The Cowgirls of Color put a fresh spin on America's long history of black cowboys.

The Cowgirls of Color are the real deal.

This isn't some kind of novelty act; these black women are ropin', ridin' athletes, competing in the Bill Pickett Rodeo, the nation's only touring black rodeo competition.

The team consists of four Washington, D.C.-based women: Kisha "KB" Bowles, Selina "Pennie" Brown, Sandra "Pinky" Dorsey, and Brittaney Logan.


Photo by M. Holden Warren, used with permission.

Pennie Brown, 44, started horseback riding less than two years ago.

She was introduced to a few black cowboys that a mutual friend knew through Washington, D.C.'s go-go music scene. Yeah, seriously.

After years of friendship, one of the cowboys reached out to Brown and asked her to join an all-female rodeo team he was putting together. Brown had zero experience on horseback, let alone with a rodeo. But she was athletic and down to give it a try.

"I had no idea of anything equestrian related. I had no fear. No knowledge of how horses hurt people, I was just clueless," Brown says with a laugh. "I didn't get a chance to see a lot of the things that a lot of people say create fear for them. It just made it super easy."

While other members of the team had  more experience riding and competing in equestrian competitions, Dorsey was the only one with rodeo experience. Luckily, revered horseman Ray Charles Lockamy agreed to train them and get the Cowgirls of Color working as a unit. The small team competes in the relay, an event featuring fast laps around the ring and baton passing, similar to the 4x100 in track. It's about speed, it's about accuracy, and after watching men dominate the event for years, it's about time.

Brown competes in the barrel relay. Photo by M. Holden Warren, used with permission.

While the Cowgirls of Color may be newer faces on the rodeo scene, they join a long line of black cowboys.

The original cowboys of the American West weren't all Clint Eastwood dopplegängers.

Black riders tamed wild or rowdy horses that hadn't been ridden. There are stories of other black cowboys working as chuck wagon cooks, feeding riders on the trail. The Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black Army units formed in 1866, carried on this tradition, capturing livestock thieves, protecting settlers heading west, building infrastructure, and participating in domestic military campaigns with Native Americans.

Even one of pop culture's most famous cowboys, The Lone Ranger, may have been inspired by Bass Reeves, a black deputy U.S. marshal.

A portrait of Bass Reeves. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

While black cowboys were common, black rodeos were created out of necessity.

Early rodeo events were segregated, and life for black rodeo performers was a challenge.

"There would be separate rodeos for blacks and whites," Vincent Jacobs, an 80-year-old former rodeo performer told the BBC in 2013. "It was hard, real hard — they would only let me perform after all the white people had been led out of the arena."

While the professional rodeos were never "officially" segregated, many of the venues enforced Jim Crow laws. Even decades later, the sport is still slow to inclusivity.

Left, a calf nears the end of a rope during the Black Cowboys Association benefit rodeo in 1984. Right, members of the Black Cowboy Association kick back at the same event. Photos by Todd James/Associated Press.

"Rodeo has been slow, I would argue, in just feeling like a welcoming place to some of the rodeo participants," Tracey Owens Patton, a black rodeo expert from the University of Wyoming told Georgia Public Broadcasting.

So black rodeos began, and so they remain. The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, often touted as "the greatest show on dirt," is in its 32nd season. It's named for Pickett, a legendary cowboy who traveled the country performing ranch-hand stunts in the early 1900s.

Image via Library of Congress.

Today, the rodeo delivers black western history and fast-paced entertainment by black rodeo performers to audiences across the country.

Programs and organizations like the Cowboys of Color Rodeo and the Atlanta Black Rodeo Association have kept the sport alive and audiences on the edge of their seats since 1971 and 1991 respectively.

Steven Gabriel was among 350 cowboys from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas who competed for prize money at the National Black Rodeo Finals in 2004. Photo by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images.

Since their formation two years ago, the Cowgirls of Color have competed in a handful of competitions and hope to be there when the Bill Pickett Rodeo returns to Washington, D.C., in September.

In many ways, their mere presence is an achievement and vital act of resistance.

"I love [riding with the Cowgirls of Color], especially when you have people who are totally shocked that black people, let alone women, ride horses and compete in rodeos," team member Brittaney Logan, 29, says. "I've learned so much under Ray's leadership, and I only hope to get better and continue competing."

A cowgirl (unaffiliated with Cowgirls of Color) goes for a ride. A Photo by M. Holden Warren, used with permission.

They're another page in the long and storied history of black riders. While the number of women continues to grow, it's still a male-dominated sport.

A cowgirl (unaffiliated with Cowgirls of Color) competes in ladies steer undecorating, the women's version of steer wrestling. Photo by M. Holden Warren, used with permission.

They're a group of professional black women, pushing back on stereotypes and competing in a sport few are brave enough to try.

"Riding is not just about getting on a horse and going," Dorsey says. "You have to become one [with your horse] and know everyday you will learn something new about riding and about yourself. It's not something to take lightly."

Dorsey, Brown, and Bowles soothe their horses before a competition. Photo by M. Holden Warren, used with permission.

Their grit, enthusiasm, and athleticism are inspiring a new generation of kids to dream big and work hard, even when the odds are stacked against them.

Young competitors look on. Photo by M. Holden Warren, used with permission.

"It's just amazing to be amongst a whole 'nother world of black people," Brown says. "If you can just imagine how many people you currently know in your life, and then you're introduced to this cowboy community, it's like a whole 'nother world. For me, that in and of itself is just amazing."

So win or lose, the Cowgirls of Color have achieved something great.  

See these impressive women in action in this short video.

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