How did you get into horses and what is your current position in the industry?
I was bitten quite early. I started riding when I was 5 years old and continued recreationally through high school and college. College turned out to not be my thing, so I found myself back with horses and turned it into a career.
I started by cleaning stalls and relatively quickly began handling professionally for breed shows and inspections on the East Coast which helped me set roots. I currently manage with my husband, Jonathan, our small breeding program Quantico Sporthorses, along with working full-time as an in-house rider and the sales manager for Iron Spring Farm in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
Passionate, analytical, deliberate. I believe our role as students never truly ends and within that same vein, I have worn several hats during my professional career. I have mucked stalls, I have groomed horses for other professionals, I have handled stallions in the breeding shed, I have backed and developed horses under saddle, and I have managed staff and client relations. Much of that has been mentally and physically taxing, so for personal clarity I decided to isolate which component of the industry resonated with me the most, and that has been breeding.
I have been employed by some of the most established sporthorse breeding programs in the United States which has given me the opportunity to follow the intricacies of mareline evolution, development from breeding philosophy to foal to riding horse, and the facets of stallion raising or selection. Our own program is now entering its sixth year of breeding, raising and producing sporthorses within the Hanoverian and Oldenburg studbooks. This is bolstered by my own equine background and Jonathan’s foundations in equine reproduction with Select Breeders Services in Chesapeake City, MD.
We make trips to Europe every other year to attend stallion licensings, see bloodlines in the flesh that we intend on incorporating within our program, and to continue building our network of resources. I want to keep highlighting the importance of dedicated breeders and their breeding programs since without breeders, our industry would have no horses.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
I enjoy that I can be a positive, professional example of an equestrian while still staying within my own confines of what it means to be black, queer, and an individual. I have been able to follow my own path to invention and security, partly because my skin color has taught me how to adapt for success in times of adversity.
In a simple truth, I stand out from the crowd purely based on the lack of representation for people of color within our industry. This has made it easier to gain a foothold through face and name recognition, but also calls attention to the necessity for improved delineation. There are so many other people of color making significant contributions within the industry who deserve better and wider acknowledgement.
What is your happiest or proudest moment as an equestrian?
It is difficult to pick just one! The gratification of watching a breeding decision culminate in a live, healthy foal is unmatched. I recently backed our first homebred under saddle myself which has been an otherworldly experience, and that mare also had the highest inspection score for the year within the US for her respective breed registry.
I also hold dear many moments from Dressage at Devon, but especially our own horses being named Champion Young Horse in 2016 and Champion Mature Horse in 2019. The “Fabulous trot and the horse is nice too” meme has been fun to be a part of, and what’s more, it has been a good vehicle for BIPOC representation within the equine community. (Click here to see Quinnten’s well known meme.)
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
If we are being specific to the industry, I don’t think I have faced challenges any different than those of my colleagues – regardless of skin color or ethnicity. We work in an industry that sees prosperity for those from higher economic classes, sure, but also for those that are stronger in work ethic, skill development, networking, and maybe most importantly, mental fortitude.
For me, a lot of this has come down to creativity and innovation – taking chances and exploring unfamiliar (and maybe disorienting) environments. Mental fortitude is a more complex piece of the puzzle, but psychological health should always be looked at as a worthwhile investment. These challenges I would say are standard for successful navigation of general day to day life, so I don’t feel them I am any worse off than the next person.
In what way have you been most disappointed as an equestrian of color?
I can’t say disappointed, but rather that it has been difficult to navigate how this industry has processed and coped with racial inequality, especially over the last half year. I don’t have data analysis to reference, but there are enough examples of people still making conscious choices to be on what I consider the wrong side of history. How is it that as a human race, so advanced in our ways of science, technology, and problem solving, we are still so at odds with one another morally?
I had always wanted to believe that morality was universal, but it is something much more nuanced. It is shaped by our upbringing, our family, our friends, the communities we inhabit, our successes, our failures, our losses. Our identities.
Inequality, too, or at least what it constitutes seems to be shaped by these lived experiences. As an example, if we have no lived experience of racial profiling by law enforcement, I expect we would have a lesser understanding of the necessity for police reform (for the record, I support and have family members in law enforcement). It has been difficult to bridge that gap for community members who simply do not have a lived experience as a person of color, and I think this is exacerbated by the proliferation of misinformation.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
I have never found the industry to be unwelcoming of someone with a good work ethic, a positive vibe, and a natural way with horses. Find your niche, work diligently and with purpose, and take care of your mental and physical health. We have to be willing to work long hours in our profession, but it is necessary and sound to draw a clear line in the sand as far as where “work” begins and ends.
I set aside time for myself, my husband, and the other parts of our lives that do not involve horses. Surround yourself with honest, practical people that will help you grow and evolve in positive ways. Lastly, share your story when you are ready – the negatives, the positives, the lessons you have learned. Help expand representation for people of color.
What is your favorite:
Horse Breed: Hanoverian or Oldenburg
Horse Color: I love a functional, correct horse, but chestnut if I could choose.
Treat to give: Mrs. Pastures Cookies for Horses, or good old-fashioned carrots.
Place to ride: The cross country field at Zaragoza Acres
Anna Smolens is a fine art and equine portrait photographer located in Maryland. She is one of the founders of this project and strongly believes that now is the time for more open conversation about race and equality. By using our collective voices, we can make the equestrian community stronger.