Helping One Rider at a Time
Many of us can recall a time when someone lent us a helping hand when we were in a tough situation. Sometimes, just having a little support made all the difference between barely getting by and taking a serious step towards our dreams, even when we thought adversity might prevent them.
When it comes to scholarships in the horse world, OYES Equestrian is the embodiment of that helping hand that didn’t just give us a handout, but a hand-up.
The Optimum Youth Equestrian Scholarship (OYES) was founded by Mandy Collier, certified equine sports massage therapist, dressage rider, and owner of Optimum Equine LLC.
The mission of OYES is to “provide opportunities for youth aged 17-27 from marginalized communities to become involved or stay involved in horse sports through financial awards and mentorship focusing on not only horsemanship and equestrian pursuits, but also career planning and education” (OYES Website).
By providing financial support in tandem with mentorship, OYES focuses on closing the gap between those who have faced economic hardships and discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity in the horse world.
While one applicant during any given scholarship cycle will receive $600 towards their equestrian pursuits, all applicants receive mentorship from a leader in the horse world. OYES meetings aim to help each applicant with both their equestrian and career pursuits.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Mandy Collier, founder of Optimum Equine LLC and the OYES Scholarship, as well as Krissy Rohr, a mentor in the OYES program who is passionate about seeing transformation in the lives of OYES applicants. Join us as we learn more about the history and heartbeat of the program!
Interview with Mandy
Q: Tell us about Optimum Equine and how you got into Equine Massage therapy.
Mandy: My bodywork business, Optimum Equine, was founded four years ago after I had just completed a lengthy recovery from a badly broken leg. At the same time that I was undergoing physical therapy and hands-on therapies myself, I was actively searching for a way to better fund my horse habit while also not working so much overtime at my desk job.
One morning I was out for a run and the light bulb just went on.
I wanted to help horses heal and be the best athletes they can be with the same healing techniques that were restoring my athletic abilities. I started researching training programs and launched Optimum Equine as soon as I was certified. Massage therapy had always been helpful for my heart horse, Charlie Brown, and I truly believe in the benefits of sports massage for maintaining soundness and peak performance in our partners.
Q: What is the relationship between Optimum Equine and the OYES Scholarship?
Mandy: The OYES scholarship was initially funded solely through profits from my business, hence Optimum Equine became the scholarship’s namesake. I did not know if anyone else would believe in the idea and invest in our mission, but I so strongly felt like there needed to be a change in our sport that I decided OYES was going to happen one way or another.
From there the Scholarship has received donations from individuals and businesses all across the country who believe in our mission and want to see it grow. Plus, every organization needs a fun acronym, and what’s better than OYES!
The scholarship came about after I attended a virtual forum hosted by Heels Down Magazine where four equestrians of color described their experiences in the horse world. I listened over and over again to stories of these women being denied opportunities, or not having opportunities available to them, and not feeling welcome in the equestrian space.
As I listened I knew I needed to find a way to try to make change.
Again, another light bulb moment as I drove to the barn the next day! A scholarship would give a leg up to a rider in need, and we could provide mentorship, education, and opportunities, as well as solidarity for BIPOC and LGBTQ riders who are often not included in the equestrian world. You can learn more about how it came about in the blog we published on our launch day.
Q: We love the mentorship piece of the scholarship. What does that look like, and why do you include mentorship as part of the program?
Mandy: Mentorship is critical. A $600 riding scholarship is great, and we’re proud to provide them. But we truly see mentorship as the most critical piece of our program. Living the equestrian life does not come easy, even more so when you’re up against barriers of limited finances, lack of access, discrimination, and lack of opportunities.
Our mentors are here to:
- guide these young riders on their equestrian journeys, and that includes
- mentor about selecting a career path and pursuing higher education
- offer solidarity understanding the various obstacles these young riders face
Thanks to technology, our mentees are able to connect with mentors all across the country through video meetings, and many of them go on to schedule regular meetings or stay in touch through calls or texts.
One applicant wrote, “A lack of information and knowledge on my part is what holds me back. Who do I reach out to? Who can I contact? Where and who can I learn from?”
This sentiment really hit home. The financial hurdles in this sport are what we always think of as holding people back, and that’s an enormous piece of it. But if you don’t have the knowledge necessary to get you to where you need to go, how will you get there? That’s why we’re so committed to connecting these young riders with professionals in the industries they’re interested in working in, or people who have walked similar paths and faced similar obstacles.
Q: Why is the OYES Scholarship a big part of your heart?
Mandy: I do this because I love the sport, and I love the horses. We want to see everyone who seeks that joy be able to experience that and have it in their life. We need to take a critical look at equestrian sport and ask what barriers are there and how do we make more riders feel welcome? How do we help more people feel like they’re able to participate in this life and belong in this sport? That’s a big part of what I’m trying to do with OYES.
Q: How does the equine focus set this scholarship apart?
Mandy: People often underestimate the power and magic of horses, but we don’t. The equestrian scholarship isn’t just meant for the next Olympian or the next superstar trainer, but every equestrian who lives a better life because horses are a part of it. That’s what makes this opportunity really unique and appealing to so many grassroots riders.
Q: What is your hope for recipients of the OYES Scholarship?
Mandy: We hope that they change the world. No, that’s not an exaggeration! We believe that the future is in the hands of the youth and it’s up to all of us to treat them right and give them the opportunities that they deserve so that the future is bright, safe, and secure.
Horses empower us, motivate us, make us work hard, and help us chase our dreams.
Our hope is that these young adults are able to keep horses in their life as a basis for their empowerment, their motivation, and their future success. Because the future for all of us depends on what they are able to achieve.
Q: How has the equestrian community contributed to the success of OYES recipients?
Mandy: The equestrian community has rallied around OYES in ways we still cannot believe. There have certainly been businesses that have made a huge impact. For example:
- Trafalgar Square Books donates a portion of sales made via our affiliate link to the scholarship and they offer 20% off coupons for the books we read in our Virtual Book Clubs.
- Kerrits has offered to donate show clothes to the quarterly scholarship recipients.
- Riding Warehouse features our riders on their social media and donates gift cards to them monthly.
- Dreamers & Schemers socks printed custom boot socks for us and donated a portion of the proceeds to us.
- The hosts of the Dressage Radio Show donated a virtual lesson to one of our mentees.
- A small one-woman show known as Never Knock Goods donated a huge amount—$400—from a custom apparel sale.
We are so grateful for all the businesses that have found a way to support OYES and its mission. We’re also blown away by the individuals that have donated their time and talents to our mentees.
Equestrians are a remarkable group of people united by their common love of horses and it’s really restored our faith in humanity to witness all of these people trying to give young riders a leg up on their dreams.
The overwhelming responses shows us what a need there is for a program like this in the equestrian world.
Interview with Krissy
Q: How did you get involved with horses, and how have they impacted your life?
Krissy: My childhood best friend started riding when she was five. I thought that seemed really fun, so I begged and pleaded until my parents finally caved and let me start taking lessons when I was seven. From there, I managed to get my first “job” at eleven years old, cleaning stalls at a neighbor’s place just to be around the horses more.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’d be here today without the horses.
This sport supported me through some really tough times in my childhood and all the challenges I’ve faced since then. The barn was a place to go to be around people who supported me. To this day, when I get on a horse and get to work, all the stress and pain I am carrying goes away.
Q: Tell us how you came to be part of the OYES mentorship program.
Krissy: I have been friends with Mandy since college where we both rode on the University of Pittsburgh Equestrian Team (Go Pitt!). When she mentioned to me what she was trying to do with OYES, I was immediately on board. I told her that whatever she needed from me, I was in.
Q: What does a typical mentor-mentee relationship look like?
Krissy: My favorite mentee experience started over Zoom, and we talked a lot about her goals. She asked a bunch of good questions, and we ended up exchanging phone numbers.
I still talk with her about once a week!
I love hearing updates about her journey with riding and the horses, and she’ll occasionally ask me what I know about something or if I have any insight on a particular topic.
I really enjoy that she and I have been able to continue the mentor/mentee relationship and love watching her grow both as a rider and as a horsewoman. She’s building her understanding of groundwork and horse care that so many equestrians are missing in the show world these days.
Q: What has surprised you about being a mentor?
Krissy: I’m surprised by how much I actually talk to my second mentee and how much enjoyment I get out of each video, picture, and update she sends. When I see her name pop up, I get really excited to see what she has accomplished or to answer her questions or provide knowledge to help her.
Q: Why is mentorship is a key component of the scholarship?
Krissy: Growing up as a “barn rat,” I was always at the stable, annoying everyone with questions. Having mentors in my own life has been more valuable than I can possibly express, but not everyone is lucky enough to stumble onto very knowledgeable horse-people who are happy and willing to help with everything from training to horse care to emergencies.
I feel that anyone involved with horses needs as many mentors as they possibly can because this sport cannot be done alone.
We all need fellow crazy horse-people to lean on and learn from.
Q: Why is it so important to support these scholarships?
Krissy: Horse riding is more than a sport—it’s a passion and a lifestyle. It is something that contributes in many ways to both the physical and mental well-being of those involved. It provides people with a community, an outlet, and a workout. I know without the horses in my life, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
By donating to OYES, you can help someone else create a support system, fuel their passion, and improve their mental health.
If you’re interested in applying to the OYES Equestrian Scholarship or supporting the program, visit their website. Meanwhile, we want to offer a huge thank you to Mandy and Krissy who took the time to share their personal experiences through the evolution of this incredible program!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- Media Guide: Young Black Equestrians Podcast
- Letter to My Rookie Self: Camryn Taylor
- Letter to My Rookie Self: Narissa Jones
- Braided: A Herd Dynamic (Horse Rookie Diversity Initiative)
- Media Guide: Sisters Horsing Around