By Cowgirl Candace | Images by Jose Ibarra | Originally published for BBH
Heavy rain and lawless winds failed to stop thousands of attendees from witnessing the best horseback riders compete in August’s Atlanta, Georgia, leg of the national tour Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR).
Showcasing the top African-American competitors in barrel racing, calf roping, bull riding, bareback riding, bull doggin’, steer undecorating and relay racing, this year’s 35th annual event became an international, generational family affair from the crowds to the cowhands. And in pure rhinestone-encrusted country Western style.
“I would normally ride in the rodeo,” said Steve Usher, 54, a former team relay contender, “but this year I’m cheering for everyone with my family.”
With twinsie 2-year-old Jayce Hambright in his arms, Usher and the future cowboy wore matching black-and-white Western shirts and golden bolo ties to the show. They proudly represented black cowhands of the American West — the mass movement of gold rush settlers, explorers and outlaws toward California during the nineteenth century that often excludes people of color from history books, pop culture, arts and entertainment.
Held at the Georgia International Horse Park (site of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games), Usher and Hambright joined black cowboys and cowgirls flossin’ in their most stylish regalia, hairstyles and outfits to experience the world’s only black touring rodeo and longest-running African-American family event around the globe.
Down-the-back box braids, thick to micro locs, summer highlights and bone straight extensions steered the show in cowgirl hairstyles.
“I’ve been attending this rodeo for four years now, and the atmosphere is just so much fun to see our cowboy culture,” said Doreen Fawkes, leisure horseback rider and creator of EasyLoc Hair Tool for dread- and sisterlock-wearers. “It’s one of those events you have to check off, especially if you’re interested in rural heritage and lifestyles.”
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo travels America from Denver, Colorado; Memphis, Tennessee; Oakland, California; Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, D.C., for the championship show in September.
It’s where modern and traditional Wild West styles and black beauty of all ages converge. It’s also where the nation’s top horseback and bull riding professionals exhibit discipline with showmanship. The global gathering is named after legendary cowboy and rodeo performer Bill Pickett. Deeply documented in the Old West, Pickett was born five years after the Civil War ended.
He grew up learning the ways of cowboy living and the art of controlling cattle. Pickett mastered a skill — and now popular rodeo sport — called bull doggin’. A technique of grabbing a steer by the horns, biting their upper lip and wrestling them to the ground. Yeah, you heard right. And the fastest cowboy to complete this task wins. Cash prizes or scholarship funds, too.
Dubbed the first black cowboy movie star, Pickett’s career lasted for more than 40 years as an expert cowboy and rodeo champion. He became an international performer, who displayed his horsemanship for the British Royal Family.
“Like Bill, these cowboys and cowgirls are the best in the business,” said Adam Ezell Jr., 79, who bull dogged in the rodeo during the 1980s and now works as part of the touring show. “A lot of self-discipline and technique goes into their craft and understanding of how horses and cattle work.”
The rodeo established during 1984. Show developer the late Lu Vason organized BPIR to educate and entertain Americans about African-American contributions to country Western lifestyles and recreation on the range. He never imagined it would gain worldwide attention; inspire a new form of music known as “hick hop;” and attract celebrities like Jamie Foxx, Lisa Raye and Jesse Williams to experience the arena action.
“There’s nothing like what we do,” said Billy Ray Thunder, a 65-year-old veteran bareback rider known in the rodeo circuit as “The Living Legend.” “ We go all over America risking our lives for the horses and rodeo events we love. To see so many folks both locally and internationally support and enjoy what we do means everything to us.”