How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
People ask me sometimes, ‘why horses – what is this new obsession?’ The answer is simple: it was always there. One of my few memories with my dad was going to a Polo field in New Delhi, India and seeing the beautiful horses. My dad promised me ‘when you are older, you can ride horses.’
The last family vacation we took was to Kashmir (Northern India) and we went horseback riding through the Himalayas. After that vacation at 5 years old, my parents separated and it was an ugly separation. I actually didn’t see my dad after that for almost a decade. So the lessons didn’t happen and lots of things changed. By the time I was 8 and my mom was working full time, it was decided I had to go to boarding school. Which by the way, to this day made for the most fun childhood.
We may not have had magic like Hogwarts but it was still magical. My boarding school was in the foothills of the Himalayas and in the closest town nearby you could get horse rides around the tiny market. These were small mountain ponies that were led around for riders. It was a highlight for me, but rare at best. So it became an even bigger want.
Fast forward to senior year. I was about to leave for college to a new country by myself at 18, both excited and terrified at the same time. My best friend and I on our senior trip borrowed some horses and galloped around town and for half-hour. I didn’t worry about the future. At 18, not knowing how to ride was not a hindrance to sitting a canter! Then college, marriage, careers, and kids happened. To my joy, my kids asked for riding lessons. Watching them have fun I realized, wait, I can ride too if I want.
Then a few years ago, I had a health scare and during the scariest time of my life, I bought myself this beautiful grey horse. Between listening to doctors and making life decisions, the only break I would get was going to the barn and visiting this beautiful animal. Then finally riding and realizing, wow it’s not like the movies at all! It was hard but so fulfilling.
So the answer again, is it was always an obsession. I am lucky my husband supports me in my madness and is even willing to live on my dream farm. I am lucky my kids love it and I can share it with them. So horses are not a hobby but a lifestyle that I have worked towards for a long time. So to describe myself as an equestrian, it would be as a beginner rider – we are just figuring out dressage. But more importantly, I am learning to be a horsewoman on my tiny farm
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
I love that our love, obsession, and awe of horses can really unite us. We sometimes error in thinking that we need to look a certain way to ride. We tell ourselves if we lose a certain amount of weight or if we look a specific way, we would be better riders or even be more confident to go to a show.
This summer during quarantine I didn’t let any of those self-doubts phase me. I decided that I was going to learn to ride and so I went even on days when I didn’t want to and slowly it dawned me that riding is not really about showing, winning, or looking the ideal. Riding doesn’t care about color at all, it is about me trying to better myself. It is about me being confident in my abilities and it is me trusting another living being to take care of me.
And going back to the idea that it unites us, recently one of my riding buddies and I got into an argument about politics and what we believed to be the right thing. It got kind of heated and then suddenly I stopped and said let’s not go back and forth, we are not going to convince each other. What I can celebrate with you is our mutual love for horses and the fun we have together riding and sharing our equine adventures. It became a healing point for us. We still ride together even though we believe in totally different things.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
Let’s be honest. I am never going to look like anyone else. I am short, I am Asian and somedays I will just not have enough leg because I am out of shape. Now being out of shape I can fix but the rest is just who I am and I love it. I ride a 16H purebred Arabian gelding who I can’t get on without a stool. I once was on a trail ride and I got off and had to walk for half an hour before I could find a rock to get on.
My daughter loves to show. She is eleven years old and is an amazing hunter/jumper. She is fearless and I want to be like her. She walks into a ring with no preconceived notions that she looks different or that people might think about a little Asian/Latina girl competing with the adults. She has faith in her abilities and her horse and I love that about her. She shows her purebred Arabian and she has to be that much better in the hunter ring to even be competitive with the fancy warmbloods, but she never lets that phase her. They work hard and really most of the time they are competing to get better, to land jumps, get distances and they don’t let others tell them that they look different.
I once asked her if it would be easier to ride a fancy horse that looked the part, and she said ‘why would I do that, I love Thor’ (her horse). I want to be like that and yet sometimes as you stand at a big show and notice that you are the only person of color there, you think this is not a sport for me. How is it that a girl from India, ended up in the US, at a show?
I was appalled that a friend of mine was told her daughter would not succeed in riding because of the color of her skin. That if she had aspirations to go to the Olympics, she just didn’t have the right look. I couldn’t believe a trainer would actually say that to anyone let alone a teenager. But then I remind myself that my daughter, my son, and I are proof that everyone and anyone can ride. We are not millionaires (although that would make my horse obsession so much easier), we definitely don’t have the fanciest horses but that never stops us, and yes we look totally different. But our passion to ride is the same and we sure have fun riding.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
Never let someone else dictate what you can and can not do. Some will tell you that riding is a rich person sport and yes money makes it easier. But if you really want to ride there is always a way. For me, it takes two different jobs and keeping my horses at home to afford to ride.
If you are a new rider, find a really good trainer who can encourage and support you. One of the things I love about my trainer is that she never turns any kid away who truly wants to ride. I have seen her give lessons to kids in exchange for cleaning stalls, feeding, etc. So how does one find these amazing trainers? I suggest going to observe their lessons and learning how they interact with their students and their horses. Also, if you end up with a trainer you don’t fit with, that’s okay. Don’t give up. Try someone different. Sometimes it might not be a good fit for many reasons but don’t give up the first or even the hundredth time.
Facebook, Instagram and social media make it seem like everyone is an amazing Olympic rider, and that is hard when you are starting out. Don’t ever give up. It took me more than two years to even sit a canter at my age. I don’t know why it was so hard but one day I finally did it and I posted the video of it on Instagram. I was so excited and one of the first comments I got was, ‘Look at her heels they are so wrong she is going to fall.’ Now, this commenter was right, my heels were wrong. But she didn’t know how much effort it took to get there for me. I also didn’t let her words take away from my joy of finally being able to canter. As I said don’t let anyone rob you of what you want to do. As equestrians of color, we are the pioneers here, we can be the change. My son says we can’t be quiet about change. We can bring kindness, tolerance and encouragement for everyone.
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.