Sixty years ago, Myrtis Dightman, Jr.’s father clopped into Memorial Park with 10 other horseback riders from the Prairie View Trail Riders Association. They were the first African American group to join the tradition of cowboys riding into the city for Rodeo Houston’s Go Texan Day and parade. And they were not welcome.
“When they started in ’57, that wasn’t a very good year for blacks in America,” Dightman explained one recent morning at the Tomball-area stables where he keeps his horse. “They didn’t want blacks in Memorial Park, period. They had to have armed guards go in with them.”
Last year, the group co-founded by Myrtis Dightman, Sr. won Outstanding Trail Ride at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a huge honor for any organization, but a particularly gratifying moment for the oldest black trail-ride association in Texas, whose members, in many cases, have been riding together for decades.
“One thing about rodeo and cowboys, it’s just like a family,” said the younger Dightman, 61, the group’s trail boss, and the very picture of a modern cowboy in his hat, boots, jeans and starched white shirt. “We all respect each other.” He’d pulled up to the barn in his pickup—when not on the trail, he works as a tech for Planet Ford in Humble.
Raised on a farm in Crockett, Texas, Dightman has been riding since he was 2, encouraged by his father. The elder Dightman was not only the trail ride’s co-founder but the first black professional cowboy to compete in the National Finals Rodeo and a rodeo clown; last year, he was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Bull-riding, the younger Dightman found out pretty early on, isn’t for him. But he lives for trail-riding, getting out on his horse once a month and spending the entire year and “many sleepless nights” planning the weeklong, 87-mile journey which some 150 riders on horses and wagons take from Hempstead—about an hour northwest of Houston, by car—to Memorial Park. This year, the ride kicks off on February 27.
Along the way, there’s plenty of comraderie and barbecue. And when they arrive inside the city, the riders spend a night in North Houston at the Community of Faith on Pinemont Drive—“They let us do a zydeco dance inside the church,” Dightman said—before pulling into the park the next day and then riding into downtown with the rest of the arrivals for the parade on Saturday.
Traveling along highways and streets, he told us, means that “safety is a huge concern.” But it’s not the cars zipping past the riders along 290 that pose the biggest threat—it’s the drivers inside the city. “The only time the traffic is bad is in Houston,” Dightman said. “We do this every year, and people still get upset.”
And that’s just one of many challenges: oily spots, potholes, noise and chaos that might spook the horses, the inevitable tumbles. “If they fall, they get back up,” Dightman said of younger riders. “If we fall, we stay down a little bit longer.” He himself has taken many spills and broken numerous bones.
Then there’s the weather. While the riders camp out in trailers and are followed by portable bathrooms, they’re still exposed to the elements. “Trail ride time, it’s gonna rain, it’s gonna be cold,” he said. “They say the horses bring the rain and the cold.”
No matter, of course. “When you go into downtown Houston, Texas, and over a million people are hollering and screaming at you, to see the smiles on those kids’ faces, it’s exciting to me,” he said. “It brings tears to your eyes.”
It was Dightman’s father who, back in 1957, with trail-ride co-founder James Francis, asked Prairie View A&M for permission to use the name—and the campus as a stop on their journey—laying the foundation for a long partnership. The association teaches horse and rider safety courses at the historically black university each year during the first week of February, holds an annual cook-off there when they pass through on the way to Houston, and raises funds by selling concessions at the school’s new football stadium.
Dightman wants to preserve the ride his father created for future generations, and to uphold the tradition of black cowboys in Texas, who have been integral to ranch life here since the early nineteenth century. “This is history for us,” he said. “We want to make sure the legacy goes on.”
The stables near Tomball are an incubator for the next generation: It’s here that the Prairie View riders’ youth group learns the ropes. The morning we visited, Daphne Johnson had brought her son, 4-year-old Ryder—yes, Ryder—to take a lesson from one of the members. Herself a trail rider since age 11, Johnson said she’d given birth to her son the Monday after a ride and then brought him along when he was just 6 weeks old.
After Ryder dismounted, Dightman walked over and showed him how to hold the reins. “You know how to do this,” he told the child, motioning toward his horse and asking, “What’s her name?” “Maxine,” Ryder replied, much to the trail boss’s delight. “Oh, hello, Maxine.”
It was clear that working with kids isn’t just critical to the trail ride’s mission, but a personal joy for Dightman. His 10-year-old grandson, he told us, is also a fixture on the trail, and he has his own ambitions. “He says, ‘Paw Paw, since you are the trail boss, does that make me the junior trail boss?’”