How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I describe myself as a passionate equestrian who keeps the mindset and heart of being the “forever beginner”.
I never want to think that I have mastered being an equestrian because I firmly believe horses keep us humble. The minute you assume you fully understand a concept on horse behavior, a riding technique, or whatever it is, here comes the one horse that challenges everything you have been taught and what you THOUGHT you knew.
More importantly, I like to think I am an equestrian who is supremely empathetic to the needs of horses. I believe it is imperative to do what is in the best interest of the horse at all times.
Years ago, one of my first mentors was very big on making sure I learned the importance of horsemanship before teaching me anything else. He was very adamant about always respecting your horse. He used to say, “It’s not about calling yourself a calf roper, barrel racer, or international jumper” but let’s work on being a good horseman first!!! His teachings basically set the foundation of how I am today as an equestrian.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
Fortunately, living in Texas there is an abundance of African American equestrian cultural influences due in part to the many historical contributions from the pioneers and cowboys of color. I am very privileged to have access to these communities and experiences on a daily basis.
I first fell in love with African American Western culture 27 years ago when I met a calf roper at an African American rodeo in Atlanta. He encouraged me to come and visit his ranch in Texas and attend some of the rodeos in the Houston area. From the first visit, I was sold. Prior to that time, I had been partaking in equestrian activities in Atlanta, Georgia which were far different but very unique and entertaining. Subsequently, due to the many inspiring visits to the Houston area, I made the life-changing decision to relocate. Decades later I still believe it is one of the best decisions I made.
I became immersed in this way of life that isn’t just about being an equestrian; it consists of celebrated family traditions, historical legacies, and heritage. Ultimately, I made the switch from the Western discipline to the English discipline, first taking lessons in hunter jumpers and then switching to dressage, where I am currently learning and experiencing shows with my daughter.
I will say the cultural experiences under the English discipline are not as abundant due to the lack of diversity in the English equestrian communities. However, in recent years there have been conscious efforts to diversify the English riding world. Projects such as the EOCP have provided a platform for others to learn about equestrians of color regardless of the discipline.
Nonetheless, I am a firm believer that when you become an equestrian/horse owner it will change your way of life regardless of your cultural background! It’s the blessing that keeps on blessing!!!
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I have been extremely lucky to have positive experiences as an equestrian. Most of the barns where I have boarded or taken lessons have been very inviting, helpful, and nonbiased. On very limited occasions, I have had undesirable interactions with individuals who questioned my presence at a location or wanted to know more information than necessary. I found the motives behind their line of questioning to be very deliberate, and somewhat biased.
In one of the incidents, I made it very clear I was uncomfortable with their line of questioning and wanted to know if the questions will be directed to everyone at the barn or if this was something that was directed primarily to me, and if so for what reason. I will say this was one of the low points of being an equestrian of color, as I knew there was no other reason she presented me with the statements that she did. I went home very disappointed, but I was determined not to make this negative experience erase the years of positivity that I have come to know in the community.
On that day, I had a mild reflection on an unfortunate experience when I was 11 years old. Back then, I used to go to a pasture in my neighborhood and visit with the horses. However, one day the owner of the horses caught me out there petting them, and aggressively drove up in his truck, yelling obscenities and yes even the N-word had been called because he had witnessed me, a little black girl touching his animals. I fearfully ran home that day with an even more determined spirit to continue my love for horses, as they had become a refuge from the awkward growing pains and home life experiences.
Two weeks later my little brother had a pony party at our home. The owner of a nearby stable was impressed with me and gave me my first job ever as the “pony girl” for the pony parties at the stables. I was responsible for caring for the ponies and assisting the kids at the parties.
This was a major milestone in officially becoming an equestrian of color. By the stable owner taking the time to teach me, hire me, and allow me to be a barn brat for the summer, his act of kindness was very impactful to my life and gave me the confidence and the courage to continue to be in awe of horses despite it being a limited experience for many African Americans during that time.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
My proudest moment as an equestrian is being able to pass my love for horses down to my daughter. Watching her development and growth has been the most rewarding experience in my life to date. I am enjoying living vicariously through her experiences and opportunities. At times, it is almost comical to watch me as I often ride the horses with her on the sidelines. Heels down, sit up, sit back, chin up – I catch myself following the instructions of the trainer while watching lessons.
My happiest moment as an equestrian is when I decided to purchase my first horse, my heart horse, Sammy. In 2014, I suffered a bad fall that made me lose a lot of courage in my riding ability and connection to the sport. I gave thought to purchasing but with limited action behind doing so. But the death of my dad made me realize just how short and fragile life is and to put forth an effort to follow my dreams.
I have not regretted my time with Sammy, as I feel very fortunate to luck up on such a gentle giant. The early years were not that easy, as earning his trust and gaining a bond was slow to come by but in time I gained soft neighs and greetings. Lastly, to be able to purchase a pony for my daughter has made me feel a special happiness for her. To be able to bless her with a pony and watch her develop as a horseman gives me great honor as a parent.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
For anyone seeking to become an equestrian, I would encourage them to learn as much as possible by many different means, and never limit themselves.
For example, if you want to learn about English riding but the only barn you have access to happens to be a western barn, take the opportunity to gain insightful experiences. Read books, attend seminars, and volunteer your time. Believe it or not, cleaning stalls is a task that is worth learning. I think the most important thing to focus on is not riding but horsemanship. Learning to become a good horseman is far more important than learning to be a great rider.
Stay focused on your goals, be patient, and never ever give up. There will be many challenges, and fallbacks but stay patient. I think for equestrians of color in many cases, staying positive in some circumstances when you are the only person of color can be discouraging and intimidating, but stay vigilant with your goals. Trust the process, and never compare. In your time and in your way, you will achieve your goals and your agenda as an equestrian. And I promise, the journey will always be worth it in the end.
Kelly Russo is a dog and equine photographer based in Houston, Texas. Specializing in natural light, outdoor photography, Kelly’s passion is using photography to celebrate the love story between people and their four-legged companions.