In 2014, Kisha “KB” Bowles was sitting at a red light in Forestville in Prince George’s County, when an old friend pulled up alongside her to invite her to a birthday celebration. She had no idea it was the start of a journey to becoming part of an all-Black female horse riding group.
Bowles arrived at the party and left with an invitation to join the Rough Riders, the oldest of the several Black cowboy clubs in Maryland. At 38 years old, she had never even ridden a horse.
“My friend’s dad told us about this idea of putting this all-women’s team together. At first, I thought to myself, I’m not getting on no damn horse. Then we talked a little more, and he and the other riders said they were willing to train us for little to no cost, and I said, ‘OK, I’m in,’” Bowles said.
Under the tutelage of Maryland horseman Ray Lockamy, Bowles and cowgirls Sandra “Pinky” Dorsey, Brittaney “Britt-Brat” Logan and Selina “Pennie” Brown formed the Cowgirls of Color in 2015, joining a deep-rooted culture of cowboys and cowgirls in South-Central Maryland.
The group made national headlines after The Guardian published an article recognizing the riders’ aim to win the relay division of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo as an all-female team, while simultaneously seeking to change the narrative about rodeo as a competition dominated by men. Through the years, they have been featured in the Huffington Post, The Cut, Essence and other publications.
“We didn’t mean to go viral. It just kind of happened. But I think it was meant for us to help bring awareness. And the fact that it happened to us means that it was for us because we didn’t look to do that. We were just having fun and it happened,” Bowles said as she brushed the mane of the charcoal-colored horse she rode, Moonlight. “And when we blew up, it felt like we were really making a difference and just wanted to keep it up.”
The cowgirls have inspired a movement of local riders by showing Black women in major metropolitan areas they can learn to ride at any age. In September, the group that inspired so many returned to competition after a four-year hiatus, helping them remember why they started nearly eight years ago and how they continue to be uplifted by the horse riding community.
Tamaria Rhodes, a member of the Rough Riders, describes the Cowgirls of Color as the most visible local group within Maryland’s horse riding culture. In fact, she credits their presence as the reason why she began riding in 2021, and soon she will assume a leadership position within the Rough Riders.
“I started looking up cowboys, cowgirls in the DMV [D.C., Maryland and Virginia] area, [and] I could not find much,” Rhodes said. “But who I found were the Cowgirls of Color. And I watched every single video that they had on YouTube. And I read every article and I was like, ‘Oh my God! I gotta get involved with these ladies.’”
Rhodes researched and connected with other cowboys and cowgirls. It led to her discovery of the Rough Riders and Piscataway Riding Stables Inc. in Clinton. “And working with them got me to meet the Cowgirls Girls of Color … I’m actually friends with one of them now. So, I mean, it’s great.”
The Cowgirls of Color have want to share their “sisterhood” with all women, but particularly young women of color, they say.
Returning to Competition
On Sept. 23, the Cowgirls of Color competed for the first time in four years. The women spent the time away focusing on their personal lives, and the complications of the pandemic didn’t help matters.
Logan, who started riding as a spunky 28-year-old, is the reason the group returned to competition. In 2022, she rode with a team called Catch This Smoke, but she couldn’t relate to the younger members. After that, she said she needed to get her girls back together. Now 34 years old, she’s happy she asked.
“Riding with Catch this Smoke was so different. They were younger and felt like I’ve sort of been there and done that, and I couldn’t relate to them at all because of the age gap. So I called up KB and Pinky, and literally, we started practice again. ... I was comfortable again,” she said.
The reunion included a new member, Leslie DeLacy, who joined in 2019 after Brown parted ways with the group. With varying experience levels, they continue to show Black women from urban regions riding and competing in rodeos that are often viewed through whiteness and masculinity.
On that day in September, the group arrived at The Equestrian Center and Show Place Arena, nestled just south of Upper Marlboro in Prince George’s County. As Tropical Storm Ophelia brought heavy rain and winds, hundreds packed to watch contestants from across the country compete in this year’s Bill Pickett Invitational Finals Rodeo, the country’s only African American touring rodeo competition.
The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has appeared in venues across the country for more than 25 years. The multistate tour starts in Denver, making its way to Memphis, Oakland, Los Angeles and Atlanta before the finals are held in Maryland.
The Cowgirls of Color competed in the rodeo relay, a race held in each city for local competitors that requires four riders to race at top speed around barrels while passing a baton. The top three teams with the lowest times win.
The group ran against six other relay teams. According to Lockamy, the relay event has traditionally been made up of three women and a man. “And the man would always be able to have bragging rights to say to other guys, ‘Oh, well, I beat you with running with a bunch of women,’ and they always took the credit,” Lockamy said. “The men always overshadowed the women.”
This year, Cowgirls of Color competed against Catch this Smoke — the only other all-Black female team — and five other teams.
The first race in four years proved to be a hard one for the team as they only completed in one race, with a time of 46.265 seconds. In the second show, they did not record a time after the baton fell during the handoff between Bowles and Dorsey’. The team exited the arena with looks of discontent.
Several factors contributed to their disappointing performance. Preparation for the relay is about conditioning and “getting the right rhythm” with their horses, Lockamy said. But the cowgirls only practiced about four times ahead of the competition, making for “a wild ride.”
“This is the first year that we’ve ever practiced the least,” Dorsey said, adding that scheduling conflicts and inclement weather hindered their efforts.
Back where it started
On the night of Oct. 13, horse riders young and old pitched their tents and parked their trailers to gather in a field for the last fish fry and trail ride of the year in Clinton. Among them, the Cowgirls reconvened weeks after competing in their first rodeo relay in four years — the same community where it all started.
Thurman Stallings, president of the Stallings East Coast Rough Riders, gazed over the crowd across acres and said, “This is what it’s all about.” Back in the ’90s, Black horse riding clubs began to form as part of the East Coast Trail Ride Circuit.
Clubs in North Carolina started breaking off, then people formed their own clubs, including here in Maryland, said Antonio Savoy, the vice president of the Rough Riders. In Maryland, the Rough Riders became the largest Black horse riding community in the state.
Compared to circuits in North Carolina, Savoy said the Maryland association is fairly small. “We’re tight-knit. A kinship of some kind where we all stick together and support one another,” he said.
Though the Rough Riders have been around for the last three decades, Savoy said groups like the Cowgirls of Color further enrich the group’s history. In fact, he doesn’t believe they’re as well documented as they could be.
“Today, I see women who never rode before see themselves represented by them. You know, I’m 53 ... And I think they show all types of regular girls and women that this is a hobby for anyone at any age,” Savoy continued. “It’s all love.”
For Bowles, joining the Cowgirls of Color was a full-circle moment as her now-deceased mother was a longtime spectator and supporter of the rodeo circuit.
“She passed around the same time as my joining the group, but I know that she would’ve loved watching me do something I’ve grown to love just as much as her,” Bowles said.
Some, like Dorsey, were born into horse riding. Her father, O’Brien Dorsey, said he bought her first pony when she was 2 1/2 years old and she started riding before she could walk.
“The funniest thing I remember is her older brother and her cousin were riding bicycles with us while we went out through the woods while she was riding the pony,” the elder Dorsey recalled. “They got wore out and tired and needed to stop and rest. Sandy didn’t want to stop. And she told them, ‘I guess you’re going to be buzzard bait,’” he said, chuckling.
“By the time she was 6, I put her on her first big horse, my horse Bo. And she didn’t want the pony anymore.”
DeLacy, on the other hand, started riding at 36 years old after a Facebook invite from a mutual friend. Living life with her 23-year-old son deployed overseas, an estranged twin sister, and a mom who died six months before, she said horse riding has been more therapeutic than ever allowing her to feel “free.”
“My horse community around these parts is made up of more white riders. Obliviously, our group, it’s part of this established Black coterie. And unfortunately, the worlds don’t touch. But I’m one of those people that I mingle,” DeLacy said.
Her greatest struggle is an attempt to understand where she fits beyond the quintessential stereotypical Black woman, she said. “I don’t get why are we divided. It should be divided between Western and English [styles] and how we ride,” she said “Not race.”
“So that’s my fight. I’m tired of not being represented,” she said, adding that the cowgirls have given her the familial support that she lacks.
The cowgirls hope to travel and compete in more circuits down the coast — and maybe across the country.
Logan thinks she’ll pursue cowboy-mounted shooting with the Mason Dixon Deputies shooting club.
Bowles will continue to train her youngest horse. Based on the extent of his athleticism, that’ll determine which events she competes in next year. She’ll also begin training for the English style of riding.
“We’re all striving to win this bitch,” DeLacy said.