Inside NC’s Black saddle clubs, the cowboys and cowgirls continuing their traditions with trail rides and horseback events this summer.
Rhythmic beats shook the streets of Uptown Charlotte this spring, but it wasn’t a parade or a marching band.
It was the semi-annual city ride for the “Trailbred Riderz,” their biggest one yet. A mile-long caravan of more than 100 horses, hatted Black cowboys and skilled cowgirls filled the streets, leaving mouths agape.
The procession started in Druid Hills, a residential and historically Black neighborhood, and continued through Graham Street to Spirit Square, one of Charlotte’s main cultural institutions. Along the way, commuters, bankers and city dwellers stopped and stared.
“People never saw anything like that come through Charlotte. They were real shocked at that. They were videotaping from the high rises,” said Curtis Thompson, Trailbred Riderz’s founder.
Trailbred Riderz is one of dozens of North Carolina Black horseman clubs. Almost all are part of the East Coast Trail Ride Association, which shares information on Black rodeos and trail rides from Virginia to South Carolina.
Most are located in the rural eastern and western regions of the state but a few, like the Riderz, are in urban areas as well. Members span all ages, from youth to elders, and women make up a significant portion, participating in competitions as fiercely as the men.
“Behind every Black cowboy is a Black cowgirl ready to take the reins,” Thompson’s sister, Amber, told Cardinal & Pine. She founded Saddles and Sips, which curates luxe experiences around horsemanship for Black women. ”We’re just as much riders as they are.”
Thompson grew up in Charlotte, spending many days at his grandmother’s house in Druid Hills. Just two doors down was Big M Stables, one of the few remaining Black-owned horse farms in the country that is located in an urban community.
Bobby Martin, who traveled the Carolinas as one of the first Black professional horse trainers in the region, has owned and operated Big M for more than 50 years. He gave Thompson his first exposure to horses, riding, and the long-standing but insular culture of Black cowboys.
The Whitewashing of Black Cowboys
Despite efforts to whitewash Black cowboys out of the popular imagination, they were ubiquitous in the Old West.
It’s estimated a quarter to a half of all ranch hands were Black. They include names such as Bill Pickett, Deadwood Dick and Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi and inspiration for the Lone Ranger character.
Thompson founded Trailbred Riderz to expand the present community and spread awareness of that legacy – even in areas that are more bustling than backwoods.
Thompson especially loves expanding children’s horizons. When they learn about the number of cowboys and cowgirls that looked like them, they realize this is something they can do too. The awe of kids at the April ride flooded Thompson with memories of his own experience.
“I remember when I was their age and would see the ‘OG’ cowboys I follow to this day, who paved the way for me to do what I’m doing now. For me to turn around and see 100 riders strong lined up behind me made me feel good, like I was part of the history. It’s something I always dreamed of,” he said.
Here’s Where To Check Out Black Cowboy Culture
Summer and fall are the most active times for the clubs, when many hold rodeos, trail rides, and camp outs that are open to the public.
What makes Black cowboy culture different? It differs from organization to organization, but the flair, the feeling, the music – even the horses dance. It’s a vibe.
“We’re a little more urban, a little more fashion, a bit more culture,” Thompson said. “But everybody is different. We get down on our horses. A lot of people are trying to get closer to their roots, the country side. North Carolina’s very big and I’ve been through a lot of parts. How they do it in the woods is different from in the city.”
Club events are often spread over long weekends, with the first day reserved to set up campers and RVs, a Friday night meet and greet and fish fry. Saturdays are for trail rides, horse shows, competitions, and when the sun goes down, big parties.
“They line dance four or five hours straight, nonstop. They party. You might see 2-3,000 people doing the same dance,” Thompson said.
The dress code is high country – jeans, boots, and hats.
“We might be stylish, but we don’t mind getting dirty. We might get muddy or wet on the trail ride, but when we get back we clean up, shower in the campers, and bring out the best,” he shared.
Due to the pandemic, activities were cancelled last year and many continue to be on hold, for safety’s sake. But there are a few chances to catch these cowboys in action this summer. Here’s a list of other events to check out:
July 30-31, Annual Black Cowboy Festival
Greenfield Farm, 4585 Spencer Road
Tickets can be bought here.
August 6-7, Horseshoe Bandits Trail Ride
100 Boy Scout Lane
Warsaw, NC 28398
For information, contact Marcus at (910)-545-9096
August 14, Hucklebuck Horseman Second Anniversary
Broad River Greenway,
Boiling Springs, NC
Trail Ride begins at 10:30 am
September 3-4, Regulators Trail Ride
Torain Ranch, 4901 Elbert Brady Rd
Asheboro, NC 27203
For more information, call Joe at (910)315-6380 or Bird at (336)362-5803
Sept 3-4, Kountrified Rydaz Saddle Club Labor Day Trailride and Campout
11402 Hedgepeth Rd
For more information, call Dr. Bounce at (252)308-3609 or Hucklebuc at (252)428-8256.
Oct. 16, Trailbred Riderz Bonfire
3300 Polk and White Road
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org