How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?

Simply put, I was destined to be an equestrian.

Even though I had hardly any access to horses growing up in Japan, I always had a deep love for horses. My favorite toy was a rocking horse and I begged for pony rides every time we visited a farm park in the rural area. At 9 years old when my parents told me that we were moving to America because of my father’s job, all they had to do to stop me from bawling my eyes out was to tell me that there were lots of horses in America and I would be able to take riding lessons when we moved.

When we moved to Texas and I started taking weekly lessons, I became an even bigger horse girl. I went to summer horse camps, I wanted a western saddle for my birthday, and my dream job was to be a park ranger so that I could ride all day long. This went on until we had to move back to Japan during my high school years.

After a few years of not being able to ride in Japan, I knew I wanted to get back in the saddle when I came back to Texas for college. I found a local barn that taught lessons and allowed me to do a little bit of everything. We went to a local western show, did a little bit of jumping, and went on many bareback trail rides. It was very laid-back and casual riding but it fulfilled my horse needs while I pursued my degree.

Maya holding PacMan

Maya in her kimono, standing with PacMan

the back of Maya's kimono

It was after college and moving to New Jersey for my new job that my love for horses truly blossomed. Being a young professional and being financially independent, I had to learn to juggle my time and money to have a manageable work-life balance, but that also made every minute I had at the barn so valuable. When I was ready to dive deeper into the horse world, I started leasing horses and competing in local jumper shows. I leased a few different horses over time; each one holds a very special place in my heart and they all made me fall even more in love with horses and riding.

In recent years, I have been bitten by an eventing bug and was fortunate to find my current situation with a great trainer and a perfect lease horse – Pac Man. Pac Man used to show competitively in the jumper ring and his owner is allowing us to learn the ropes of eventing together. He is the most powerful and experienced horse I have ridden and he can be opinionated sometimes because he does know better than I do! But he is also amazingly patient and always taking care of me, especially when I hop on him bareback or when I lose balance. On the ground, he is such a curious and friendly boy, always trying to communicate with me. Building a relationship with such a magnificent horse has been a priceless experience.

When we are out on the cross country field and approaching a terrifyingly intimidating obstacle at a gallop, I ask myself “what in the world am I doing?” But then at the same time, I can feel the mutual trust between him and I and that connection feeds our confidence, allowing us to conquer the obstacle together; flying across it, my heart skips a beat. THAT is the moment I know I was meant to be an equestrian.

Maya and PacMan in the field together at sunset

a quiet moment with Maya and PacMan at sunset

Maya sitting in a field of buttercups with PacMan

How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?

I love sharing my equestrian life with my Japanese friends and family who are not familiar with horses. Most of them have never ridden or even touched a horse before. Just the fact that I am around horses so much surprises my friends who probably are wondering if I actually have a real job…. When I share the stories and photos of my riding experiences, most are in awe of the beauty of horses. My grandmother, who lives in Japan, tells me that she enjoys seeing these beautiful American scenes through my eyes and feels as if she is riding with me. I also love introducing [them to] the discipline of eventing, which most Japanese don’t even know exists and is also an Olympic sport.

The equestrian world has opened a new door to meeting people whom I would not have met if it were not for the shared passion for horses. I would never have met the daredevils who have no fear on horseback but who are also the kindest people I have ever met, or the young riders that are half my age but their dedication for horses is impeccable, or the mothers my age who somehow manage to care for their horses AND their actual human babies all while maintaining a professional career!

Maya giving PacMan a kiss

Maya giving PacMan a hug

Maya and PacMan at sunset

On the other hand, I am usually the only or one of the very few Japanese these people know and I feel that I am responsible for representing my culture the best I can. I think this photo shoot, which was done with my very good friend Jess, whom I met through horses, perfectly represents who I am and I am so proud to have this unique background.

My yukata, the summer kimono, was made by my grandmother who has always been so supportive of me even from across seas. The western boots represent my Texan side – you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl! I am thankful that I have such a unique background that makes me who I am today, and I will continue to share my experiences and culture with people I meet in hopes of becoming a bridge between people of different backgrounds and making the equestrian world a little more approachable and inclusive.

Maya with PacMan at Timberlane Horse Center

Maya and PacMan at Timberlane Horse Center

What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?

Learning to ride, I never had a role model with a similar background as me and sometimes it felt like I was out of place at the barn or the show ground. I was lucky to be surrounded by very supportive trainers and friends most of the time, but I did meet a few that seemed to not take me seriously as an equestrian because I did not fit the typical definition of an equestrian.

From a physical aspect, I have also found it challenging to find riding gear that fits my body shape. Most helmets on the market simply do not fit my Asian round head and breeches and boots are designed for people with much longer legs than mine.

I believe however that the equestrian world is heading in the right direction and working to be more inclusive. I do see more young Asian riders competing at shows and I have seen Asian models in equestrian magazines. I hope that the future generation of riders can embrace their background but still feel perfectly at home in the equestrian world.

PacMan giving Maya a hug in his paddock

Maya gently touching PacMan's face

Maya walking PacMan through his paddock at Timberlane Horse Center

What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?

Do it! Dive into this amazing world of horses and you will not regret it! Being a POC, it will probably expose you to a world that you have not experienced before in many aspects but horses will only see your dedication and return it as love. They will make you brave, thoughtful, and responsible.

The equestrian world can be competitive at times especially because people are very committed. You may feel discouraged not being able to easily compare yourself and look up to someone with a similar background as you, but people that stand by you in such tough times will be your lifelong friends.

Also what more do you want than pony kisses?!

Maya in her kimono, holding PacMan at Timberlane Horse Center

Maya in her kimono with PacMan

Maya in her kimono giving PacMan a kiss

Maya looking at PacMan