Cowboy Noir

Riding horses, sucking dust and planning for the big time

She moved Richard and his younger brother near her brother Larry, a cowboy who trained Richard on his horses and helped him hone his calf-roping technique. Richard liked riding his uncle's horses and he liked his new school. His grades bounced back. He could forget about the Bloods and the Crips and concentrate on rodeo. He stuck with it throughout high school and into Wharton Junior College, where he studied agriculture business and accounting. He has one year left, and he's putting it on hold to shoot for the pros. And although his mother would rather see him finish school first, she's the one Richard cites as the reason he even has a chance at the pros today.

"Keeping me…out of trouble…and raising us two knuckleheads at the same time made life a whole lot easier on me," he says. "And that let me put my heart into it."

Shorty has raised two generations of cowboys.
Daniel Kramer
Shorty has raised two generations of cowboys.
Gary Richard: Bull-riding is "like a big dream."
Daniel Kramer
Gary Richard: Bull-riding is "like a big dream."

"I'm the one that brought boots and cowboy hats to Kashmere," Richard's uncle Gary says of his high school days. "It was a [predominantly] black school and they thought…I'd never make it in the white man's game. But, like I told them, it wasn't a white man's game. It was a cowboy's game."

Gary Richard rode his first bull at age five. He turned pro 16 years later.

At 42, he's one of the oldest cowboys in the pro organization known simply as Professional Bull Riders. He's also one of the PBR's few blacks. In the four years he's been with the organization, he's won nearly $200,000.

"It's like a big dream," he says of bull-riding. "Sometimes you can't even describe the feeling that you get riding bulls. You're feeling all this power and strength under your body."

The rush is so great that nearly turning into a Cyclops can't keep Gary from riding. While he was competing in a Lubbock rodeo eight years ago, Gary's bull threw its head back and punctured his right eye with a horn. The blow fractured his cheekbone, sliced through his retinal artery and detached the retina. He says doctors wanted to remove the eye, but Gary, a deeply religious man, said God would provide. Apparently, Gary had some sort of pull, because the wound healed and he regained most of his vision in that eye.

That kind of strength is good to have when dealing with aspects of pro rodeo meaner than any bull. Gary is often the only black cowboy competing in a rodeo. He remembers a Rapid City, South Dakota, rodeo where locals called the promoters "nigger-lovers." On such occasions, Gary never says anything. He just focuses on the ride.

"That's been my theory from day one: Just go take care of business and don't worry about what people [are] thinking," he says. "'Cause sometime I'll be the only black in the whole town, not just the only black cowboy at the rodeo."

He'd like to see more blacks in the PBR and other organizations -- there are a lot of talented cowboys out there, he says, but many are held back.

"There's a lot of black cowboys right here in Houston that can be in the top ten in the world champions," he says. "Some of them just don't have the money to go, and some of them just want to stay here with their family and be a family man. It's kind of puzzling to see all this good talent go to waste, just hanging around here and just going to little rodeos when they can go to the big rodeos and win big money."

A professional rodeo career requires sponsorship, and for many black cowboys, including Gary's nephew Justin, sponsors are hard to come by. Gary has the backing of a boot company, a stock contractor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Richard is backed by his own wallet.

But Gary senses a drive in his nephew that he says will keep him from languishing on the small-time circuit.

"Justin kind of reminds me of me when I was coming up as a kid," Gary says. "I was always bugging the bull riders…I wanted to be a world champion. And that's what he has in mind."

Last year's PRCA calf-roping champ rode a $75,000 horse. Fancy cost $12,500.

A good-looking tan quarter horse with a patch of white above his mane, 13-year-old Fancy has served Richard well. But most of the competition rides superior stock.

As Richard says, "I'm driving a '72 Pinto, and everyone else is pulling up in 2002 Dodges."

A decent horse costs $20,000, minimum, Richard says. Food, grooming and incidentals add up to about $300 a month.

Fancy's upkeep for the amateur circuit isn't exactly killing Richard -- he won nearly $30,000 last year -- but the pro circuit costs a fortune. Amateur contenders have to buy a permit and win a certain amount of money ($2,500 in the PBR, $1,000 in the PRCA) to break into the semi-pros. From there, they have to rack up a lot of points in a lot of rodeos to make the pros. The PBR and the PRCA then choose the top 45 and top 15 pros, respectively, to compete in the world championships.

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