For the Compton Cowboys, Horseback Riding Is a Legacy, and Protection
A group of childhood friends wants to create a safer community and challenge the notion that African-Americans can’t be cowboys.
For Anthony Harris, 35, walking to the corner store to buy a soda in his hometown, Compton, Calif., often comes with the risk of being stopped and searched by the police. But when Mr. Harris and other members of a group of horse riders known as the “Compton Cowboys” choose to ride their horses to the store, something entirely different happens.
“They don’t pull us over or search us when we’re on the horses,” Mr. Harris said while riding a dark brown horse named Koda as two police cars slowly drove past him on a recent trip to the store. “They would have thought we were gangbangers and had guns or dope on us if we weren’t riding, but these horses protect us from all of that.”
The Compton Cowboys, composed of 10 friends who have known one another since childhood, but officially came together as a group in 2017, are on a mission to combat negative stereotypes about African-Americans and the city of Compton through horseback riding.
The tight-knit group first met more than 20 years ago as members of the Compton Jr. Posse, a nonprofit organization founded by Mayisha Akbar in Richland Farms, a semirural area in Compton that has been home to African-American horse riders since the mid-20th century. Like other nonprofits, the Compton Jr. Posse and the Compton Cowboys rely heavily on donations from alumni, government grants and local community support used to sustain the cost of the horses on the ranch.
Most of the Compton Cowboys were first encouraged to join the organization by friends or relatives who believed horse riding would offer an alternative to gangs and violence prevalent throughout the city.
“When I was 11, I saw a black guy who was washing his horses outside of his home,” said Charles Harris, 29. “I walked up to him and started asking him questions about horses because I had only seen horses on TV before that.”
The man told him about the Compton Jr. Posse. The next day, Mr. Harris and his mother signed the papers and paid a fee to be a member.
For the Compton Cowboys, living in a community best known for the gangster rap group N.W.A. and high murder rates — 35 murders in 2016, with the crime index being nearly double the average in the United States, despite the fact that it has declined since 2002 — has been a motivating factor in their choices to ride horses.
“We’ve always wanted to give people a different side of Compton besides gangster rap and basketball,” said Leighton BeReal, 28, a member of the group who was born and raised in Compton.
Mr. BeReal, who like other members of the Compton Cowboys began riding in elementary school, found that using a horse as a method of transportation through Compton has also protected him from the threat of gang violence.
“If we’re walking on the street and a car drives past us that’s from a rival gang, they assume that we’re from a gang around here,” Mr. BeReal said, while riding alongside Mr. Harris and two other members of the group. “But if they see us on horses then they know we’re from Richland Farms and leave us alone.”
Maintaining the horses for casual riding and competitions at the Richland Farms property requires consistent maintenance and a collective effort from the Compton Cowboys. A typical workday for Anthony Harris — who is often joined by Mr. BeReal and Carlton Hook — begins at 5 a.m. with cleaning the stables and supplying the horses with fresh feed. Other members of the group like Roy-Keenan Abercrombia, 26, a full-time chef at a restaurant near Downtown Los Angeles, help at the ranch during their days off.
While work on the ranch may consist of strenuous physical labor, and occasional horse-related injuries, Anthony Harris uses his time working in the stables as an escape from the realities of a community that continues to struggle with gang violence.
“I was always around shootings and gangs, but none of that happens when I’m in the stables with the horses,” Mr. Harris said while restocking one of the stables with a fresh batch of hay. “There’s peace with the animals.”
Still, while the Compton Cowboys believe that they are helping to eradicate some of the negative stigmas of their city, their mission is to also break into a predominantly white western rodeo circuit.
The group members have individually tried to do so over the years, albeit with some challenges.
A typical horse can cost $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the breed, but the Compton Cowboys have had to rely on auctioned horses that cost approximately $200, and were victims of abuse, malnourishment and other forms of trauma.
CreditWalter Thompson Hernandez/The New York Times
Resources are scarce, and they often rely on secondhand riding gear, which can put them at a disadvantage when riding against those with more resources. In addition, training with a limited number of saddles often means having to ride “bareback,” which, according to Randy Hook, has now become a staple of their style. Their unique style, however, is believed to be one of their strengths as they continue to challenge conventional cowboy culture in a rodeo world that often prides itself on tradition.
“We’re different than most cowboys because we wear Air Jordan’s, Gucci belts and baseball hats while we ride,” Anthony Harris said. “But we could also dress like other cowboys.”
For the Compton Cowboys, riding through the city brings different reactions from local residents. Some react to the sight of African-American men on horses with fascination and disbelief, creating what Mr. Hook, 28, describes as a “Compton paparazzi” experience. But some are used to seeing them, scarcely pausing to take a second look.
Combating the stereotype that African-Americans do not ride horses has always been an issue for the group, particularly because they are largely omitted from media like movies and books.
African-American cowboys first emerged in the southwest United States at the conclusion of the Civil War, when freed African-American slaves migrated west to seek opportunities in a host of professions including cow herders and ranchers. According to William Loren Katz, author of “The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African-American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States” there were 5,000 to 8,000 black cowboys and cowgirls after the Civil War when wild herds of cattle were rapidly growing throughout the West.
“Being a black cowboy opened up professions for black men that they could not find in the North or South where they were often forced to work as street cleaners and elevator operators,” he said.
Mr. Katz also said that black cowboys — although often erased from historical narratives — are an indelible part of United States history.'
“The most American part of America are cowboys, who attracted the attention of Hollywood movies for decades,” he said. “Black people, however, were left out of them and their accomplishments were buried throughout history.”
As African-American migration increased from the South to cities throughout the West Coast after the Civil War and up to the mid-20th century, African-Americans began to settle in cities like Compton, which were slowly transformed from predominantly white suburbs to majority African-American where Southern social and cultural practices like horse riding often continued.
Compton, despite growing revitalization efforts, continues to be one of the most economically underserved communities in the United States, leaving its residents with limited access to educational and economic resources.
“The Compton Cowboys are a multigenerational story of black people’s ability to survive and create alternate worlds in the face of neglect,” said Thabisile Griffin, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who believes that many of the conditions that exist in Compton today, both inside and outside of the horse stables, have been a response to the lack of opportunities available to African-Americans. “Folks were frustrated, but subcultures of resistance persevered.”
Today, the Compton Cowboys continue to compete in individual events and often are invited to perform in parades throughout Los Angeles. Despite limited resources, some members of the group continue to excel in polo and bull riding events as a result of the intimate bonds with horses that, members of the group believe, have also been relegated to the margins.
“The throwaway horses that we were given ended up being the best horses for us because they had a feisty spirit and a chip on their shoulder just like we did,” Mr. Hook said. “They were the underdogs just like we were.”
Mr. Harris, who is attempting to become one of the first African-Americans to compete in polo in the Olympics, used to be ashamed to tell his friends that he rode horses.
“I don’t have any shame anymore. I even wear my breeches and boots to the mall,” he said.
In the past year the group took part in a featured ad by Guinness, the Irish alcohol company, as part of a promotional campaign, which, as some members have stated, has helped increase their visibility in an attempt to diversify a longstanding white cowboy culture.
At the same time, Randy Hook and other members of the Compton Cowboys hope to use their growing exposure to connect with other black cowboys around the United States, who, like them, represent a growing number of African-Americans whose experiences have been underrepresented in the rodeo world.
“At the end of the day, we want people to also think about us when they think about cowboys, not just a bunch of white guys in cowboy hats who smoke Marlboro cigarettes,” he said. “We’re trying to be the guys who make it cool to wear Stetson hats and Wrangler jeans in the ’hood.”