How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I am an equestrian because I am the happiest when I am on a horse.
I am from the city of Hyderabad in India, now living in Portland, Oregon. As a kid, I always wanted to be around horses but there was really only one place you could go at the time, and unfortunately, I had no one to drive me there. My parents never even sat on a horse, so obviously they did not understand my obsession at first. All that changed when I got my first driving license! I would drive myself to weekly riding lessons. It was a good time for me to start riding because at the time, my mother was going through some health-related issues and we would spend a lot of time at the hospital. Learning to ride was a means for me to stay sane. When I was on a horse, everything would be just fine in the moment. All the worries would just have to wait. My coach would say I have a natural seat (whatever that meant).
The place where I rode was a Polo Club and at the time, they needed an amateur player for their team. This was a great opportunity as I could learn to play polo for a little extra cost, and of course, I jumped at the chance. But, I did not tell my parents as I always thought it easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.
As luck would have it, we ended up winning a tournament which the local newspapers decided to cover. My time to ask my parents for forgiveness came sooner than I thought because of this! I thought I was SOL when my dad woke me up with the morning newspaper in his hand, and my picture with a polo pony on it. To my surprise, he was really proud of me, which made me feel even worse for hiding my passion from them. My parents were completely supportive of me playing polo and I got to play in several tournaments across the country as well as later when I went to grad school in the United Kingdom.
When I moved to Portland, I was 25 years old, and I thought asking my parents to support my ‘horse hobby’ was just not fair. I missed horses a lot but it was time to ‘start taking life seriously’ and get a good job and saving up to buy a house and start a family. Well, you can take a person out of an equestrian life but you can’t take the equestrian life out of the person! As soon as I had a good paying job I got right back into riding. Polo was not really competitive around here and I wanted to learn a new discipline.
My now wife, who had grown up riding and spent her teenage years in Pony Club, thought that I would really enjoy show jumping. (We actually met horseback riding in India even though she is originally from southern Oregon.) We both started riding again and while this was my first step into the world of show jumping, I was hooked. The thrill of jumping fences, the degree of finesse needed, and the close partnership you develop with your horse is unlike any other thing, and unlike even polo in my experience.
My equestrian pursuit is marked with a hunger to learn more, to ride in harmony and balance with the horse, and above all, to do right by the horse.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
Being from India in the Pacific North West (PNW) equestrian events is definitely very interesting. I am usually the only one of my background at most competitions. The grooms would talk to me in Spanish and be really surprised to hear my accent and quickly come to a realization that I am not Mexican. My wife always gets a kick out of it.
I think what I really enjoy is that I know that I am living the dream I had since I was a little kid. Although, at the time it seemed very unlikely, here I am, adding a different shade of brown to the equestrian life around here.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
While a lot of challenges I face may be similar to those faced by others of colour, when we encounter people who are racially biased, the challenges I personally face sometimes also seem to have a cultural undertone. For example, I have grown up where people are very direct – if you hear a conversation between me and my sisters, you would think we are being very rude, which is as far from the truth as you can be. In the PNW region however, almost everything seems to have an undertone of passiveness. This definitely creates a barrier in communication, which compounds with other things such as my accent and enunciation. I try my best to circumvent these issues but it can definitely be exhausting at times. I remind myself that all this effort is worth it if it helps me learn and be a better horse person.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
I started riding to keep my sanity, and in return, riding gave me everything – happiness, friends, and even a partner! I would encourage other people of colour to not let any racial biases or cultural differences stop you from riding and following your dreams. Because, to tell you the truth, when you are galloping your horse, you can’t hear them anyway.
The Indian community in the PNW is vibrant and is getting even bigger! I encourage folks to take what you learn here and spread it among young riders back home. I intend to do that one day!
It is important to remember, we may be divided by race, colour, and culture, but are united in our love of horses, and horses always come first.
Rebecca Tolman is an equine photographer based in Oregon. Working with clients and their horses, capturing the relationship and bond they share is Rebecca’s passion and reason for pursuing her photography over 10 years ago.