The black cowboys of Chicago’s South Side

Written by The Frontier Post

Amy Bizzarri

When the legendary black Chicago cowboy, Murdock “The Man with No First Name”, rides one of his horses through Chicago’s Hyde Park and along the South Shore segment of the lakefront path, he often finds himself explaining the rules of the road to questioning police officers.

“It’s perfectly legal to ride a horse in Chicago,” said Murdock, who was himself a cop before founding one of the city’s last remaining private equestrian clubs, the Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club, “so long as you obey the traffic rules.”

Until the early 20th Century, it was a common sight to see horses prancing along Chicago’s streets. The steady sounds of clip-clopping hooves gave rhythm to the day, as horse-drawn carts and carriages transported people and goods across the city.

Most Chicagoans may not realise that it's still legal to ride a horse in the city (Credit: Randy Duchaine/Alamy)

Most Chicagoans may not realise that it’s still legal to ride a horse in the city (Credit: Randy Duchaine/Alamy)

Horse racing also was among the city’s most popular sports, and by the 1930s, Chicago boasted more horse racing venues than any other metropolitan area in the US, thanks to its legal gambling laws. Until the 1950s, dozens of livery stables rented horses by the hour for recreational riding along the more than 17 miles of bridle paths that stretched along Lake Michigan and through Chicago parks. But as the city and automobile traffic grew, recreational horse riding’s popularity sank. The last city-sponsored public riding stable, Lincoln Park’s New Parkway Riding Stables, closed in 1967.

But for the past 31 years, Murdock has been working to revive the Windy City’s horse-riding heritage and make it more inclusive for the city’s diverse residents. Currently located in the city’s southern suburb of Chicago Heights, his Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club is beloved by Chicago’s black cowboys, who compete in the local Latting Rodeo just outside Chicago as well as national rodeos across the US. At 73, Murdock hasn’t hung up his cowboy hat either. “I was involved in calf and tie-down roping for a while, until I injured my back,” he said. “I still compete locally in Latting Rodeos, doing the less dangerous events, barrel and flag racing.”

Murdock, who chooses to only go by his surname, adding to his cowboy mystique, grew up in Chicago’s predominantly African American South Side. He began riding as a boy at the city’s 380-acre Washington Park, which once had its very own public riding stable. “My dad owned a little printing shop nearby and in return for my helping him out on occasion, he paid for my riding lessons,” he said.Located in Chicago Heights, Murdock's Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club has become a second home for many inner-city kids (Credit: Amy Bizzarri)

Located in Chicago Heights, Murdock’s Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club has become a second home for many inner-city kids (Credit: Amy Bizzarri)

Though the popular narrative and imagery of the American West often ignores African American cowboys, historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black. Black horsemen weren’t only confined to the Wild West either. The American Black Cowboy Association held its first black rodeo in 1971, in Harlem, New York City. In Philadelphia, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, the inspiration behind the 2020 Netflix movie Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Elba, has been promoting black horsemanship for more than 100 years, raising awareness by simply riding through the city streets and parks and hosting regular races in Fairmount Park.

Chicago was first introduced to cowboys of colour when Buffalo Bill and his “Congress of Rough Riders of the World” galloped into the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The company, made up of more than 450 riders of Native American, Mexican, Arab, and African American descent, among other groups, performed to sellout crowds. An average of 16,000 spectators attended each of the 318 performances, inspiring Chicagoans of all backgrounds to dream about becoming cowboys in the big city.

Thyrl Latting, often considered Chicago’s original black cowboy, was the first to introduce Chicago’s inner-city kids to horsemanship. In the early 1950s, Latting competed in rodeos across the country and developed a reputation as a star horseman. He launched the Thyrl Latting Rodeo Spectacular, a black cowboy-centred rodeo, at Chicago’s International Amphitheater in 1964.

“I grew up on Chicago’s far South Side and went to Westerns on Saturday afternoons and always had cowboys as my heroes,” Latting told American Cowboy magazine in 1996. “Nobody told me I couldn’t be a cowboy.”Black cowboys were essential in helping to settle the western US (Credit: Glasshouse Images/Alamy)

Black cowboys were essential in helping to settle the western US (Credit: Glasshouse Images/Alamy)

A celebrity in the cowboy community, Latting was also a high school shop teacher at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, where Murdock attended high school. “He was a good mentor to a lot of us. Because of him, it gave a lot of black people an opportunity to compete in the rodeo arena, where they didn’t get an opportunity to do so before because it was in the arena of what the white folks were doing,” Murdock said in a local radio interview.

Murdock admired the show-stopping, predominantly white rodeo cowboys who competed locally in Washington Park and the city’s six other racetracks, all of which are now defunct. But he had long assumed that becoming a cowboy in the Windy City was next to impossible for him. “I badly wanted to own my very own horse, but financially, I just assumed the cost of boarding, training and equipment would be out of reach for my family’s finances. It wasn’t until I met Latting, who encouraged me that it was doable, noting, ‘Never buy the first horse you see.’”

Murdock’s first horse was a golden Palomino called Famous. The recently graduated 19-year-old worked as a police officer and security guard, enjoying riding in his free time until he eventually set out to accomplish his childhood dream and form a riding club.

On 15 January 1989, Murdock founded the Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club to share the peace he found on horseback with others. “On a horse, you’re dealing with another brain. It’s meditative. It’s relaxing. It’s all about dedication and commitment to the craft.”Murdock's stable is beloved by Chicago's black cowboys, many of whom compete in local and national rodeos (Credit: Amy Bizzarri)

Murdock’s stable is beloved by Chicago’s black cowboys, many of whom compete in local and national rodeos (Credit: Amy Bizzarri)

The club’s founding date, 15 January, was intentional. “It’s Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday. Peace. That’s what it’s all about. I do this because I love what I’m doing. I have a passion for giving back.”

Murdock especially loves helping children build confidence through horse riding. “Adults might ride with the fear of falling off the horse,” he explained with a chuckle. “Kids have an open mindset. They embrace the experience and bond immediately with the horses.”

Most of the club’s little cowboys live in Chicago’s inner-city or areas long plagued with violence. “I try to show these kids other outlets for their energy,” Murdoch said. “For so many of the kids that spend time here, riding and caring for the horses, the horse lifestyle replaces the street lifestyle.”

At the club’s stables, five-year-old Dmitrius Branscomb, wearing a wide-brim cowboy hat and Western-style boots, approached the horses with remarkable confidence for a kindergartener. “I love horses,” he smiled. “I like to ride them. And I like to take care of them.”Taking care of horses is proven to have many positive effects on kids (Credit: Amy Bizzarri)

Taking care of horses is proven to have many positive effects on kids (Credit: Amy Bizzarri)

“All 10 of my kids have benefited from learning to ride with Murdock,” explained Dmitrius’ father, Rashad. “As they learn to care and ride a horse, they acquire so many skills. Patience. Trust. The value of hard work.”

Experts agree. A 2013 study of the benefits of a horse-education programme on children’s social competence concluded that spending time with horses increases children’s self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, goal-directed behaviour and relationship skills. “When a child is intently grooming, feeding or handling a horse, s/he isn’t thinking about themself. Caring for an animal like a horse allows children to learn how to care for others appropriately and at the same time can be a release from the stresses of home,” explained author and therapist Constance Scharff, member of the American Psychological Association and World Federation for Mental Health.

Club member Neffer OA Kerr echoes this thought. “For me, being around horses, working with them, and having a supportive horse community through this organisation gives me peace and adds to my overall mental health. Horseback riding has changed my life because when I am riding, I feel free.”

“Time flies when you’re on a horse. You’re dealing with another brain. You can teach a horse anything,” Murdock said as he led one of his three Paint horses out of the stable and onto an adjacent, wide-open field. “But you need to do it out of love.”In addition to offering inner-city kids an alternative to the street, Murdock hopes to honour Chicago's horse-riding legacy (Credit: Brigette Supernova/Alamy)

In addition to offering inner-city kids an alternative to the street, Murdock hopes to honour Chicago’s horse-riding legacy (Credit: Brigette Supernova/Alamy)

Today, Broken Arrow Riding Club boasts more than 100 active participants. In addition to offering year-round private lessons in its indoor arena and guided rides on the city’s lakefront and park trails, the club hosts an annual High Noon Ride & Picnic in Washington Park. As the club’s cowboys and cowgirls ride en masse through the park and beyond, they naturally attract curious onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of Chicago’s urban, black equestrian community.

For years, Murdock has been urging city officials and raising funds to bring a riding stable back to Washington Park. His ultimate mission is to honour Chicago’s horse-riding legacy and to offer an alternative activity for inner-city riders of all ages.

“I thought horseback riding was just a fun little pastime, when I first took horseback riding lessons at 10 years old. But as I grew, I realised that it has been one of the most impactful, energetic communities I would ever be introduced to,” explained long-time club member Jhorden Cherry. “Through horses, we experience a world unlike what we see in front of us – a world of many companionships, silent communication, self-reflection, and most importantly, accountability. Horses taught me more about life than life itself did.”

Courtesy: (BBC)

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