How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I have one word: DRAWN. For as long as I can remember horses have been kindred spirits for me. I respect them and have always felt truly blessed/ fortunate/ lucky to have them in my life. It’s not that I had a choice; it was a calling.
So first, I’m an equestrian who adores horses and sees them as partners. Solid horsepersonship and an eagerness to learn have been foundational throughout my 38+ years of equestrianism.
I’ve spent most of my time in the saddle as a hunter-jumper. However, before I returned to instructing, I spent five years mostly soloing on the trail as “the horse auntie” while simultaneously providing enrichment and exercise for others’ horses. I am very comfortable in my equestrian skin and enjoy expressing my sense of eq-style at the barn, in my sanctuary, and around town.
How did you get involved with horses?
It’s in my blood. My great-grandmother who was born in Sonora, Mexico was a horse-lover supreme. My father, her grandson, is a great lover of nature. During our weekly adventures, Dad exposed us to so much in the way of natural sciences, history, art, and music. One of those being riding.
A black pony named Shortie and a grey horse named Marshmallow were my first mounted equestrian experiences via lead line. Four years later I would start lessons and assisting camp at a local barn that became my second home.
I rode throughout college and was team captain for a couple of seasons. There have been a few short breaks due to economics and access, but by and large, equestrianism has been a constant in my life.
What role do horses currently play in your life?
I teach lessons and ride at a fantastic hunter-jumper barn called Kenilworth Stables. My photo shoot mate, Setero a.k.a. Tee-Tee, a Zangersheide, is one of Julia Nagler’s riding school horses. He’s such a love! All of the horses there are.
I’m also a Director-at-Large for the equestrian advocacy organization, The Metropolitan Horsemen’s Association. MHA is influential in preserving access to equestrian facilities, trails, and horses, as well as hosting schooling shows and clinics.
How has your culture influenced your equestrian lifestyle?
As a black American you’re taught very early on that you will have to explain to white people (and sometimes to your own) why you are doing a thing and why you deserve to be in a space, especially if it’s deemed as something that “black people don’t do.”
So I’ve been unapologetic about who I am and open about sharing my story, from when the Washington Post interviewed me at my first barn to today with EOC. I have made myself at home in equestrian spaces with the knowledge that there is a culture that we all share and that’s horse culture.
I also come from a family of black educators who expanded the meaning of the African proverb “each one, teach one” to giving back. Period.
Since childhood, I’ve volunteered my equestrian and non-equestrian skill sets to youth equestrian non-profits such as Compton Jr. Posse Youth Equestrians (now Compton Cowboys), We Ride Too, and therapeutic riding programs. I currently serve on the board of a local equestrian advocacy organization. The Metropolitan Horsemen’s Association is led by its first woman of color president in 82 years, Rachel Royce, a member of the Chiricahua Apache. I support communications, horse shows, and other events in this role.
I will also say that the influences of these intersectional cultures have taught me that my equestrian lifestyle is sacred to me. It’s part of my self-care regimen, and sometimes it looks like lots of alone time with my “heart animal.”
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
Being underestimated and systematically held back due to how I look is beyond frustrating. I have been fortunate to have had either an advocate in myself or another, typically, equestrian of color.
Let me take you back to the late 80s/ early 90’s when I was one of two little black girls at the barn. My compensation as a camp assistant was once weekly riding lessons often taught by the older camp assistants. A black cowboy who boarded at my barn, Charlie, took me under his wing and started training me in hunt seat equitation. I developed very quickly. When it was time to enter the schooling show, Charlie helped submit my entries which were denied. The program director insisted that I was not qualified to compete in those divisions.
Charlie suggested that she evaluate my riding skills for herself. So, an audience of older camp assistants showed up to this public trial and giggled mockingly while I performed at the walk/trot/canter and over fences. Not only did I compete in those same classes, but I earned a reserve champion and won the horse show raffle prize to boot. I went on to compete for the barn’s team at local horse shows, dedicating each ribbon to my great-grandma.
My belonging in this world has been questioned more times than I can count, from the seemingly innocuous “Do you ride?” microaggression to being told by a local white ranch owner that my being there was a privilege. Excuse me? We are ALL privileged to be here.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
There are so many proud and happy moments!
- Riding in North Africa with my husband, I felt at home in so many ways.
- Riding up to the poppy-blanketed hills of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness with my (niece) mare Aya and my heeler mix Ashe.
- Jumping anything over a meter (3′)—exhilarating, but it’s been a minute!
- Helping to organize racial justice protest rides and MHA’s hunter-jumper schooling shows. I enjoyed working with some truly dedicated equestrians and pedestrians.
- Representing equestrians of color in the IHSA as Penn Equestrian Team captain.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Identify and reevaluate your North Star. If it’s vibing off of the beautiful energy of horses, focus on that. If it’s securing a solid foundation in horsepersonship, research what that means and connect with vetted equestrians and/or your local equestrian advocacy organization for recommendations. I’m always happy to help.
In this industry, no different from any others, there are gatekeepers and those with influence of all races whose hearts are not in the right place. No matter your skill level or where you are in your journey, feel empowered that you also have a voice and a place here.
Alaina is an equine portrait photographer based out of the San Francisco Bay area. She is driven by an endless love of horses, a deep passion for storytelling, and a profound desire for an equitable, empathetic world.