How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I have been riding for almost eight years and for most of that time, I was a very timid rider. The fear of “what if this could happen” slowed my progress down.
In the last three or four years, I have learned to let go of the fear and embrace the unknown aspect of our sport. I am always pushing to learn more and how to become a more effective rider. I learn both by watching others ride and then doing it myself.
I fell in love with the horse years ago and that has never changed. I feel as if I am a determined rider, who loves those lightbulb moments in a lesson and tries to have fun every time I step into the barn.
How did you get involved with horses and what role do they currently play in your life?
I started riding after my younger special needs brother learned how to sit up and walk from therapeutic riding. Ever since my parents stuck me in pony camp, horses have been a part of my life. In each state we have lived in, horses are the one constant. I even met my best friend to this day through riding. My spare time is always spent at the barn or doing all my work – so I can go to the barn for longer.
I took a semester off of college due to COVID-19 and have been working with my trainer Kjirsten Lee at Orchard View Stables. This has been an amazing opportunity and the one good thing that has come out of COVID-19. I have been able to immerse myself in horses, spend as much time as I can in the saddle. and with my horse Dan.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
The part I enjoy most about being an equestrian of color is the questions I get asked by my peers.
Being a person of color is not something to hide, and I love being asked questions that help my peers understand me that much better. I love having the opportunity to share my experiences in a positive way and being surrounded by a group of people who will support me no matter what. The community, that I am lucky enough to be a part of, helped me realize that I should be proud of who I am.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
My proudest moment was winning reserve champion at a local schooling show. It did not seem like much to others at the time, but after an extremely rough winter rehab, it felt like I won the lottery. All the hard work and the tears had paid off.
Little did I know, that was the last centerline I would ever go down with my own horse. Looking back, I am so proud of our partnership and all we endured together. He gave me his best every day and is still my safe place when I do have to deal with the challenges of being a person of color.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
The thing I struggle the most with is the stares. Horse shows are often a difficult time because as I walk down a barn aisle, I feel many stares.
I often feel very uncomfortable going to large horse shows due to the staring, or people unwilling to stand in line next to me. While I have learned to keep my head held high, it is always a challenge to do so at shows. I catch myself walking with my head down, trying to be as small as possible.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Do what you love and hold your head high, you deserve to be here. Sometimes I have felt that I do not deserve to do this beautiful sport due to interactions I have had. [But] you do deserve it.
Surround yourself with a community of people who will encourage you, support you, and be there when you need a shoulder to cry on.
Shelley Paulson is an Equestrian Commercial & Portrait Photographer as well as Mentor and Educator, based in Minnesota. She is one of the founders of this project and has a passion to see more diversity in Equestrianism and Equine Media.