By Michele Arana
I come from a place where we show our love through food, our passion through dance, and our connections to others through loud laughter and death defying hugs. I come from people who are resilient and strong, love intensely, and in their darkest times, still manage to hold their heads up high and keep on pushing through. All of these things have been passed down to me and significantly influence who I am today. Yo soy Boricua, Nuyorican to be more specific, and I am a horse woman. Horses are a big part of life in Puerto Rico, and part of our culture. But when most people think of equestrians, they don’t think of Puerto Ricans playing a large role in the horse world. Especially when it comes to dressage.
For as long as I could remember, I have loved horses. Growing up in Queens and being a horse crazy kid didn’t really make much sense to my parents. But my Abuelo was a horseman, a Jibaro whose love for el campo and horses ran deep. He would always send me photos of his horses in the mail along with Paso Fino magazines from Puerto Rico. He played a big role in me choosing to never let that love dwindle.
My parents took me for riding lessons when I was around 10, and it was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. There is no way for me to be able to put into words just how happy I was, but I know that is a feeling many equestrians experience. As I got older and went out on my own, I decided that that happiness was something that I wanted to keep in my life. I worked tirelessly, seven days a week, and worked three jobs to save up and buy my first horse on my 21st birthday. She was a beautiful, dappled grey Arabian mare named Mandi. She was green, and a lot of horse wrapped up in a little package. It was with her that I embarked on truly furthering my education and journey into classical dressage. I will forever be grateful for our partnership and all that she has taught me.
The more I read, studied, and watched videos of wonderfully harmonious masters such as Walter Zettl, Manolo Mendez, and Nuno Olivera, the more I fell in love with the sport. To me, riding is very similar to dancing in how, when all else fades away, two beings intertwine and become one. It is harmonious and about connecting to our horses and them to us. It is there that you see the effortless fluidity and athleticism that makes classical dressage so beautiful. But the more involved in the sport I became, the more out of place I felt. It’s a very conflicting feeling, to feel and know so strongly who you are, yet at the same time also know that there is so much of who you are that you have to hide to be in a world that you feel so connected to.
Dressage is a sport that is very much so based on tradition, and a lot of that tradition comes with rigidity. It’s between these traditions and manners of rigidity that I found I didn’t fit. At times, it felt like trying to grow wildflowers in the arctic, something that just didn’t or wouldn’t work. But instead of accepting this, it fueled a fire in me. One that had always been there but now had grown. I was determined to create a space, not only for myself but for other equestrians that looked like me, and felt similarly to myself. I wanted a space where we could be unapologetically ourselves and instead of wilting in the snow, we would blossom and flourish under the sun.
It has been over a decade, and I could have never imagined that my journey would have led me to where I am now – with a full-time lesson and training program, beautiful facility, and amazing horses and people. My program strives to be inclusive to all equestrians and harbor a safe space for them to learn and grow, while also having fun!
I would be lying if I said that it was easy to find my way and figure out how to be true to myself at the same time. I’ve spent years evolving to get to where I am now, and evolving is a very nice way to put it. It has been a very tough road, but one I felt important to take. Not only for myself, but for other equestrians of color who felt that there was not a space and place for them in a world so set in tradition. Some traditions are critical in the foundation of dressage, but the way I see it, there are also quite a few that are meant to be broken.