How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I’d say I’m a passionate, horse obsessed adult mommy Latina amateur. That’s a lot to digest, but we as humans are made of so many parts. Intersectionality is the core of what being human is. As a young child of immigrant parents, I dreamed of being able to ride for pleasure. Birthday gifts were often a trail ride at the nearest area to abate my passion. Now, as an adult, I’m catching up on years of (for lack of a better word) obsession with horses and attempting to soak up as much knowledge as I possibly can. Since this is such a physical passion, I think my younger self would’ve been better equipped to learn how to jump cross rails, but this old/new body is doing its best!
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
I love that I can broaden people’s horizons about who can be an equestrian. The wide eyes and “really?” that I get when I mention that I ride were once intimidating, but I take that opportunity now to share what it looks like for a BIPOC mother to be in the sport. People have a range of ideas of what an equestrian “should” look like, and these almost never include brown or black folx or mothers.
Take a look at any equestrian website or magazine pre-BLM era and you’ll be hard-pressed to find black and brown riders from diverse backgrounds. Being able to change that, even at a local level in one barn, makes me happy because I know the kids who show up for their first lessons will notice this. Our children are our future, and what they see and hear often becomes who they are. Why wouldn’t we want to give our best, most humane versions?
My greatest wish is to see this change in the equestrian community – for barns to be inclusive, instead of exclusive. For barns to be kind and understanding, instead of judgemental and snarky. I’ve heard so many horror stories from other BIPOC riders that I truly can’t understand how a decent human being can act or say those things, and it hurts my heart for humanity. I’m happy to hear more positive stories as of late and the models representing equestrian brands are changing and diversifying in so many aspects – body type, ethnicity, race, family structure. It’s so needed, and I’m looking forward to continuing to push that change.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
There are two challenges.
I’ll be honest – even as a full-time worker with a graduate degree, it’s still challenging to finance this passion. I’ve been blessed to be able to half-lease my first horse, Gabriel, in the last two months but prior to that, I was on lesson horses. Purchasing is out of the question when your largest incoming bill is daycare for your child, but that’s fine with me. I chose this life, and I love it. I wouldn’t change my son for anything in the world, but as an adult, you learn to balance your wants and needs. Riding is a want, no matter how much you try to convince yourself that it’s a need (although I count it as my therapy, so… that bumps it up a few points, right?). Finding balance is key here, and as I age and hopefully open up by financial avenues, I’ll continue to grow my passion for horses and hunters. But I know this is still the largest hurdle for BIPOC riders.
The second challenge is feeling like you belong in this equestrian world. I wasn’t exposed to the competition aspect of horses until I became an adult and decided to finally gift myself the pleasure of consistent riding. When I first sought out a barn in Miami, where I was born and raised, I thought I would find riders of the same ethnicity. After all, Miami was little Cuba, right? I’d say over 80% of the population is easily Hispanic there, so I’d feel right at home as I delved into the H/J world. Well, to my surprise, I didn’t find a Latinx person there except, as expected, as a stable hand.
When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I had the same idea again – one of the most diverse cities in the nation surely will have diverse riders. But alas, again, the only Latinx person was the stable hand and nearly all the riders Caucasian. From time to time, I would see some BIPOC riders drift in but they’d quickly disappear and would not become a permanent student. People leave for various reasons, and I can’t assume what those were, but I can guess that it was influenced by not feeling like they belonged – especially when the owner would mention the cost of shows and the need to lease in order to be a good rider.
In this, I have to acknowledge that I am very privileged to be where I am at. Although my parents fled the Castro regime and started in this country with absolutely nothing to their name, they worked their way up after many years of service to a comfortable life. That afforded me the ability to be in a city where most people looked like me, spoke my native language, and I never had to fear for lack of shelter. We were not rich, but I never had to guess where my next meal was coming from or when it would be available. I also was born with light skin, a huge leg up in the systemic racism that persists in the USA. I am able-bodied, had the privilege to take advanced courses in school, complete my undergraduate studies completely on scholarship, and obtain a graduate degree.
I worked hard for these things, yes, but my ability to eat, clothe, shelter myself, and my skin color were never barriers to reaching that first step. My white skin and non-accent English has also granted me passing approval in barns, except for those moments where I am speaking Spanish with the stable hand. For many people, when you speak a language they don’t know around them, it causes automatic defense and assumption that you’re speaking ill of them when in fact, you’re simply talking about why your lesson horse refuses to put their hoof up to be cleaned. I’ve received many nasty stares for speaking my native language with stable workers, but I remind myself that it’s not about me at the end of the day – it’s about that person’s insecurity.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
The reality is it’s not going to be easy. The world is vastly unfair and is eons away from being equitable for all its diverse inhabitants. There will be moments where you are uncomfortable, possibly even directly attacked. You may be the only BIPOC person in the entire barn. But that doesn’t mean you give up on your passion. I’d give you two important things to live by:
1. Speak your truth.
2. Remember your why.
If people are rude to you, say something insensitive, or simply are not welcoming, speak up. As BIPOC, we’re taught and ingrained to keep our heads down, not spark controversy, and be thankful for whatever you have, even if it’s scraps. This is a lie that has been fed to us to keep us “in our place.” It’s time to rise and speak up, speak loud – you are worthy, you matter, and your voice needs to be heard. Don’t allow others to treat you as less than. We belong just as much as anyone else. And when the going gets tough, and you’re exhausted from educating or conversing with someone who hasn’t understood yet, take time for yourself to rest and recharge.
Another lesson many BIPOC people are taught is to keep working, no matter how tired you are. We must give, give, give. But the truth is (and as cliche as it sounds), you cannot do your best work if you’re not showing up for yourself first. So take the time to relax, do something you enjoy, step away from the stress and negativity, and remind yourself why you so passionately pursue this. At the end of the day, our unending love for horses is what matters. The way they make us feel – free, understood, loved, unencumbered, pure joy and happiness – this is what matters. Find that. Always come back to it. It’s home.
Alaina is an equine portrait photographer based out of the San Francisco Bay area. She is driven by an endless love of horses, a deep passion for storytelling, and a profound desire for an equitable, empathetic world.