Horses Built the Confidence for Living an Authentic Life

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

BY LAUREN MAULDIN

Horses offer a gift of universal acceptance. The animals make no judgements based on gender, religion, sexuality or any of the other dividing factors humans are often troubled by. Ryan O’Donnell, a gay, transgender male, understands the haven the barn can be. 

“I got into horses at a very young age,” he tells us. “I was only two when we went to a trail riding place and got on a horse for the first time. I didn’t know how years later I would make it not only my sport, but my passion and eventual career.” Going to school at Colorado State University, Ryan is working towards a degree in Equine Science. He credits his work ethic to horses, “I don’t give up when things are hard.”

Photo courtesy of Ryan O’Donnell

More than perseverance, horses have been a mirror to the kind of love and acceptance Ryan strives for in his personal life. “They’ve taught me patience, love and acceptance more than any other thing could truly,” he says. “Horses have been my life for 12 years and counting. I’ve had people ask me what I would be doing now if I never got into horses, and I can no longer answer. Because I truly, truly have no idea.” 

Growing up with horses as he figured out his sexuality and gender identity meant that Ryan actually came out multiple times in his journey to an authentic self. “In 2014, I first came out as bisexual, still identifying as female. Fast forward two years later in 2016, and I came out as transgender, still identifying as bisexual,” he explains. “The more I lived though, I realized I was attracted strictly to men and came out again this year as gay. It’s definitely a roller coaster figuring out how to identify and who you are.” 

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

Moving through this process meant different things for Ryan at each stage. Sometimes, friends and barn mates needed information about his transition whereas other times it was less of a change for their daily interactions. “When I came out as bisexual, no one knew because I didn’t think it was that big of a deal and I was young,” he says. “But when I came out as trans, I had to make sure everyone knew due to the fact that I was changing my name, pronouns and appearance.”

Living as a male allowed Ryan to be his authentic self, but it also distinctly shifted his experience in the equestrian community. “I knew that I was a minority, and my old barn seemed to want to keep it under wraps in a sense, not go ‘spreading it.’ I felt like I couldn’t be my authentic self at the place I felt like I always could be.” 

Ten years later, he has switched barns and found a happier place to exist. “My barn now sees me as Ryan,” he tells us. “They see me as a happy individual, and fully accept me no matter what. I feel it every time I go ride and see them.” 

Photo courtesy of Ryan O’Donnell

He is an example to other queer people in the community that it’s okay to come out when you feel comfortable. “You don’t have to pretend to please the masses,” he says. “I know we’re a minority and it can seem scary, but it’s okay. It can be terrifying not knowing how people are going to react. You may not think it, but there really is a secret, silent army behind you of not only the LGBTQ+ horse community, but other compromised groups as well. You truly have an army of people that will make you feel safe, even if you have never seen a single one of us.”

For straight allies, he brings the following advice: “If someone comes out to you, don’t treat them any differently than you would have before. Be there. Be a supportive ally and friend. If you don’t agree with what they are, or you simply don’t know what to do, there are plenty of resources that can educate you. Just be there for us. It’s a truly scary thing being a minority in this sport, and all we want is for more people who exist in the majority to understand. Be there. Be supportive. Be a true ally.” 

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

Aside from being an active listener and learner, Ryan has ideas for how the equestrian community could be more supportive of LGBTQ+ riders. He would love to see Pride events held at barns or horse shows as a way to visually show support for his community. But on a smaller scale, having a trainer or other authority figure listening to LGBTQ+ struggles goes a long way. “Even if you don’t understand, someone being there just to listen and being there in general can make a huge difference,” he says.

For now, Ryan has set his goals on moving back to Colorado to finish up his degree in Equine Science at Colorado State. He hopes to own a horse or two in the future, as well as meet the right person he could call a significant other. No matter where life may take him in the future, he knows how much he has horses to thank. 

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

“Horses have helped me in more ways than I can count, making me a much stronger human than I ever thought I could be. I owe my life to the horses that have shaped me into who I am today. They’ve helped me become a more extroverted person who isn’t afraid of what people think anymore. I owe them my heart, my life and the sheer amount of confidence they have given me to this day and for many years to come.” 


About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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