Austin’s African-American horse riders trace roots back to Juneteenth

The clip-clop of a horse’s step is a familiar sound in East Austin.

On the Saturday before Easter, Givens District Park on East 12th Street is filled with families and barbecue smoke. Up the hill on Springdale Road, three men ride their horses from nearby stables toward the celebration, cars zipping past them and looking unusually small next to the massive animals. When the men on horseback approach the park, a group of about 20 kids comes forward carrying baskets of colorful plastic eggs, laughing with each other and pointing at the horses. A small dog barks as if it stands a chance.

“Y’all don’t stand behind the horses,” adults yell from different directions. “Stand back, now.”

A truck towing a small trailer arrives, carrying two ponies for the same awe-eyed children to ride around the park. Kids and adults stand in line, Styrofoam plates in hand, where four women are serving hamburgers and hot dogs from a plastic table.

There are several dozen people at the event, made up of predominately African-American folks, a lot of whom are sporting blue shirts with the words All Mixed Up across the back. It’s the name of the group of horse riders that hosted the event. Four young men are playing basketball directly behind the celebration – they stop short as one of the group’s members rides his stoic animal around the court.

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“When I ride my horse to my house off of Manor Road, close to the University of Texas, people look at me and ask to take pictures,” says James Risher, who is part of the riding group. His father broke stallions in Arkansas, where Risher learned to ride at a young age.

Started in 2012, All Mixed Up is one of a handful of Austin riding clubs with predominately African-American members. The group rides horses in the city’s neighborhoods and travels around the state to participate in trail rides, daylong events during which groups ride together for miles. They will ride in the Bastrop Juneteenth parade on Saturday.

All Mixed Up builds a community that shares a love for horses. Although the group started out with only 10 members, it has grown to more than 60 in three years. Their horse stables, located east of 12th and Springdale on Hudson Street, serve as a hub for the group. Rows and rows of horse stables line that street, a stark difference from the urban neighborhood just two blocks west.

On any given day after 5 p.m., members come from all over – Pflugerville, Manor, Round Rock – to hang out at the stables. They blast music from somebody’s truck – anything from Motown to country to rap – groom the sputtering horses and take the restless ones for a ride.

On Sundays, a barbecue pit gets going at around 3 p.m. Members take turns cooking each week. By 6 p.m., dozens of people of all ages have shown up – not just members, but friends and family and people who belong to one of the other riding clubs in town. People come and go all day long; some take off in small groups for a ride around the neighborhood, while others stay put to eat and joke around.

“AMU is like a big family,” says Shay Hill, 31, co-founder of the group.

Members of All Mixed Up split the cost of the stables, horse feed and maintenance. They throw monthly birthday parties and help each other with financial issues, like hospital bills and rent.

Hill learned how to ride from her mother when she was 3 years old. She and her mother belonged to a riding club in Houston, Onyx Riding Club, until a car accident killed her mother in 2002.

“My mom didn’t have any insurance, so the riding club paid for her funeral,” says Hill, who is working on her bachelor’s degree in health care administration at Concordia University. After the accident, she and her younger brother moved to Austin to live with their father.

“They’re there for everyone, whenever someone needs help,” Hill says. “The group is like someone you can always count on.”

Riding clubs have to be family-oriented, says John Fuller, professor of electrical engineering at Prairie View A&M University. Fuller rides horses with a group based in Houston and contributed a chapter to the book “Black Cowboys of Texas.” “It goes back to the old age of dealing with animals and needing people around to help you.”

Black cowboys emerged during the heyday of Texas ranching in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fuller writes that runaway slaves in Mexico acquired cowboy skills by working with Mexican vaqueros. Upon their return to Texas, they were seen as an asset to Texas ranchers in the post-Civil War era. While cotton was king in the state, cattle became a major activity during this time.

“The cowboy becomes the iconic image of America,” says Michael Searles, assistant professor of history at Georgia Regents University. He, too, wrote a chapter for “Black Cowboys of Texas.” “But there was not much room in the narrative for blacks. America didn’t see itself as a multiracial society; it saw itself as a white society.”

Trail rides also started among African-Americans in the 1860s, Fuller says. The men would drive large herds of cattle — usually in the thousands — from Texas to the railheads in the North. The thousand-mile journey would last three to six months, during which they endured harsh weather and encountered all kinds of wild animals.

Riding clubs all over Texas, predominately African-American, still participate in trail rides, although today they’ve become celebrations rather than hard work.

When Hill moved to Austin in 2002, she found that the social riding scene was not as popular as it was in Houston, where the first organized group of black riders, the Prairie View Trail Riders, started in 1956. To this day, they still ride.

“In the past five or six years, the scene in Austin has increased a lot,” Hill says. She believes the riding groups seen in Austin today originated from Houston.

The street where All Mixed Up’s stables are located has been changing for some time. The stables were built about 30 years ago, but the area was once made up of pig farms. Carl Brooks, 50, and his friend James Alexander were some of the first riders to hang out in what is now AMU’s meeting ground – 15 years ago.

“Back then, we had only four stalls, and the lot didn’t go too far back,” says Brooks, pointing to what is now a quarter of an acre and 13 stables. “We had to clear the area to make more room and build the rest of the stalls.”

All Mixed Up pays a monthly fee to rent the lot, but if the owner ever decides to sell, Brooks says the situation will be out of their hands. The monthly price for a stall has gone up from $35 to $80 since 2012.

“If rent keeps going up, we’ll eventually have to clear out and find a cheaper place to keep our horses,” Hill says.

Recent changes to Hudson Street include an auto sales shop and a tire shop. Just some years ago, there were just horse stables and woods.

“If we lose this, we lose a lot,” Brooks says, looking back at a group of a dozen men and women sitting around two tables, laughing and eating. Although their horse-riding experiences vary, most members’ families have been riding horses for generations.

“When I ride, it takes my mind off things,” Hill says, as she watches her 8-year-old son ride a horse around the stable. “It brings me back to where I need to be.”

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