How did you start riding horses?
If I remember correctly, my first exposure to horses was when I was around two or three years old at the little beach town called Hua Hin in Thailand. My family would have a vacation there every year and I remember, even at a very young age, that I have always felt drawn to these amazing creatures.
I know that scientifically, children aren’t supposed to remember everything when we are that age, but somehow that first time feeling of being with a horse has always stuck with me. None of my family members know anything about horses, let alone riding one.
However, my father knew a lot about photography as he was an enthusiast. On that trip, he decided that his 3-year-old son would look cute on a little pony on the beach. Hence, I got to sit on a horse for the first time. Little did they know that they had committed themselves to a huge financial and time commitment all for the sake of that photo. After years of being persistent enough to my parents, I had my first riding lesson at the age of eight years old and the rest is history.
Over twenty years passed and my parents still couldn’t figure out how I actually got into horses. As I am Thai with a bit of Chinese heritage through my father, my parents often joke that it is because I was born in the year of the horse according to Chinese Zodiac.
How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I have been reflecting on this question a lot even before I decided to participate in this project. To me, this question is like an existential question on how I would identify myself and I honestly think that there is no definite answer. People grow up every day and our identities change every second that we are alive. To me, the word equestrian means so much and it will always be a part of me as a person.
Now, if I have to answer the question of how I would describe myself as an equestrian, the heart of my answer would be that I am an aspiring male dressage rider whose interest in horses stems from the love of the animal. I’m determined to maintain this core identity as an equestrian throughout my life as being on and around horses is the happiest place in my life.
This might sound cliché, but I think it is really important that I address this part of myself. I became an equestrian because I love the animal. As I grew older, there were times that I forgot why I became an equestrian in the first place. Throughout my journey, there were times that I had my head stuck in a place where I focused on the competitive, or worse, the glamorous, aspects of the sport. I found that being stuck in that headspace was not healthy for me and oftentimes was not healthy for my relationship with the horses that I had connections with either.
I started off as a jumper back in Thailand and I had always found, back then, of course, that dressage was quite boring. I think that idea was quite normal for an 8-year-old to have because as a kid, you always want that excitement and exhilaration of jumping over two to three feet fences. I remembered at one point I jumped a whole 3.7 ft. course without breaking a sweat. My point is that at one point, I only identified as a jumper. I became really interested in dressage when I was about twelve years old but (unfortunately) I didn’t get to follow through with my interest until recently.
I took a break from riding when I was about thirteen years old and didn’t get a chance to be back on a horse or start taking lessons seriously again until 2018. This time one of my identities as an equestrian changed. When I got back to riding in 2018, I knew immediately that dressage was what I wanted to do. I got back on a horse in January 2018 when I escaped New York winter down to Florida during my first winter break from grad school.
Even though the fearless 8-year-old jumper was gone, he’s now become a 30-year-old dressage rider, and some things have never changed. The love for the animal and my goal to build and develop connections with the animal are still there. No matter how much I might change as an equestrian whether turning to ride western or going back to jumping, I know that the love for the horses and the goal to do right and best for them will not change.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
Being a person of color in the United States of America has always been interesting to me; let alone, being an equestrian of color. I’m originally from Thailand but I came to realize that most people here don’t assume I’m Thai. Now, being a male equestrian of color in the dressage community has been even more interesting. One of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences of being a male EOC was when I showed for the first time in years at a USDF show in Central Florida. I was the only male rider in that show and of course, I am also an EOC. People were very interested in me and would ask questions about my story and how I became interested in horses.
Even though I go by “Miles” here, my full Thai name is “Chinnachart Poola-or” which is quite a mouthful. It was when the staff asked me how my name should be pronounced, the moment they asked me if they pronounced it correctly, or the moment I entered the show ring and heard my name followed by “he is originally from Thailand” that meant everything to me as an equestrian of color. Even though I might have to pronounce my name a million times more for announcers in the future, that moment when I hear my name and hear “he is originally from Thailand” will always be one of the joys of being an equestrian of color.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
Most of the time when I think of challenges in this sport, financial challenge is probably the first challenge that comes to mind. However, it is a challenge that anyone in this sport could have as we all know that horseback riding is probably one of the most expensive sports in the world.
Putting that aside, I am fortunate that I have yet to encounter significant challenges due to my skin color. That being said, we are living in a very delicate time when talking about race and racism and I have noticed a lot of microaggressions and micro-racism. I have encountered a lot of color-blind ideologies from a lot of equestrian people around me and there are times that I’m exhausted to receive that message. Reflecting on my experience, there were times that I might have been treated in a way that I was lesser off but I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was solely because I have different skin colors than they do. As the equestrian community is predominantly white, there are definitely some acts of microaggression and micro-racism that I have noticed and have experienced for sure.
As far as in the dressage community, some of the challenges I have faced is that some terminologies can be pejoratively interpreted and inadvertently sexist. Bear with me on this one. “Dressage queen” is a phrase that is widely used in the dressage community. Even though I am not offended by the phrase personally, I do find the term carries a negative connotation and I could see the potential of young male kids feeling uncomfortable getting into the sport. If we want our community to promote diversity and inclusivity, it is very important for all of us to be aware of how we do and say things.
I remember reading Josh Boggs’ post on this project and I agree with him. I would love to see more representation of both EOC and men, especially in the sport of dressage. And I think little things like the use of terminologies promoting inclusivity would help our community little by little.
I don’t want young male kids who want to get into dressage to feel discouraged just because horse riding and dressage is “a girl’s sport”. This perception about the sport has been in our society for a long time and people will probably always assume that guys who ride horses are gay (which they are right in my case) or they will always assume that a person of color who rides is wealthy. We cannot completely change the world at once but if we are more mindful of how we speak, how we act, and how we treat each other in the community, I don’t see why diversity and inclusivity can’t happen in our equestrian world.
What goals are you working on that you would like to share with our readers?
If you asked me what my ultimate goal as an equestrian is, the answer is that I really hope that I would eventually get to compete in dressage internationally or represent my country on a world stage. That being said, my current goal is to ride more consistently and get my shape and seat back. Recently, I have been fortunate and been given an opportunity to work with one particular horse at Brevard Equestrian Center so one of my goals right now is to build a relationship with him, to get both of us in shape, and hopefully to take both of us back in a show ring again in the near future.
Apart from my riding goals, I’m currently pursuing another graduate degree to become a mental health counselor and I am planning to incorporate equine therapy into my practice after I graduate. In a way, horses have always been the best therapists for me. I am hoping that I will be able to share this beautiful connection between humans and horses and utilize this connection to help other people in the future. These goals take a lot of time and effort but I’m taking one ride and one day at a time even though it might be only a “half-step” each day. (Dressage pun intended.)
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
If I have learned anything as a person of color, it is that we are resilient and we are tough, so if you are considering becoming equestrians, go for it. If you see the opportunity, grab it and follow your heart. Every journey in life is not all a bed of roses but it’s not impossible either. There will be times that things get tough and you will come home crying and want to give up. Don’t let that discourage you. There are trainers out there that will see your potential and give you opportunities.
Speaking from someone who doesn’t have a horse of his own, I am not going to lie that I have never felt discouraged. There are times I feel so stuck and feel like I have made no progress, but every ride will make you a better rider. Every horse will teach you something new every day and if you feel discouraged with your own progress, ask yourself why you became an equestrian in the first place. I’m sure the answer will give you the strength to carry on. It surely did that for me.
Erica Hills is an equestrian lifestyle photographer located in Florida. She is one of the founders of this project and is committed to fostering growth and development within the equestrian community through the inclusion of all riders and all disciplines.