How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?
I remember the smell of Champion Pepi show sheen from my experience riding in horse shows as a kid. The smell always brings me back to the anticipation, the excitement, and the reward for all of the hard work I was putting in as a rider. I learned to ride at a very young age. I thought of myself as an intermediate to advanced rider, until I bought my own horses.
At the age of 39, I felt like a complete beginner. How could this be? I had ridden horses almost my entire life. Having my own horses has taught me so many valuable lessons. One of which is to be able to stay in a “beginner’s mindset”. By being open, available, and present, I am able to take in the lessons that my horses are here to teach me. My mistake was thinking that I was going to be the one doing the teaching. I learned very quickly that wouldn’t be the case. I am learning a different type or style of horsemanship.
So as an equestrian, I would describe myself as someone who will forever be a student, who will always be learning. As an equestrian, I will always put the needs of my horses first. This is because I love them so much. Their quality of life and their happiness is paramount to me.
I am forever asked the question “what are you?” I believe that this is an acknowledgment of sorts that people recognize that my heritage is different than theirs. They are right in that guess. But the way people ask sometimes makes me feel like an animal at the zoo. I’m extremely proud of my Sri Lankan, Dutch and Irish heritage. And I identify most with the Sri Lankan part of it. The people, the culture, the food.
I take the question commonly asked of me as an opportunity to be able to reframe the way someone asks. “Are you asking about my heritage?” My hope is that perhaps they choose to use that phrase the next time they ask. My heritage is who I am. It is who I am becoming. And it will be what is left of me when I am gone.
What do you enjoy about being an equestrian of color?
As a kid, I knew I was different. I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. I didn’t have the right name brand clothes, wear my hair the right way, nor was I popular. No matter what I tried to do to fit in, it didn’t have the desired result. It was exhausting.
I remember going to the barn and being very aware that the horses didn’t care about any of these things. That made me so happy. I felt like I fit in with the horses better than I ever did with my peers or at school. I enjoyed having a place that felt not only safe but warm and inviting as a child. As an adult, not much has changed, I still feel more connected with my horses than I do with most people. I am totally ok with that.
There are so many things that I enjoy about being an equestrian. I enjoy the connection, the silent communication, and the bond that we create based on respect and love. I enjoy the challenge of the tough days that come along with horse ownership. Those days challenge us to be better, more confident, and stronger, for ourselves first, then for our horses. The lessons that we learn from horses, most times, can be applied to any aspect of life. I enjoy having the opportunity to share this with the people in my life who also get so much joy out of horses. And those that I feel would really benefit from the healing that they can provide.
What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?
I have thought about this question for so long. And the honest answer is that I don’t really feel like I personally have ever faced any challenges as an equestrian of color. I think a lot of the things that I may have struggled with as an equestrian are common to equestrians. And that color really doesn’t have anything to do with that. That makes me really happy to share.
What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?
This may be the hardest and equally most rewarding thing you ever choose to do! When it gets tough, it forces you to dig deep and remember who you are, where you came from, what you believe. And to have the strength and confidence to keep moving forward. You will learn more from horses than you will from most people. I feel like sometimes we think we are going to teach them, and then they end up teaching us far more. I believe that the horse can be looked at as a metaphor for life. I would encourage anyone to follow this if you love it. Listen to your heart.
Shelley Paulson is an Equestrian Commercial & Portrait Photographer as well as Mentor and Educator, based in Minnesota. She is one of the founders of this project and has a passion to see more diversity in Equestrianism and Equine Media.