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Leanna Baudendistel is 19 years old. She’s a college student. She’s a horse lover. She is hardworking and devoted to achieving her dreams. Despite all of the wonderful characteristics that go into making Leanna who she is, she is no stranger to receiving comments from fellow equestrians who attempt to belittle her for the color of her skin.
I spoke with Leanna and had a wonderful conversation about her life as a young woman of color, riding, and compassion. Read on, and I think you’ll be just as inspired as I am.
Kate: Tell us a little bit about your riding background. How long have you been riding? What discipline? Do you show
Leanna: The first time I ever sat on a horse was at Trout Lodge. I rode a little pony named Shamrock. Ever since that day, I’ve always loved horses. I didn’t stick with it until I met an old friend who is also African American and owned horses. I went back to that same facility and started to take lessons. Lucky for me, there was a horse for sale named Zoom, and I weaseled my way into trying him and then buying him.
Once I got Zoom, I was able to take more lessons and some fun/at home shows and a handful of shows at the National Equestrian Center. I’ve been riding basically my whole life, but about five years on a consistent basis. I stick to hunters and jumpers right now, but I am not currently showing or riding regularly because I’m busy with school.
K: When did you first start to receive comments about the color of your skin in the equestrian world? How did those comments make you feel?
L: The first time I ever received a comment was at my second show at the NEC. I was cooling Zoom down after schooling when a few riders came up to me and asked, “How can you afford that horse?” I was shocked at the time because I was only 14. I remember feeling hurt and like an outsider in the sport that kept me going when the rest of the world was against me.
Instead of turning away, I responded by saying, “Well, technically, unless you’re paying for your horse 100%, none of us own our horses. Our parents do.” As soon as they walked away, I felt my eyes starting to well up and a pain in my chest. I didn’t feel like I belonged in the industry or had a purpose in the equestrian world anymore.
K: Has the current political climate made you feel any differently about being a young woman of color?
L: The political climate has changed me in so many ways. I am adopted into a white family and was attending a predominately white institution during the time of the election. I felt like I was less than, an outcast, someone who didn’t matter to anyone. My feelings weren’t being heard in the [equestrian] industry and in my everyday life. I would sit and think, “This would be so much easier if I weren’t this color.”
I started second-guessing everything about myself. I started second-guessing riding and got to the point where I almost quit. It’s hard enough to love yourself when you have dark skin, but when the industry you love most doesn’t love you back, you feel as though there’s nothing for you in this world.
K: What is one thing you’d like to say to those that were ignorant enough to talk about your riding talent in terms of race (i.e. “You’re a good rider for a black girl”)?
L: One thing I would say to the ignorant riders would be this: Before you speak, think about why you would say “for a black girl”. Is it because you are insecure with your own riding? Is it because you genuinely think it’s a compliment? Is it because you believe that black people are lesser than and cannot achieve as much as other races? Then put yourself in my shoes.
How would you feel if the roles were reversed? I am not a good rider for a black girl. I am a good rider because I work hard every day to be the best that I can be. My skin color isn’t my only identity—I have many things that I identify with that make up who I am. Being black is only a piece of who I am and there is so much more to me than that. Remember that people have feelings and you never know what could trigger someone else. Know that your words and actions can hurt someone more than you would ever be able to know. We don’t need to put each other down. Riding is hard enough as it is!
K: What piece of advice do you have for young riders that are just starting out and may not be prepared for how cruel some people in this sport can be?
L: My advice is to keep your chin up and fake it until you make it. Speak up to someone when they’ve disrespected you, but never let someone get to you so badly that you lower yourself to their level. Smile at everyone who walks by.
Work hard at riding. Learn all that you can about the horses, because at the end of the day, we are only here for them. If someone says something ignorant or rude to you, don’t respond to him or her. Transfer that energy into something productive and ride the best course of your life. Overall, don’t feed into negativity, keep working hard, and you’ll get to where you’re trying to go.
K: What are your hopes for the future of the equestrian sport?
L: My hopes for the future of this sport are so simple: that people learn to put their differences aside and focus on the horses. Our sport already gets so much [outside] hate. We don’t need to hate each other.
K: What are your riding goals?
L: My first goal is to make it to Grand Prix level and own 3-4 horses. My second goal is to be a trainer and to own a great facility. However, I would like to be able to offer classes to people who want to ride but cannot afford it. I’d also like to be able to reward scholarship money to help students get a good education. I’d love to own a barn in Wellington as well. There’s not a set plan right now because being a working college student is occupying all of my time, but hopefully, I’ll be making a splash after college.
K: Anything else you’d like to share?
L: Remember that everyone is riding for their own reasons—some big and some small. Therefore, be kind to everyone because you never know what demons they are facing outside of riding.
If you want to stay up-to-date on all things Leanna, find her on Twitter: @ThePolishedEqu