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Michelle Bearden

Cowbros share black cowboys’ history with today’s youths

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Published:   |   Updated: November 10, 2013 at 11:31 AM

There’s something about wearing an oversized cowboy hat, jeans and Western boots that transforms Lashawn Gordon into a … well, a cowboy.

Then you add a horse to the picture, and he’s got it all going on.

“Love them,” he says, nuzzling nose-to-nose with a Paint quarter horse named Bailey. “It’s better than riding a car. It’s better than anything, being with a horse.”

It’s Saturday morning on a warm fall day at URide Stables, a 50-acre boarding and events facility in Riverview. For Lashawn, a 5-year-old from Sulphur Springs, it’s also a place where dreams come true.

When he watches endless reruns of old Western television series like “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” on cable television, the Cleveland Elementary first-grader only sees white men riding their steeds across the mountain regions. But when he hangs out at the stables with Bernie Black and his riding pals, Lashawn is exposed to a segment of society that history ignored: black cowboys. Cowboys who look like him.

“Yep, we existed back then and we’re still here now,” laughs Bernie, 46. “We don’t think of ourselves as different, and we shouldn’t.

“But that doesn’t stop people from looking a little surprised at a black man in a Western getup.”

***

By day, Bernie owns a lawn maintenance company. On Sundays, he’s a minister at New Bethel Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa. He’s a husband and a father.

And on weekends and during the slow season for his work, he’s with Queenie, his thoroughbred. They ride trails together, compete in amateur sporting events or just hang out together at URide, where he boards her.

“My wife says she would never ask me to choose between her or Queenie,” Bernie says, half kidding. “She says she’s worried about who I would pick.”

His uncle had horses, so as a youngster, Bernie got his first jolt of equine love. But as much as he wanted one of his own, the cost and the time commitment made it seem less and less possible as he grew into adulthood.

That is, until seven years ago, when friend Melton Johnson of Plant City bought one. A maintenance worker at The Tampa Tribune, Johnson gave in to his longtime desire to own a horse and raved about all the joy he got from it to Bernie.

“I’d go over and ride Melton’s as often as I could. Then I just decided, ‘It’s time. I’m not waiting anymore.’ And I never looked back,” Bernie says.

Queenie is his third horse. He considers her a four-legged extension of his faith.

“Having a horse is a ministry for me. It wasn’t how I planned it, but it’s worked out that way,” he says. “Queenie opens a lot of doors.”

Everyone may not be interested in hearing him preach, but folks sure want to get up close and personal with a horse, especially if they’re city dwellers. So on weekends, he invites youngsters and adults out to the stables for a ride. And as always with Bernie, the Lord is part of the conversation.

Now Bernie has another mission: Bringing together horse-riding brothers who share that inexplicable bond between human and horse.

At first, Bernie thought he was just one of a handful of local African-American men with a horse addiction. As his network expanded, though, he realized it wasn’t a small club; there are plenty of others.

Some of the more accomplished riders compete in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (“The Greatest Show on Dirt!”), named for an early 20th century bulldogger from Texas whose work in the motion-picture industry led to performances in several movies. Others, like Bernie and Melton, are casual cowboys, trading in work attire and dress shoes for jeans and boots with spurs on the weekends.

Fred Carter wanted a dog when he was a child. His mom bought him a horse instead. Even when he bounced around the world for 24 years with the Marines, he always managed to buy a horse wherever he went.

Now that he’s settled here and working as a mechanic for Mosaic, he sheepishly admits: “I’m up to nine now.” Seems as if every time someone wants to get rid of an “uncontrollable” horse that can’t be trained, Fred is the one who gets the call.

“I love the challenge,” he says. “The less a horse likes me or wants to be around me, the more interest I have. It takes patience and hours of training, but when a horse comes around, there’s no feeling like that transformation.”

New York native Cary White used to visit his granddaddy in Florida, a farmer who lived off the land north of Gainesville and trained horses. When Cary moved here with his family, his grandfather gave him his very first steed — an old Palomino named Sunny. Though the horse would only live two years, that was the beginning of a long love affair with horses.

Now the Tampa father of four is up before dawn every day and driving to Odessa to take care of his five horses before leaving for his job as an advisor with Ultimate Medical Academy. And he’s right back again at the end of the workday. The same goes for the weekends.

The commitment it takes baffles some of his non-horse friends. But what he gets in return far surpasses his investment.

“When you’re working with a horse, you have to dismiss every single thing in your mind and give it your full concentration,” he says. “That animal becomes your physical and mental therapy. This is where I build my own confidence.”

All from different backgrounds, with different paths leading them to horse ownership. Bernie loves the camaraderie that he gets when hanging out with friends like Melton, Fred and Cary. So he came up with the name “Cowbros” and is organizing a group that brings everyone together for social events, fellowship and fundraisers.

“If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” he says. “Only another horse person will truly understand just how special it is.”

***

The Cowbros don’t think of themselves as anything special. They’re just black men who happen to love and ride horses.

Still, given the stereotype of what a typical cowboy looks like, they get a kick out of the public reaction to them. Like one evening in late October when Melton went into a Golden Corral for dinner wearing his Western attire.

“Hey, mister, is that your Halloween costume?” a young child shouted out.

Another time, he took Bailey to a neighborhood in Ybor City, giving inner-city kids rides and teaching them about horse care. What was supposed to be an hour or so turned into five.

“They called the radio station, they called neighbors, they were calling everybody,” he says. “Would you look at that? There’s a black man on a horse!”

Cary has set up a side business called “Horse and Pony Parties,” taking his mounts to the suburbs for equine-themed celebrations for children. For most of the guests, it’s their first introduction to horses — and a black cowboy.

“You really don’t want folks to think we’re out of the ordinary. You’d rather them know we have a long history,” he says. “So maybe we can be educators, one person at a time. And we start with the kids, so they can grow up knowing they can be part of this world, too.”

Bernie takes it one step further. He uses the horse time as a carrot to children like Lashawn. Stay out of trouble, do well in school and be respectful of your elders, he tells them. Do that, and you get to the come to the ranch on Saturday to hang out with the horses.

And just maybe, Bernie says, “this ol’ cowboy can make an impact.”

“This is such a gift, having a horse in my life,” he says. “And I’m determined to use it to change lives.”

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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