How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
What I mean by that is it took me so long to find and fit myself into the definition of an “equestrian”.
Let me take you on a brief journey. I met a horse for the first time when I was 4 years old, watching the mounted police ride through the streets of Ottawa, Canada. I was bright eyed, bushy tailed, and blissfully unaware of the prejudices and limitations in the world around me. I immediately declared I wanted to be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (a “Mountie”) when I grew up, thinking it was the only way I could ride a horse. When, at the age of 12, I discovered you could take riding lessons, I never begged harder for anything in my life from my overprotective parents.
“Just for the summer”, they said. Famous last words. I continued riding and competing in the hunter/jumper world–scrappily–on and off for many years between school and work, somehow continuing to keep a pipe dream of going to the Olympics alive. But of course, how could I when I didn’t have the connections, the horses, and the financial means?
Years of moving around and plenty of instructors later, I felt defeated by the sport and nearly lost the passion I always had. Everyone had different opinions on how to ride and manage a horse, and nothing seemed to fit. I needed to create a space to find my own style. So instead, I tried something new and decided to do purely leases and share boards. To my surprise, I apparently had the tools in my arsenal all along. But it showed up in a different form: By centering on the horse-human connection.
That’s when the embers re-emerged. Equestrianism isn’t about a sport to me; it’s about the deep connection between two individuals and the amazing things that they can accomplish together.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
Hands down (hooves down?), being the sore thumb that sticks out in every barn I walk into.
Okay so I lied; that’s not something I really enjoy. But by being the sore thumb, I am being the representation. And despite the problems that come with that, it is also a powerful thing to be.
When I started training horses and teaching riding lessons part-time, I vowed to break down barriers and create a more accessible environment for anyone who wanted to get involved. I serendipitously, independently ended up having a little group of lesson riders that were all POC and/or LGBTQ+. (“Lesbian Equestrians” we fashioned ourselves.) Suddenly, my horsey world looked so much more diverse like I had always hoped it would become.
The cherry on top was the day I was told a little Asian American girl came to visit the barn and read my horse’s card with my name as the owner, and her eyes lit up as she exclaimed in disbelief, “A Chinese person owns this horse?” That. That is the inclusive horse world I want: Where a last name like mine can slowly become normalized. For little girls (and boys and everyone in between) to see that they, too, can be an equestrian. That is such a rewarding feeling.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I can’t count the number of times I have been stared at as I walk into a stable. They usually thought they were being discreet.
The time I called up a barn while interning in North Carolina, and the person on the other line audibly gasped upon taking down my name and asked with surprise, “Are you Asian?”
How no one ever confuses me for anyone else at the barn, even this day in age when masks are an (ideal) must. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s a benefit.)
Being yelled at, over and over again, to sit up straighter when my conformation just did not bend me that way. I had a pretty injured back when I got out of the saddle that day.
Needing to look a certain way for shows. I struggled to fit into that look with my long thick hair that refused to stay in a bun, fit in a net, or neatly go under a helmet.
Fun fact: Did you know helmets are optimized for Caucasian heads? It took me a long time to realize my round Asian head shape was the reason why it was always near impossible to find a nice helmet that would fit me.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
What I will not say is something cliche along the lines of “keep reaching for your dreams”. Horses are a relatively exclusive and expensive hobby so I will start by noting that I am incredibly grateful to have had the privilege to even have the experiences I’ve had. I recognize not everyone has this privilege.
So while we continue to break down these barriers, what I’ll say instead is: Find a community. Just pushing on the passion alone sometimes isn’t enough when you have all the reasons around you not to pursue or continue equestrianism. I hope this project can double as a way to connect you with a community because it is so important to have that solidarity and support network. From there, I hope you carpe the f*** out of your horsey diem–and every diem to come.
Tell me more about your horse!
Sunny (“ROL Passionate Sun”) is a 4-year-old chestnut Arabian gelding and my first horse that isn’t a lease/share board of sorts. Complete goofball. Looks more like a llama than a horse on most days!
After growing up in the H/J world here in the Chicago ‘burbs, and then living all across the nation, I really thought I’d end up one day with that warmblood I always dreamed of. Then I got Sunny while I was unemployed from my full-time job due to COVID nonetheless! He serendipitously landed in my lap while I was part-time training horses and teaching lessons in Seattle. Somehow all the sales on him fell through and the breeding barn needed this gelding gone, and his personality was just too good to pass up on.
He’s been my partner in crime for everything since then, from doing some dressage basics and light jumping to our first trail ride to liberty work to learning tricks (his new fave is giving a big, fat, slobbery kiss in return for a carrot).
Leah Lewis is a fine art equine photographer based out of Chicago, Illinois. Her work is driven by her deep love of animals and visually expressing the extraordinary bond that is shared between horse and human.