How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Honestly, there are some pretty contradictory words I would use. The first pair would be timid and brave. As a rider, at times I find myself nervous, I don’t like when horses buck or act up, and I definitely won’t get on a horse that I don’t know or trust without someone being with me. With that being said, I also do some pretty crazy things. I love working with babies and gentling horses that haven’t been touched by people before. There’s something about seeing the progress in taming something that was once wild and creating a bond that makes me happy. It can be dangerous, I’ve been kicked in the jaw by a young horse, but something like that doesn’t deter me, it only motivates me more.
I tend to think through my spontaneous decisions carefully when it comes to buying horses. When I see a horse I really like, I plan out how I could use the horse and how to afford them and fit them into my monthly budget. I typically don’t try out horses before I buy them, which some people call crazy. But the way I see it, riding a horse one time on their good day isn’t going to tell me much about the horse. If I’ve seen plenty of videos of the horse being run, and I ask the seller for advice, I can figure it out as I go, because it usually takes me at least 6 months to figure out how to get with a horse. I cannot stress this enough though: I do NOT recommend this method for everyone, this is just what works for me!
Another word I would use is passionate. I’m all in when it comes to the equestrian world. Everything I do every single day from the moment I wake up is related in some way to my horses. I couldn’t imagine living any other way.
How did you get involved with horses?
My grandmother will say that I get it from her, because she was a country girl. She grew up in this tiny town called Cheapside, Texas, and they have an older cousin who I looked up to a lot when I was younger, and he always had horses. He still does. I would always want to go out to his house and see the horses and ride them, or tag along to jackpot calf ropings.
Eventually, I started riding too, and when I graduated high school my family worked together to get me my very first horse as my graduation present. From that moment on, there was no stopping me. Horses are so addicting in so many good ways, and I thank God for them every day.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
In the south, trail riding is huge. Trail rides typically consist of a parade-style trip down either a country road or a trail with horses, party wagons, ATVs, and music, followed by a dance back at the base camp. It’s always exciting seeing so many other African-American cowboys and cowgirls on horseback celebrating our culture. With different organizations having their events in different cities, it allows for us to travel to new places and helps small-town communities make money from the hundreds of people traveling to those towns.
I am a part of a trail riding organization called the San Antonio Royal Steppaz. Although I have never been a super social person and never imagined myself enjoying horse events outside of rodeo, I’m so grateful I decided to join. Our group is more of a family than anything, and I’m grateful for a great group of people to share in this equestrian lifestyle with as well as to be able to go out and have a great time with. Our main goal is to promote horsemanship and introduce others to this amazing lifestyle. Knowing that there are so many people who DON’T have a background in horses or know a lot about them, it brings me so much joy to introduce them to this world.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
Not seeing other girls around my area that looked like me on horses made me feel like an outlier a little bit, but for the most part, it’s made me stand out. I feel like everyone knows me around here, but not like in a celebrity kind of way. It’s just, knowing that I look different than all of my friends that rodeo in the area, people recognize and remember me. But I’ve never felt like I don’t fit in or I’m not welcome. I’m extremely grateful for that because I know not everyone else has had that experience.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
I have so many, but I’ll name two recent ones. My first proudest moment had to be when I won my buckle at Destry’s Free4All on Phoebe in June 2020. I hadn’t had her for very long and had just picked her back up from my friend who was helping me with her. I hadn’t run her very many times and was nervous about running her that weekend. Not only did we win a nice check, we won a gorgeous buckle and a chance to win a brand new Camaro. While we didn’t get the car, that was an amazing experience in itself.
The second and most recent moment was winning my first pro rodeo check at a PRCA rodeo. It wasn’t the most ideal rodeo setup, a lot of girls and horses got hurt. I had to choose between turning out or trying to make as safe of a run as possible. I decided to cowgirl up and try my luck, and I’m so grateful Phoebe was able to hold herself up and help us win that check!
To take a spin on the question, the best and most important day of my life hands down is August 11, 2015. That was the day my horse saved my life. To make a very long and interesting story short (which I would love to expand on for anyone who wants to ask me about ), my horse spooked and ran full speed down a fence line, eventually running me into a tree. After getting taken to the emergency room, CAT scans revealed that I had a couple of brain abnormalities that existed before my accident, and they could have been fatal if gone untreated. I was able to have brain surgery later that year. Without my horse sending me to the emergency room, I would have never known, and for that, I am eternally grateful for him.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Do it! If you like horses, want to learn horses, want to learn how to ride, don’t think, just DO IT! And to anyone who wants to get started and doesn’t know what to do or where to go, hit me up. I’ll help you in any way I can, from researching to encouraging, and if you’re anywhere near me, come jump in the saddle.
My biggest goal is to show other little girls that look like me that we DO EXIST in this lifestyle. I’m forever grateful for the people who have helped me along my journey, and it’s only right if I continue that helping hand and pay it forward. I may not know everything, but I can share the knowledge that I do have and send you toward someone who knows more.
Heather French is an equestrian portrait and horse show photographer based in Austin, TX. She has spent nearly every spare moment of her time around horses since she was a child, and is passionate about making horse sports more accessible and diverse so that others may share in the joy that horses have brought her.