The program teaches young people about the history of the black riders

Ahesahmahk Dahn is a black rider; it has been for decades. Perception of Cowboy culture has long been shaped by Hollywood depictions of white men on horseback, but Dahn is part of a tradition that dates back centuries. To continue this tradition, he teaches black children about horseback riding and the contributions of black riders to history.

Dahn, now 76, remembers growing up in South Carolina, where his uncles were sharecroppers. He rode mules to visit his cousins. Around age 10, he moved to Baltimore and later became involved with horses at a black-owned country club. After a career in public schools, the military, the corporate world and the nonprofit sector, he founded City Ranch outside Baltimore, which for 15 years provided primarily black youth with riding lessons and taught the basics of equine care.

“There was a time when children from the North would return to the South to spend the summer with their loved ones and learn the outdoors,” says Dahn, referring to the aftermath of the Great Migration, in which 6 million black people fled the South for the urban North and West during the 20th century.

And some have learned to handle horses. At the City Ranch, Dahn talks to the students about black cowboys, something they usually haven’t covered in school. Many blacks worked with horses and other farm animals during slavery, and after emancipation these skills enabled them to find employment as ranch hands and cowboys. Some became Buffalo Soldiers, working in the military and as National Park Service rangers. Historians estimate that 1 in 4 cowboys in this country in the 19th century were black.

In westerns, however, there was little inclusion: few cowboys seen on TV and in movies were black. And during America’s years of legal segregation, black cowboys faced the same discrimination as other black people, including being denied housing or other services while traveling for work and doing facing the threat of lynching. Some say the term “cowboy” (as opposed to “cowhand”) is a specific reference to slavery and segregation, when white men commonly referred to black men pejoratively as “boy”. (Dahn does not use “cowboy” himself because he considers it a term that white people applied to Africans who worked with cattle.)

Dahn says it’s important to teach this story to future generations. “When things mean something to me, I tear up,” Dahn told me of sharing these stories. “There is a warm welcome from the children. They are silent, and now you can tell them something because they are silent. They saw a man crying.

Teachers have reported that after joining the City Ranch program, their students show better academic performance and less school absenteeism, Dahn says. The program aims to instill a variety of life skills working with horses, including critical thinking, collaboration, leadership and self-control.

“It’s not just about the topic or the hands-on experience of a particular project. It’s all the other skills that go along with that process,” says Nia Imani Fields, assistant director of extension at the University of Maryland and manager of Maryland’s 4-H program. (4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization.) Fields is loosely connected to City Ranch through 4-H; the two groups have an informal partnership. She says she has seen young black 4-H participants develop skills like public speaking by participating in horse judging classes and competitions. There are also emotional benefits. “People gravitate around [riding] as a form of mental well-being and self-care,” she notes.

Morgan Piper, 13, and her sister Mariah Piper, 11, became involved with City Ranch when their parents found a Groupon online to go horseback riding. They just thought it would be a fun summer activity, but their interest deepened from there, and they later joined Maryland 4-H as well.

Morgan is drawn to veterinary science and polo, and Mariah wants to take up show jumping. “It’s so much fun. Horseback riding is every girl’s dream,” Mariah says. There is no history of riding in the Piper family. City Ranch introduced Morgan and Mariah the story of black cowboys.They also learned that in the larger world of horses, black riders are in the minority and may face barriers to inclusion.

“We can really achieve things when we put our mind to it,” says Morgan, referring to what she learned at City Ranch. “We just have to have a positive attitude and be around the right people to get you on the right track.”

Brittaney Logan gave her son that kind of exposure to horses at a young age. Logan is an original member of the Maryland-based Cowgirls of Color rodeo team; in rodeos, she previously focused on relay racing and barrel racing, but now specializes in mounted shooting. She was introduced to horseback riding around 2007 by a black co-worker (nicknamed Bronc) who walked into their Verizon call center office every day wearing boots, a large belt buckle and a cowboy hat. Bronc was indeed a bronco rider, and he started coming to Logan’s son’s birthday parties, which turned into pony parties.

Logan and his son now hike together along the East Coast. She also spoke to black children about the history of black cowboys – her favorite figure being Jesse Stahl, who in the early 20th century was notoriously underclassed in his impressive rodeo performances because he was black.

Today, in the mainstream culture, black runners are gaining visibility. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, images of black protesters on horseback — including the Compton Cowboys, Houston Nonstop Riders and the Bay Area’s Urban Cowgirl Ranch — went viral.

For organizations like City Ranch, the goal isn’t necessarily to train professional racers. It is simply to give young people the chance to understand and appreciate this tradition. This can mean riding a horse, but it can also simply mean coming to observe and connect with nature. “It’s outside that I feel comfortable,” says Dahn. “I come home to rest for a minute, then I go back and enjoy the world.”

Earlier this year, Morgan and Mariah Piper represented City Ranch and 4-H at a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Annapolis. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” says Mariah. “I’ve always watched the parades and [thought], ‘I would like to be that person who rides a horse.’ And that day, I was that person riding the horse.

Sarah Enelow-Snyder is a writer from Texas, based in New Jersey. She has an essay in the anthology”horse girls” by Harper Perennial.

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