photography over 10 years ago.