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A Black rodeo rewrites the story of the West

At the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, Black riders and fans bring a sense of swaggering cool to a culture overlooked by the history books.

Two riders on horseback with print skirts that extend over the rumps of their horses.
Juanita Brown, left, and her granddaughter Iyauna Austin don African print skirts in this 2018 photo. The women wore the skirts for the Black Cowboy Parade and later for the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. “They get to see the hard work you put into your horse to make you look good,” Austin told photographer Gabriela Hasbun. “What you wear also helps your horse.”
Photos by Gabriela Hasbun

Part of the July 2022 issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The tale of Bill Pickett, a legendary Black cowboy often barred from competing in largely white rodeos, stuck with Lu Vason. A Denver entrepreneur, Vason had first heard of Pickett — who invented the skill known as “bulldogging” to subdue wayward steers — on a chance visit to Denver’s Black American West Museum.

Historians estimate that one-quarter of American cowboys were Black, but Vason felt that Pickett and other turn-of-the-century Black figures who were part of the fabric of America’s Western expansion had been all but written out of history books. So, in 1984, Vason started the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, a Black rodeo that he saw as a way to challenge and broaden the narrow lore of the West. Today, the rodeo crisscrosses the US, serving as an inclusive gathering place for Black rodeo fans and budding Black rodeo stars alike.

San Francisco-based photographer Gabriela Hasbun was invited to tag along with friends to a Bill Pickett rodeo stop in 2007 at Rowell Ranch Rodeo, east of Oakland, California. Captivated, she returned a year later with a medium-format camera and a bag of film. For a decade, Hasbun captured what she saw: an age-old tradition infused with pride, highly modern fashion, and personal expression. A Bill Pickett rodeo is a place you might meet a horse named after Dapper Dan, catch a glimpse of a saddle emblazoned with the Louis Vuitton logo and artisan metalwork, or marvel at all the hair (horse), the nails (human), and the swagger (everyone).

Like Vason, Hasbun didn’t think the community was getting its due. “I couldn’t believe there was this huge Black community — very family-driven — having a wholesome event, and the media was overlooking it,” she told Vox.

Prince Damons and cowboys Sam Styles and Jonathan Higgenbotham parade through the grand entry of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in 2019. The touring rodeo, which launched in 1984 in Denver, attracts fans across the nation. “These kids are cool. They look cool,” says Hasbun. “They reek of cool. It’s this crazy attraction they have with the whole sport.”

“These kids are cool. They look cool,” says Hasbun. “They reek of cool. It’s this crazy attraction they have with the whole sport.”

Rodeo attendee Deidre Webb of Washington state shows off her manicure at the California Bill Pickett rodeo in 2019. “My first day there, Pam let me ride her horse, and she had one of the other cowgirls walk me around that whole big back area on the horse,” she told Hasbun. She has since become a rodeo regular.

From top left, an attendee of the rodeo shows off his style in this undated photo; longtime rider and rancher known as Mr. Theus, for whom decking out himself and his horse — he has saddles, he says, by the saddle maker for Roy Rogers and Gene Autry — has earned him many fans at the rodeo. Bottom, from left: Harold Williams Jr. (in chaps) and Lindon Demery, two junior rodeo champions, captured in 2018; and Adrian Vance and Ronnie Franks, left, in red, who are mother-daughter cowgirls from Atlanta. The two sit with other contestants to watch the races in this 2008 photo. Many cowgirls compete in the rodeo’s barrel-racing competition.

Hasbun’s new book, The New Black West, captures the horsey set as a colorful whirl of activity and flash amid the faded, sun-washed backdrop of the dusty beiges of the drought-ridden country and the denim blue of the clear sky.

Ronald Jennings III, a Texas teenager active in the rodeo, visits the Bay Area Rodeo in 2019 with his family. “I had to take care of all the steers and bulls at the rodeo and on my parents’ ranch,” he told Hasbun. “Having horses is a big responsibility.”
Joseph “Dugga” Matthews (far right), a horse trainer and veterinarian, is pictured with a group of riders from Stockton, California, in this 2008 photo. The parking lot, Hasbun writes, regularly turns into a social scene, allowing riders to interact, and fans to try riding — sometimes for the first time.

Images like her striking shot of Juanita Brown and her granddaughter Iyauna Austin atop their horses, with their African print skirts draped across their horses, and their dusty, worn lace-up boots peeking out from the stirrups, Hasbun believes, will help rewrite the story of the West, and of cowboy culture.

Prince Damons, a recording artist, tends his horse, Jesse James. “I know pretty much every time I get on my horse’s back, I’m breaking the stereotype out on the trails,” he told Hasbun.
A detail of Prince Damons with Jesse James. “I see people and a lot of them give me the same kind of look,” he told Hasbun. “Just like, ‘Oh, look! There’s a real-life Black cowboy?! I can’t believe it.’”

“No one,” Hasbun says, “can ignore a Black woman on a horse.”

The New Black West was published by Chronicle Books in 2022. Gabriela Hasbun is a photographer specializing in portraits; her work highlights marginalized and under-explored communities.

Lavanya Ramanathan is the editor of the Highlight.

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