In 1977, hairstylist, concert producer, and promoter Lu Vason attended the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming and had a realization: There were no Black cowboys participating. Vason knew this was not for lack of interest or skill—the history of Black cowboys in the U.S. dates back to the 17th century, and by some estimates, 25 percent of the thousands of cowboys who worked Southwest trails between 1866 and 1890 were Black. Vason began researching and, at the Black American West Museum in Denver, learned about legendary rodeo man Bill Pickett, famous for fearlessness, skill, and for grabbing a steer’s lip with his teeth. “People knew the name Will Rogers, but who they hadn’t heard of was Bill Pickett, and if they had, they didn’t know he was Black,” Vason reportedly said. In 1984, after two years of fundraising, Vason held the inaugural Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo.
More than three decades later, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo continues. Dubbed “One of the Greatest Shows on Dirt,” it is the country’s only touring African American rodeo. Since 2008, San Francisco–based photographer Gabriela Hasbun has been documenting the rodeo, drawn back time and time again by the “beauty of the bonds” between man and horse, rider and rider. The result is a stunning compendium of full-color photographs: The New Black West (Chronicle Books, May 2022). An excerpt from the book follows.
Left: Recording artist and music producer Prince Damons 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 says. “I see people and a lot of them give me the same kind of look, just like, ‘Oh, look! There’s a real-life Black cowboy?! I can’t believe it.’ Or, ‘Where did you rent a horse?’ I can see the questions on their face and just the curiosity. They want to ask but they don’t, and then some of them do and they ask all the wrong questions, but I just kind of laugh about it.”
Right: The cover of Hasbun’s new book, to be released in May 2022 by Chronicle Books
Left: “This is my parade saddle,” says cowboy Pat Davis. “I wanted to stand out.” Pat had a custom Louis Vuitton saddle made for his Belgian draft horse, Hercules, to wear during the BPIR Grand Entry in 2009. Right: Two junior rodeo champions at the 2018 BPIR, Harold Williams Jr. (in chaps) and Lindon Demery. “My whole family rodeos,” Lindon explains, “and it became something I wanted to do. I started riding around age two and immediately started participating at the BPIR. My first event was in the Denver, Colorado, BPIR.” Lindon participates in junior breakaway roping, steer riding, barrel racing, and tie-down. He recently won his first saddle at a rodeo in Oklahoma as a reward for being the Year-End Calf Roping Champion.
Left: Barrel racer Kysariah Brinson shows off her custom hat, which features a drawing of her horse, Chad, in 2019. Kysariah has been riding since she was nine years old. She loves riding more than anything and competes nationally in the rodeo circuit. “My mom actually drew Chad out and took the hat to a tattoo shop in downtown Oakland to get it airbrushed,” she explains. “I don’t like to dress boring. A lot of people like to wear the basic colors like brown or blue. I like to bling and shine. I’m a very flashy person when it comes to rodeo. With rodeo, more of the girly side comes out.”
Right: Mother and daughter cowgirls from Atlanta, Adrian Vance and Ronnie Franks (in red), sit behind the scenes, where contestants watch the spectacle in the arena. “Black rodeo is a celebration of African American history and culture. We ride on behalf of those who did not have the opportunity to do so,” says Ronnie, 13 years after this photo was taken in 2008. “Lu [Vason, BPIR founder] would have been proud to see this book published.”
Left: Iyauna Austin wears a custom-made skirt to the BPIR’s 35th Anniversary Rodeo in Oakland in 2019. “My grandmother, Juanita Brown, and I wore the African print skirt at the Black Cowboy Parade,” Iyauna explains. “Some people requested we wear it again at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, and we did. It’s an exciting experience. People get to see you on your horse. They get to see the hard work you put into your horse to make you look good. What you wear also helps your horse. Your horse makes you look good. And then you have to try and make your horse look good. So it’s really exciting. We wait all year for the rodeo, and then it finally happens.”
Right: Cowboy Jordan Miller was photographed at the Loyalty Riderz campout in Lodi. The campouts are a great way to bring the cowboy community together. The riders celebrate and encourage their shared passion for horse riding, particularly with the youth.
Jordan is training to become a competitive bull rider. “The reason why I want to become a bull rider is because it’s something different from all other sports. . . . It’s an adrenaline rush. . . . Three of my family members passed away, and [coping with that grief] pushed me to do it more and make it to the PBR [Professional Bull Riders] or NFR [National Finals Rodeo]. I’m riding bulls for my loved ones that passed away, and also for me because I just love riding bulls.”
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