The Equestrians of Color Photography Project: Mariah Eisenbraun & Erica Swank

Mariah Eisenbraun. Photo by Roam Photos

The Plaid Horse is proud to introduce some of the photo project’s featured equestrians to our readers in each issue

In 2020, a group of photographers came together to create the Equestrians of Color Photography Project, a weekly blog that promotes inclusion and amplifies the voices of equestrians of color ready to openly share their story with the community. Learn more at

Mariah Eisenbraun. Photo by Roam Photos

The Equestrian: Mariah Eisenbraun
The photographer:Roam Photos
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What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?

I have been truly lucky to not experience any major problems with being an equestrian of color. Will it eventually happen? I am almost sure of it. I live in Ohio, so the state isn’t as racially divided as other states may be. Sure, I can sense when someone may not be very fond of me being in the barrel industry. For example, when I give a smile and a nod, and I get nothing from them but a stare.

I am truly a happy person and you can always catch me smiling and laughing. I was also raised right by both of my parents to treat everyone with respect until they break that respect. I wish everyone was like that. Which brings me into the rodeo atmosphere. The rodeo world specifically pounds that into people’s heads, but only a select few decide to honor that when they’re actually exposed to people of color.

A major factor of being an equestrian is the “you’re not black, you ride horses,” or, “you obviously are white on the inside because you ride horses,” or, “real black people don’t ride horses.” I wish I could count how many times I have heard this come out of people’s mouths. And honestly, it is one of the most offensive comments that I get.

My mother is African American and my father is Caucasian. So, I have always been faced with having to “pick sides” when it comes to different aspects. I guess the horse world is a “white” sport. When was that ever designated? Who knows. But, that isn’t the case. I take big pride in being half Black, and I wouldn’t change it if I had the chance to. I’ve taken many classes in college to learn about my ancestors, and how African Americans are treated in today’s society, and in my opinion, there is no right or wrong way to “act Black.” I am who I am, so the question should never arise in a conversation, period.

Mariah Eisenbraun. Photo by Roam Photos

What words of encouragement would you have for other equestrians of color?

What I have to tell other people of color is that your dreams matter too. Always have a healthy group of people that support you through everything and bring you back up whenever you are down. I never would have imagined that I would get to travel every weekend with my horses, compete in big competitions, win some barrel races, have sponsors, get to travel with a beautiful new truck and trailer, and the list could go on and on. I started with nothing, just a little girl who knew that she had her heart set on horses. I just gradually built my way up. I don’t plan to stop until I get to do this as a living one day.

So, who knows, maybe I’ll see you at the NFR, and maybe you will see me there as well one day as the first African American pro barrel racer to make it there. Honestly, only time will tell, and life is so good. So, make the very best of it and never stop believing in yourself. Yes, there will be times when it seems like everything is against you. But just know, it will only get better, and if you were truly destined to do something, it will happen.

Erica Swank. Photo by Kirstie Marie Photography

The Equestrian: Erica Swank

The photographer: Kirstie Marie Photography

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How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?

Well, first and foremost (and like all equestrians), I am an avid horse lover. I still remember the first time I laid eyes on a horse at 2 years old, and the magic I felt when I touched their velvet nose. I truly enjoy the bond between horse and human. It’s a beautiful thing.

When it comes to discipline/style of equestrian, I’ve spent most of my career riding and showing all-around in the Pinto and Paint associations. Being a three-sport athlete growing up, I’ve always been full of energy and competitiveness. Learning to ride and show so many different classes from western pleasure, to trail, to hunt seat equitation was exciting and made me a well-rounded equestrian. It made me work hard to create and maintain a genuine connection with my horse and become the best team possible.

I have recently switched to the Reined Cowhorse. Having three events, the Cowhorse enticed me to switch and has also matched my need for speed.”

Erica Swank. Photo by Kirstie Marie Photography

What challenges have you faced as an equestrian of color?

I am an extremely passing Latina. My challenges and experiences do not compare to those who cannot hide behind white skin and light features. However, even as a passing Latina, I have experienced slights and felt the need for representation. I often catch myself getting overwhelmingly excited when I see another Latinx or someone ethnically ambiguous at horse shows or events. Because, come on, most horse events (especially the top of each discipline) are so white. Seeing the representation of Latinx gives me this visceral feeling that I’m not alone.

I think part of that is I know how some of the horse world feels about Latinxs. Before Trump’s wall and Latinx child prisons, there was already hostility toward the Latinx community. I feel it, I hear it, and I see it. When I start interacting with a new group in the horse world, I let them know early on that I am Mexican. Because I’m passing, I know some might feel comfortable to say things they wouldn’t with a Latinx present. I say it to protect my feelings and to allow them to make me feel welcome in this very white space.

Even though I do this, it hasn’t always protected me. I’ve had to create thick skin, pretend I haven’t heard a racist comment or conversation, unfollow certain horse people on social media, and find ways to soothe my aches.

I don’t think I’m going to change every racist’s mind, but I do think it’s worth trying, especially if they are people I otherwise love. Lately, I’ve been trying to educate by sharing articles, stories, and history of people of color and their experience in the horse world. I’ve been challenging those that I love who post things that are hurtful by having tough conversations when something racist has been said. Standing up and speaking out helps me feel like I’m doing something productive and I hope creates space in other’s mind for change. 

Erica Swank. Photo by Kirstie Marie Photography

Share your story

If you are an equestrian of color (16 years or older) interested in sharing your story through The Equestrians of Color Photography Project, you can connect with a local photographer ally via the project website:

*This story was originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!