How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ve ever really had to describe myself in that way. I would say I’m a very practical equestrian – not a whole lot of frills. I don’t wear the latest styles (In fact, most of my and my horses’ show attire is second-hand from my trainer’s wife, who is far more stylish than I!) but I try my best and I try to do right by my horses.
I have dabbled in lots of disciplines in the decade or so that I’ve had consistent contact with horses. I played polo my freshman year of college, took lessons at a hunter/jumper barn for a while, and even tried vaulting (once).
I eventually found my home in the dressage world. I love dressage- it is challenging and rewarding. I love the focus on developing a connection with your mount so that you can bring out his/her best natural movement. I also love that it is an individual sport, and I am often more interested in competing with myself (did I improve since last time?) than I am with the ribbon.
How did you get involved with horses?
I have been horse-crazy since the beginning. However, being around horses was never really an opportunity afforded to me. I mostly grew up in urban/suburban areas. For a lot of my childhood, my mom was a single mom and had the challenges of raising my sister and me on a pretty tight budget. Even when I lived with my dad for a bit or when my parents were together, I still recall a fairly frugal lifestyle.
But I had stacks of books about horses, a handful of Barbie and Breyer horses, and have seen pretty much every horse-related movie. On bus rides to and from school, I used to imagine myself on horseback, galloping alongside the bus and jumping the bus stop benches. I did get to go to a couple of horse camps and managed to do a few of those hour-long trail rides at various places, but nothing much of substance.
I got involved in horses consistently towards the end of my undergraduate degree. I had a friend who ran a hunter/jumper barn and I helped out in exchange for lessons and ultimately leased a horse. Eventually, I saved enough to buy my first horse- a 14.2 hand green-broke pony who was sold to me because she had dumped a couple of kiddos in a lesson program. She also dumped me several times, but I was in hog-heaven so who cares about bruises!? Since then, I have owned or leased a horse consistently. Now I have 2 horses, a Friesian-Arab mare that I co-own, and a purebred Arab gelding that I own. I show them both in dressage, mostly in breed-restricted Arabian shows.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
I’m mixed-race/ethnicity and my culture is an amalgam of my family’s history and the places that I grew up. I’ve lived and operated in “white spaces” for most of my life where I’ve been the only or one of the only people of color around. Sometimes it has been stressful to figure out where I fit; feeling as if I’m not white enough, Black enough, or Hispanic enough depending on who I am around. But I’d say that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less concerned about the individual parts and more grateful for what they all contribute.
I don’t know if my culture overtly influences my equestrian lifestyle but I feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at excelling in a sport where people of color are not well represented. I can serve as a subtle reminder to others that diverse people DO belong in these spaces; plus I mow my pasture and clean my stalls while blasting reggaetón and hip hop music!
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
Getting my USDF bronze medal! For several years, I could not afford a horse that I could bring up through the levels in dressage. I was lucky enough to get connected to a woman who wanted someone to enter into a long-term free lease of her mare who was 13ish at the time and only fully broke when she was about 10!
The mare is a big, strong-willed, and powerful horse and has some conformational quirks that make some dressage moves difficult. So, we went through phases where she was in the driver’s seat and just dragged me around the ring charging like a freight train, and where her response to being asked to do anything challenging was to kick out and snort!
Steadily though, we went from training level, to first, to second, and finally third. Her conformational issues proved a huge challenge for the flying changes and they were “expressive” – basically she would toss her entire hind end up and launch me out of the saddle! But, we persevered and finally got the scores needed to be awarded the bronze.
I felt such a sense of pride that I took this horse that I could barely keep together and managed to take her all the way to several successful scores at third level. This experience gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities and has definitely given me a sense that I can take another horse successfully up the levels.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
My horsey family and social circle are wonderful and I don’t feel that I am treated any differently than anyone else in that group. But I have definitely dealt with microaggressions and had my share of interactions with strangers that have been directed at their interpretation of my race/ethnicity. (And probably their assumptions about my socioeconomic status too.)
It can also be hurtful sometimes to see or hear things that people say about OTHER people of color. It leads me to assume they think I’m “one of the good ones” or that they don’t fully see me. I find it tiresome to correct people every time I hear or see a tone-deaf or ignorant comment, but each instance leaves another mark.
I would say most of my challenges have been financial. I didn’t grow up around horses, in fact, I bought my first pony when I was in my mid-20’s because, despite my best pleas, Santa somehow never got me one! In my family, the horse bug seemed to have only infected me and I imagine all my mom could see were the huge dollar signs in her mind.
As a kid, I went to a couple of week-long horsey summer camps but it was rarely an opportunity my family could afford for me. So I begged and borrowed and clung to anyone who would allow me the chance to be around a horse in ANY capacity. I’ve definitely experienced snide comments from people related to my second-hand attire or tack.
I remember when I joined a polo club as an undergrad, I had to borrow my roommate’s paddock boots because I didn’t own any. They were at least a size too large, and some of the other girls questioned why I was “too cheap” to buy boots. I also rode in jeans because I didn’t have any breeches. There’s a lot of classism in equestrian sports and that can intersect with the other “isms” at times to create an unwelcoming environment.
In my whole equestrian career, I can probably count on one hand all of the Black, Asian, or Hispanic riders that I have seen competing at the shows I’ve been to. I’ve seen grooms of color, but rarely competitors. I know you can’t always assume someone’s race or ethnicity by their appearance but it’s certainly rare. It can be a little isolating at times to peer across the showgrounds and not see any other brown or black faces.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
I think it’s important to realize that even if you don’t see us, we’re here. That’s why I think this project is so great. It is really encouraging to see people from so many backgrounds represented in different equestrian disciplines. So, even if I don’t see you at my shows, I see your beautiful photos on social media!
Second, it is also important to recognize that we’ve been here all along. Our stories have been whitewashed and ignored – Vaqueros were the foundation for the North American cowboy and a quarter of cowboys in the “wild west” were Black. Many of the most successful jockeys in the late 19th century were Black. (Until they were banned during Jim Crow segregation.) The person who inspired the character the Lone Ranger was Black! (Bass Reeves) Many Asian cultures have thousands of years of history as equestrians. So, while we may be underrepresented in the modern sport-horse world, people of color have a long and successful history of horsemanship and this should be celebrated.
I would also encourage aspiring equestrians to get involved in any way they can. Money can be a barrier, but you CAN show on a borrowed horse, in second-hand tack and attire if you want to show. A good judge is not judging whether or not you have a $250 saddle or a $3,500 saddle – they want to see you and your horse accurately and correctly riding the test.
Find your people; there are lots of folks out there who are willing to support riders who show grit and are willing to put in the work, even if you don’t have the pedigree. Those are the people who you want in your horsey circle anyways because they genuinely want you there and want to share the love of horses with you.
Based in both Virginia and Florida, Susan McClafferty is the photographer behind Mareish Media. Susan specializes in equine studio fine art photography but also loves to capture wow moments of fashion, fantasy and connection between horses and humans.