How did you get into horses and what is your current relationship with them?
I grew up with horses. My grandparents on my dad’s side had racehorses and were heavy into the eventing scene in California. My mom’s side did team roping and ranch work, so needless to say- my family is into horses. Additionally, my stepmother is a professional eventer, who has ridden through the 4* level. My dad doesn’t ride much anymore, but when I was younger, he also evented through the 2* level. He rode young horses that came off the track for both of his parents. Later on, he did the same for my step-mom to help train for resale.
I grew up in Pony Club, eventing on the west coast, primarily in California, spent a year in the UK working for international event riders, then moved to the east coast, settling on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I started out working for my family, teaching lessons, and managing their barn. Five years ago, I went off on my own with my business partner to start my own business, Selcouth Sporthorses, which specializes in sales and training, focusing on quality young horses in show jumping and eventing.
How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Ambitious and dedicated.
If you had asked me this 5 years ago, I would have simply said I am an eventer. I used to have the same dream most young girls who love horses have: I wanted to go to the Olympics and compete at the top of the sport. While I still want to compete at a high level, I have taken a step back from competition the last few years and have focused on training, building my mental game, and finding out who I am – not only in the horse world as an equestrian but also in the “real” world.
I have discovered the world of show jumping and love the attention to detail and accuracy it requires. I am lucky enough to have two really talented young horses that are excelling in the jumper ring and am really enjoying the process of bringing them along.
I am no longer just an eventer; I am a trainer. I enjoy the process of teaching horses, I enjoy feeling the horse happy and excel in any sport that suits them, whether that be show jumping, eventing or, alas, if they prefer, dressage. I love the process of helping horses find their human and watch them build a partnership. I work hard, I enjoy the day-to-day chores, and I believe the long hours are worth it in the end.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
Honestly, I don’t see myself as any different than anyone else in the horse world. But it is nice to represent a minority in a predominantly white culture.
I am just known as “the tan girl.” People compliment me on my skin, saying it must be nice to be so tan. I tell them that since I work outside, it’s easy to stay so tan. (Though the tan lines can get pretty crazy at times!) But I don’t feel any different, I work hard every day to accomplish my dreams, as does everyone who is competing horses and running a business.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
Any time that I work with a young horse and they have been struggling to grasp a certain concept, and then you watch the light bulb go off. Or I have been laying down the foundation and all the pieces just start falling in to place or the owner gets on and everything clicks for them – those are my proudest moments.
Though I will say, bringing along one of my young horses and competing him at the American Eventing Championships in the Preliminary Horse division in Tryon, North Carolina was also a highlight. Seeing our names on the big screen in the main arena and galloping around the cross country course was pretty spectacular.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
Honestly, I have lived a pretty privileged life. I have had to work hard, but that isn’t because of my race. Horses are hard work and they are expensive, but I honestly believe if there is a will, there is a way.
I’m half Mexican. And as a kid, I was embarrassed to admit that, though I am not exactly sure why. It was also hard to introduce my parents. I grew up with my dad and step-mom, who are both blonde-haired and blue-eyed. People would look at me weird, so I would joke and mess with people and say I was adopted – which drove my dad nuts. As I get older, I am learning to embrace that part of myself- it doesn’t matter WHAT I am, but WHO I am. I just strive to be the best person I can be and if I can get a good tan while doing it, then I am totally winning.
That being said – it’s been hard sometimes to hear snide remarks while I am mucking my own horses’ stalls and grooming my horses at shows. People assume that I am the “help” and it can be hard to hear how they speak, talking down to me. Then once they realize that I am the trainer, their tone instantly changes. I am a firm believer that everyone is equal, whether you are the groom, the rider, the moral support, or the trainer. Every person deserves respect, no excuses.
In what moment have you been most hurt or disappointed as an equestrian?
Let me preface this by saying that I have experienced the micro-aggressions of racism before – being told after I mucked those stalls that maybe I could mow the lawn or clean the house next. But I speak English and have the luxury of walking away and not dealing with ignorant people.
Last winter opened my eyes to how much more blatant racism is in the equestrian world than I had experienced or seen before. I hired a groom while I was in Florida for the winter season. She was a Mexican woman in her 40’s; the most incredible and hard-working woman I have ever met. One day she asked me how I got so tan and I told her that I was half Mexican. She said NO! You have money and ride, you can’t be Mexican.
In the moment, I just laughed. At first, because if she saw my bank account, she wouldn’t say that, but then the more I thought about it, the more it made me sad. Someone being a certain race should not dictate what we can or cannot do or what people think we should do. Also, this woman was the best worker I have ever met in my life. She took so much pride in what she did, and to see how others treated her because of her broken English and race made me sick. The assumptions that people made about her, and others in the industry that I have known, are very disappointing.
I think we allow ourselves to put concepts and ideas about certain things into boxes. It’s a learned habit or trait, and honestly, some of the stereotypes out there wouldn’t be around without some truth. But that shouldn’t cause us to put ourselves and others into the boxes and close them shut. We as a whole (the whole world) need to move past stereotypes, which lead to racism, and stop letting them dictate our actions.
If there is a will, there is most definitely a way. It may not be an easy way, but if you want to ride that horse, compete at that competition, if you truly want it – you can find a way. Don’t let preconceived ideas of who you are supposed to be get in your way. I know it sounds easier than it is, but hopefully, as our generations push past the micro-aggressions of racism, it will get easier for future generations to come. But it has to start with us…
What words of encouragement do you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Do it. Racism will always be there, in any industry – don’t let it stop you from doing anything. You do you. Keep your head held high.
As long as you have integrity and pride in your riding and horse, you cannot fail. Be honest, give yourself goals and remember to always listen to your horse. The feeling a horse gives you when they nuzzle you and go in for a cuddle will make all the worries go away. They truly are magical and can heal the deepest of wounds in your heart if you let them. They can also cause much frustration, but they will teach you the true meaning of patience and how dedication and hard work can pay off.
What is your favorite?
Horse Breed: Any, though I do have a soft spot for OTTB’s and also love a smart warmblood.
Horse Color: When I was little, grey. Now that I am the one driving myself to competitions and bearing the bathing responsibilities, I love a good bay horse.
Discipline: Show Jumping
Treat to give: Swedish Fish- I have a horse now that is obsessed with them. Plus, I can eat them too.
Place to ride: Rebecca Farms in Kalispell, Montana
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.