How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
As an equestrian, I follow two commandments. The first is this: “the horse comes first” which was instilled in me by my trainers Karla Pekor and Peggy Smith.
The second is this: “if there is a will there is a way.” My mom and my grandmother taught me this. They helped me clean stalls 5 days a week to support my passion. When I started showing at a higher level on the rated circuit, we would clean stalls 7 days a week and bumped up to 30 stalls instead of 15. It was hard work, but it was worth it to me because I was doing what I loved.
How did you start riding horses?
Our neighbors had horses in their backyard and I LOVED THEM! Especially this little pony named Sugar. I always wanted to ride and finally started riding lessons at five years old. However, riding lessons were expensive for a single mother, so my mom encouraged me to try different sports. I played soccer, basketball, and track. But my passion and love for horses still could not be hidden, and I secretly wanted more riding lessons.
One day I ventured down to the neighbor’s yard to ride Sugar. Little did I know, Sugar was their unbroke pony, and I was baiting her to come to me on a stump with a carrot so I could ride bareback with no bridle! Luckily, the neighbor stopped me before that happened, but my mom knew then that I was not going to give up on riding. After that day, I started riding and haven’t stopped since!
How do horses take part in your life today?
I attended Delaware State University where I was the first African American to receive a full Equestrian Scholarship. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Animal and Poultry Science and was then asked by South Dakota State University to help with their hunt seat team while getting my master’s degree.
I quickly realized in my first semester there that I loved teaching and that I wanted to pursue a career in coaching. I finished my master’s with a degree in Sport and Recreational Sciences with an emphasis in coaching and teaching and was hired on as the full-time Division I Assistant Equestrian Coach for South Dakota State University at the age of 23.
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of coaching and teaching at South Dakota State University, my alma mater Delaware State University, Bridgewater College in Weyers Cave, Virginia, and most recently William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri, where a third of the total student population rides and works towards the oldest equestrian degree in the United States.
My students have been some of the most hard working, driven, and passionate riders I have ever had the pleasure to meet. It’s been an honor to coach national champions, zone champions, high point riders, and help riders qualify and point out of their divisions. I’ve gained wonderful friendships and wonderful mentors. Because of people like my students, my mentors, my family, and my husband, I have the confidence to know that I can do anything I put my mind to in the equestrian world.
What would you like people to know about your experiences as an equestrian of color?
It takes hard work, dedication, passion, and the love of community to reach your goals – especially when you’re an equestrian of color. One moment, in particular, stands out from my childhood.
At every rated show, I braided, body clipped, pulled manes, painted jumps, picked rocks out of the outdoor ring, moved jumps, cleaned water troughs – anything you can think of, I did it with a smile on my face just so I could afford to go to camp. When I qualified for Pony Finals, my barn family was so proud and happy for me – we couldn’t wait to tell my mom on the drive back. But when we returned home to tell her, my mom looked like she was ready to cry; not tears of joy but tears of disappointment. Tears of “how am I going to tell Kamerra we can’t go because we couldn’t afford it.”
My mom quickly told my trainer Karla Pekor how we couldn’t afford Pony Finals, and we immediately went to work on a plan. We did a car wash, we asked for sponsorships from different businesses, and my grandmother rolled up all her pennies. Everything came together with my barn family helping as well with a hotel. We even had a sign-up sheet for students to help me groom at the show, and there was a long list of students wanting to help. So, with hard work, donations, and a small village of amazing people, I was able to go to Pony Finals!
During this time there were not many African Americans at the barn that I could look up to. I did look up to Paige Johnson but had a hard time relating to her when she was born from affluence and I simply was not. I wanted to compete where she was. I even wrote her letters asking for suggestions or her used clothing that she may have grown out of and couldn’t wear anymore. I was disappointed and disheartened when the response I got back was “they could not give at that time.”
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
I enjoy being a role model as the only equestrian of color coaching, teaching, and riding at a college level. I feel that I’m fulfilling that dream of the little 9 year old me.
However, I didn’t always feel that way. I wanted to be white so bad, even to the point I would tell people I was mixed because my father was really light skinned. I would tell people my dad was white that way I could fit in more to be mixed.
Once I realized it didn’t matter about the color of my skin or where I came from, I changed. In the words of my cousin: “love the skin your in.” I was proud of who I was. I was an honest, hard-working, joyful, ambitious individual that was a role model for riders who might have felt like me growing up – those who only saw white riders excel in this sport. I feel I’m an example that if you want something bad enough and are willing to work for it, anything can happen!
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
A lot of the challenges I’ve had to face have been finances.
Every birthday I wished for a pony, but finances were tight. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and we were a very hard-working family. Buying a horse outright was something we could not achieve at the time.
I bought my first pony by selling my beanie babies. But buying is always considered the cheapest part. To afford board, horse shows, and lessons, I would muck stalls 5 or 7 days a week while balancing school. And my grandmother and mother would help me do stalls every day.
As an adult, I’ve been able to teach lessons and train horses to be able to afford a horse of my own. But finances are still a challenge and so the horses I own, train, and bring along are sold before I get to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Don’t think because you are a person of color it will be easier. You will have to work just as hard and be just as good at what you do. More importantly, you also have to WANT to be good. Being an equestrian of color will hinder you before it helps you. The doors are not going to open right away. Be patient, work hard, and don’t give up.
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.