How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I would describe myself as an equestrian who is always willing to try new things and learn more within the sport. At the age of 4, my adoption agency had a big family day picnic with pony rides. I kept asking to ride over and over again, so afterward, my parents signed me up for lessons at a hunter/jumper barn. And I’ve been riding ever since.
The first time I jumped, I was hooked. I thought it was so much fun. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling and the exercises. I remember doing a grid for the first time. I was like, ‘You get to constantly keep jumping a bunch of times in a row?’ I thought that was the best thing on earth.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
What I enjoy the most is meeting other equestrians of color, and being able to encourage one another. I have so many happy memories over the years. Making a lot of friends at my lesson barn of 18 years. Helping with summer camps. Taking my favorite horse, Cosmo, to our first show.
And in college, when I qualified for Zones at IHSA Regionals (Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association) as part of the hunt seat team. It’s real cutthroat, and it’s a lot of pressure for everybody. But as a team, we’re all there for each other. Like typical teammates, we’re going to bicker every now and then, but when it comes down to it, we are all supportive of each other and cheer each other on.
I try to talk to everybody too. When we go to a show, people are like ‘How do you know so many people?’ I’m just social. You have to talk to people and get connections. Someone may need a horse ridden. I was able to be the official photographer at a show from talking to people. You just never know where things will lead you.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
Personally, I have not had issues with my race that I am aware of. Most people are like, ‘Wow, it’s a guy riding. Where did this guy come from?’ And when they first see a guy riding, it’s ‘Oh he’s gay obviously.’ That’s usually the first assumption, but no, I’m straight.
When I was younger, most people were just curious about it. But a little bit, in the beginning, I would get made fun of for hanging out with girls all the time. Guys would say ‘It’s a girly sport, guys don’t really do that. Why can’t you do other things?’ Even though I played other sports growing up. But you just keep going and prove them wrong.
The most difficult thing about being a guy equestrian is sometimes getting dismissed. I’ve heard people say ‘Oh he’s a guy, he gets guy points from the judge. Don’t feel bad for him, he gets guy points today.’
I would like to see more guys be able to come out and ride. They think the sport just isn’t for them because they don’t see other guys doing it. So they think, ‘Oh, others are going to make fun of me.’ You don’t really see guys riding until the higher levels at big shows like WIHS (Washington International Horse Show), Upperville, or even the Olympics.
However, I have been disappointed in not seeing enough representation in the equestrian world. I would like to see that everyone is included equally and nobody is discriminated against based on the color of his or her skin. I haven’t experienced it personally, but I know it’s out there.
A friend, who is an Asian rider, has had people say things like ‘Hide the horses so she doesn’t eat them, hide the barn cats, the dog.’ Comments like that. It’s just sad. Everyone thinks America is this great country, but we’re all angry and fighting with each other. Put good in, you’ll get good out. Just make friends wherever you can.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
It’s going to get tough, I’m not going to lie. Just keep pushing through. If someone says you can’t do it, just prove them wrong. Don’t let others tell you what you can and cannot do. Prove to them that you can do anything that anybody else can do.
There will be a lot of moments of ‘I don’t get it. I don’t know what to do. I can’t do it.’ But don’t give up if something gets difficult. I’ll try to ask questions if I’m stuck on a movement, or can’t get something right. If my plan isn’t working, I’ll ask my trainer what I can do to fix the problem.
I remember a ride where I wanted to hop off and give up. Me and my horse just weren’t clicking. He was darting at everything, I couldn’t hold him back. My trainer and I were going back and forth. It was one of those really frustrating rides where nothing is going right.
But you have to remember, the horse is still trying to do his job. Remember he’s doing his best and we just have to figure things out. But of course, I was like, ‘I can’t ride him. I’m not good enough for this horse.’ I was going through a real rut. We ended up figuring out it was the saddle that was making his back hurt and once that was fixed, I was like wow, this horse is a lot of fun.
You’re always learning, and it doesn’t get old. You think you learn one thing, then you learn eight more things on top of it to help improve what you just learned. Hard work will continue to pay off.
What is your favorite?
Horse breed: Thoroughbred
Horse color: Chestnut
Treat to give: Peppermints – because I can eat them too
Place to ride: Outside
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.