Meet the First Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship Winner: Milan Berry

We recently featured the Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship, a new fund established to provide opportunity and mentorship to young riders from diverse backgrounds get a leg up with their riding. The first winner of the OYES award is Milan Berry, and we’re honored that she has given EN permission to share her essay. If you or someone you know are eligible for the next round of this scholarship, you can view more information and download an application for the next round (deadline: January 15, 2021) here.

Photo courtesy of Milan Berry.

Usually when I tell people that I speak Chinese and ride horses, I get more than a few head-turns and eyebrow raises. Being an African American woman, most people wouldn’t expect me to speak one of the world’s hardest languages, as well as have the ability and physicality to control a one-ton animal with my heels, leg, and seat.

I think that it takes a special type of person to willingly walk into an unknown situation with no allies or support system behind you, and still come out swinging and successful. I’d like to think that I am experienced in this aspect, as some of the most important parts of me stem from being the “only one”. I believe it truly makes me unique, an anomaly, but never in a negative sense.

My name is Milan Berry. I am a senior at Georgia Southern University double majoring in International Studies and Chinese Language, and I am the current Secretary of the Georgia Southern Equestrian Team. Through this University-sponsored club team, I have been riding English consistently in weekly lessons for around 4 years now, and the Equestrian Team is trained by Eleanor Ellis, out of Evermore Farm. English is truly the discipline I am passionate about, but my wildest hopes and dreams stem from eventing. Watching the horses gallop cross-country, jumping over monster sized landscapes gets my adrenaline pumping. This is why eventing is my favorite discipline, one I hope to be able to participate in within the near future.

Horses have been a lifelong fascination for me. As a toddler, and I vividly remember watching the 1994 version of Black Beauty on cassette tape. Watching the black stallion gallop across fields, throw its head and rear took my breath away in ways I still remember clearly to this day. They were magical creatures, animals that were so big but so full of life and personality. Ever since then, I have been fascinated with them and the sport that horseback riding is.

Since I am completely financially independent from my parents, I use money from my student loan refund to pay for lessons, as well as show fees and riding clothes. This is the only way I would be able to afford riding, and I also work two part-time jobs to afford extra lessons and showing opportunities. I am the only African American English rider on my Equestrian team, and I am the first POC to serve in an officer’s position in the entire history of the club. As the secretary of the Georgia Southern Equestrian Team, I am responsible for recruitment and the management of our social media profiles and influence. Currently I only show in walk-trot, but I attend two lessons weekly where I walk, trot, canter, and have jumped up to 2 foot. Although it is hard to ignore when I am the only POC lessoning and competing, I have never allowed this isolation to stop me.

Milan with her Georgia Southern Equestrian teammates. Photo courtesy of Milan Berry.

Throughout my time riding, I quickly became aware of the fact that I was isolated via race. I noticed it while watching the Olympics in 2016, I noticed that I never saw people of color in the Dover catalogs I receive in the mail. I especially noticed it in the show ring, when even to this day I am often the only person of color competing. Although the horses that we ride do not see color or race, it is hard to be the only person who looks like you in a show ring or lesson. It is hard to not see many people of your race at the very top of the sport, competing in Grand Prixes and winning hundred thousand-dollar derbies. And it is especially hard as of recently with so many large equestrian companies and brands speaking out about diversity and inclusiveness in our sport, and to see many influential equestrians speak against it. How do I explain my experiences to people when there are so few people like me to share theirs as well? Having the monetary funds to maintain horses is a privilege that many people don’t understand, especially if they were born into the lifestyle that I try my best to spread awareness of this fact, as riding horses has truly taught me the results of hard-work, perseverance, consistency, and grit.

When I think back to my younger self, I would have never imagined being in the position I am today. There were a variety of factors that prohibited my ability to ride when I was younger, but the most significant ones were finances and distance. Due to financial hardship within my family, riding as consistently as I do was a dream to me at one point in time. I remember begging my parents for lessons, giving them all types of addresses and names of barns that they could take me to. But as I grew up and kept asking, I quickly realized how expensive horses were. Average lesson prices in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia are around $60.00 to $70.00 dollars an hour, and even as a pre-teen I knew my family couldn’t afford it. This didn’t stop me though. Right around the age of 14 and 15, I began catching Atlanta’s public transportation system to get around the city. This gave me a wider range of freedom, and I spent countless hours on buses and trains to get to a therapeutic riding program I began volunteering at about 20 miles north of the city center. These volunteer sessions taught me the most basic skills, such as tacking up and grooming. This was how I got my “horse fix” my freshman year of high school, and my interactions with horses only grew from there. I later accepted two working student positions in the summer of 2014 at a hunter/jumper barn, and the summer of 2016 at a local trail-riding business. After 2016, I did not ride another horse until I was a freshman at Georgia Southern.

As a double major in International Studies and Chinese Language, other countries and cultures have always intrigued me. I began learning Chinese at the age of 14 and learning the language had provided me two international experiences before I turned 21. I am proud to say that studying Chinese led me to the opportunity of becoming a Benjamin Gilman Scholar, a U.S. Department of State program that funds study abroad initiatives for low-income students. I spent a month attending East China Normal University in the Summer of 2019, taking a Chinese International Relations class. I learned about different aspects of China’s international relationships with other countries, as well as key details about Chinese foreign policy. Receiving this scholarship was truly life-changing, as it opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career abroad and specifically within the Foreign Service. The fellowships that I am applying for could potentially completely pay for my graduate school and assure me a career within the U.S. Department of State. My goal is that I will earn enough money to own my own horse someday and be able to afford lessons and training as well.

The opportunity provided by the Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship means the world to me. I am truly grateful to use this riding scholarship to not only improve my personal riding skills, but to raise and encourage awareness for diversity and inclusion in the sport itself. Horses have taught me the value of patience, hard work, perseverance, and above all the will to excel no matter my environment. Thank you for believing in me and I hope we will be able to bring people from all walks of life into the wonderful place that is the equestrian community.

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