How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Equitation traditionalist turned omni-disciplined adventurist who will try anything but endurance (nothing against endurance riders at all… in fact, I have a lot of respect for them. I just don’t know if my hips and knees can take the abuse!).
My current identity is “polo player” because that is what I have access to at the moment. However, if given the opportunity, I believe I will sway to cross country rider or jumper really hard!
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
No matter which country, state, or city I visit, I know I have found a connection with someone if I meet a horse person.
For my junior year of university, I studied abroad in Bordeaux, France. I joined a riding school that was within biking distance of my host family’s residence. Bordeaux is not the most diverse place on earth, much less so than big cities like Paris. However, I met riders from many different ethnic backgrounds at the riding school.
Some of my classmates came from single-parent households; one was the eldest of five siblings who all had different after-school activities. A few of them were university students who worked part-time to pay for their university tuition. Apart from one young woman, who owned her horse and quickly graduated to the amateur-level competition circuit, no one else came from a particularly wealthy background. We regularly competed in the club circuit on school horses and learned proper horsemanship through the French equivalent of Pony Club along the way.
One contributing factor to the lack of diversity in the US equestrian community is the prohibitive cost of getting into the sport. While accessibility is not a uniquely star-spangled issue, it is an issue that I can speak to as a person who has joined schooling programs in at least 3 different countries.
Horse riding is still considered a premier hobby in France, especially if you want to compete regularly. However, it is not vastly more expensive than non-horse sports. The price point of horse riding in France makes this seemingly elitist sport in the US actually accessible to the masses. Coupled with reasonable riding gear prices that one can find at Decathlon, the largest sporting goods store in France, the barrier to entry into the equestrian world is significantly lower than it is in the States.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
One of the biggest struggles of being a politically opinionated equestrian of color is the lack of understanding and empathy from folks with more privilege. Some people I know from the equestrian world don’t understand my anger and frustrations towards current events.
When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the election, media outlets initially referred to Harris as the first black VP. I took issue with that because Harris is a biracial woman of black and Indian descent. The fact that the media would ignore 50% of Harris’s ethnic identity to fit her into the trendy BLM and black empowerment narrative was disrespectful towards Indians and people from Asia. Not to mention how disrespectful it is toward Harris’s single mother, an immigrant from India. When I expressed my opinion on social media, a woman commented, ”Let’s get rid of labels… Seriously I can’t keep up…”
Her comment hurt. It felt like she didn’t want to acknowledge my identity and struggles as a woman of color. It felt like she was erasing Harris’ mother’s efforts as a single immigrant mother who raised an amazing woman who broke every stereotype to get to where she is today.
I can empathize with feeling fatigued by constantly changing narratives and social practices. I get it. It’s exhausting. But what is even more tiring is being gaslit into thinking that my concerns are too PC, that I’m too angry, that my struggles don’t matter.
Representation is another beast to wrangle. Equestrian brands are getting better at being conscious about representation, whether body size, disability, or skin color. However, the main organizing bodies of equestrian sport seem to take little interest in diversifying representation.
In the US Polo Association’s (USPA) 2019-2020 campaign, they featured 7 polo players – 6 of them being white or white-passing and one black polo player there for the USPA to check off that diversity box. That is not good enough.
Tokenism is not diversity. Jay Du-Sauzay is the black polo player that the USPA chose to feature. He is an accomplished polo player and project consultant in the commercial real estate realm and many more things. But the USPA’s campaign tokenized him and reduced him to just a black polo player who is lucky to be amongst white polo players in their white polo world.
Their campaign is not a representation of the polo world at all. The polo world is incredibly diverse! When I started the Polo and Equestrian Clubs at UC Santa Barbara, I recruited people of different ethnic backgrounds. Polo patrons are now Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Black, Latinx, Filipinx, and more. Leadership at the USPA does not reflect the diversity at the grassroots level of polo.
As an Asian woman, I cannot begin to tell you how empowering it is to see Harris as the United States’ vice president. Watching little black and Indian children celebrate Harris’s victory and witnessing their joy when they realize that they, too, can have a say at the table solidified to me the fact that representation REALLY matters.
I had my first moment of realizing that representation matters when I was watching a scene in Crazy Rich Asians. During a scene in which we first meet Michael Teo’s character (played by Pierre Png), the husband of Astrid Leong-Teo (played by Gemma Chan), the camera pans up the ripped abs of Png while hot water was running down his body and cuts to him walking out of a steamy shower wrapped in a towel. That was when I realized that I have never actually seen an Asian man get sexualized and portrayed as a sexy desirable character in Western media until Crazy Rich Asians. Even as a Chinese person, the thought of compelling, complex, English-speaking characters of Asian descent being portrayed in Western media never crossed my mind until I saw it on the silver screen.
Imagine the impact representation could have on equestrians. What if a black girl played the lead in Flicka? What if a Mongolian boy played the lead in Black Beauty? It is time to shake up the status quo and invite people of color to the equestrian world. Diversity in representation can only bring richness and entropy that leads to more creativity and empathy.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
There are people like you in the equestrian world; you are not alone. There are people who look like you, who have similar financial, social, and time constraints, who also love horses with all their hearts. There are people like you who feel guilty that they sometimes feel like horses are a burden because they have to work so hard to be in the horse world, but also appreciate the love and fulfillment that horses bring.
The diversity problem in equestrian disciplines is not as severe as the media leads us to believe. Let me preface this by saying I live in a bubble that is the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Riding is expensive in the Bay Area– even more so than the rest of the country. In the equestrian hotspots of Portola Valley and Woodside, you’d be hard-pressed to find lessons at a hunter-jumper barn for less than $100 for 45 minutes. However, because of the tech industry’s diverse workforce and high wages, the equestrian clientele here checks all the diversity boxes. There are people like you in the equestrian world.
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.