The Equestrians of Color Photography Project: Meet Sajid Saleem and Briana Villa

Sajid Saleem. Photo by Impulsion Images

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 equestriansofcolor.com.

The Equestrian:  Sajid Saleem

The photographer:  Impulsion Images

Learn more:  equestriansofcolor.com/sajid-saleem

How do you describe yourself as an equestrian?

I am an equestrian because I am the happiest when I am on a horse.

I am from the city of Hyderabad in India, now living in Portland, Oregon. As a kid, I always wanted to be around horses but there was really only one place you could go at the time, and unfortunately, I had no one to drive me there. My parents never even sat on a horse, so obviously they did not understand my obsession at first. All that changed when I got my first driving license! I would drive myself to weekly riding lessons. It was a good time for me to start riding because at the time, my mother was going through some health-related issues and we would spend a lot of time at the hospital. Learning to ride was a means for me to stay sane. When I was on a horse, everything would be just fine in the moment. All the worries would just have to wait. My coach would say I have a natural seat (whatever that meant).

The place where I rode was a polo club and, at the time, they needed an amateur player for their team. This was a great opportunity as I could learn to play polo for a little extra cost, and of course, I jumped at the chance. But, I did not tell my parents as I always thought it easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.

As luck would have it, we ended up winning a tournament which the local newspapers decided to cover. My time to ask my parents for forgiveness came sooner than I thought because of this! I thought I was SOL when my dad woke me up with the morning newspaper in his hand, and my picture with a polo pony on it. To my surprise, he was really proud of me, which made me feel even worse for hiding my passion from them. My parents were completely supportive of me playing polo and I got to play in several tournaments across the country as well as later when I went to grad school in the United Kingdom.

When I moved to Portland I was 25 years old, and I thought asking my parents to support my ‘horse hobby’ was just not fair. I missed horses a lot but it was time to start taking life seriously and get a good job and saving up to buy a house and start a family. Well, you can take a person out of an equestrian life but you can’t take the equestrian life out of the person! As soon as I had a good-paying job I got right back into riding. Polo was not really competitive around here and I wanted to learn a new discipline.

My now wife, who had grown up riding and spent her teenage years in Pony Club, thought that I would really enjoy show jumping. (We actually met horseback riding in India even though she is originally from southern Oregon.) We both started riding again and while this was my first step into the world of show jumping, I was hooked. The thrill of jumping fences, the degree of finesse needed, and the close partnership you develop with your horse is unlike any other thing, and unlike even polo in my experience.

My equestrian pursuit is marked with a hunger to learn more, to ride in harmony and balance with the horse, and above all, to do right by the horse.

The Equestrian: Briana Villa

The photographer: Purple Horse Designs

Learn more: equestriansofcolor.com/briana-villa

How did you get into horses and what is your current relationship with them?

From a young age, I’ve had a special love and interest in horses. I’m not sure how it all started, but to this day I still have my horse poster books (that I was so excited to get from the Scholastic Book Fair) and remember reading all of the Pony Pals books. I spent a lot of time drawing horses in my notebooks and making up stories that I had my own pony.

I eventually convinced my mom to let me have my 10th birthday party at a barn. A little while after that, she agreed to sign me up for lessons but I was only able to ride for a few months because it was too expensive.

Years went by, but my love never went away. Whenever there was a special occasion or trip I would always try to convince my family and now fiancé to do a one-time trail ride with me. Every chance I had, I wanted to be on a horse!

After graduating from college and starting my career as a teacher, I realized I finally had the opportunity to live out my childhood dream. I reached out to a friend who recommended that I try taking lessons at Gambler’s Choice Equestrian Center, where I have now been riding for almost two years!

What words of encouragement do you have for other equestrians of color or people of color considering becoming equestrians?

For anyone out there that is interested, I say to go for it! If you have that love or interest, then don’t let anything stop you. Find a barn where you feel comfortable and feel as though you can be yourself.

Horses are truly so special and can make such an impact in your life. If you are a young girl or boy who has always dreamed of riding but just don’t have the opportunity to yet, don’t give up! The perfect time and place will come.

I am now in my 20s, almost two years into taking lessons, and starting to look at the possibility of partially leasing my first horse! Your journey is special and unique to you, so don’t let anyone ruin that or tell you that it is not good enough. It may not always feel easy, but know that you are not alone and that you may be providing others with the courage to start. Representation matters. 

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: equestriansofcolor.com.


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