The morning sun is just beginning to peek out over the horizon, dyeing the sky over Compton a soft pink. Roosters are crowing, announcing the start of a new day on the quiet houselined street. As I step out of my car my first thought is that I must be in the wrong place; there’s no way this is the address of a cowboy ranch.
I hear an unfamiliar clop clop approaching, and I turn to see a young black man in a hoodie, tatted and with dreadlocks, trotting down the center of the street atop a dark horse — a restless Tennessee walker whose name I’ll later find out is Ebony. The man regards me coolly as he saunters past, exhaling a small plume of smoke. He looks no more out of place against this urban backdrop than the cars that cruise alongside. I feel as though I’ve stepped into an old Western film, albeit one in which the cowboys and cowgirls look less like John Wayne and more like me.
The Compton Cowboys, a group of 10 friends who grew up riding together, operate out of Richland Farms, a two-acre spread tucked behind the houses on this unassuming block. Formally launched less than three years ago, the outfit has made a name for itself in and outside of Compton by reintroducing — yes, reintroducing — cowboy culture to black urban communities.
“The ranch you’re on is 30 years of work,” says Randall Hook once he has brought me past the gates of his family’s rambler and into a broad backyard lined with stables. Also known as Randy Savvy, Hook is the managing member of the Compton Cowboys. “My brother and I were born into the horse thing,” he says. The rest of the group consists of friends, family members and curious locals.
Hook inherited Richland Farms from his aunt Mayisha Akbar, a longtime equestrian. In 1988 Akbar founded a youth-focused program called the Compton Junior Posse, which served as a precursor to the Compton Cowboys; it was where many of the current riders met as children trying to escape the dangers of their neighborhood. (Akbar was forced to hand over the reins after she suffered a stroke.)
“It’s crazy out there in the streets,” says Hook. “I don’t even like standing in front of my house. You end up growing up with people, and they get killed or go to jail. You see somebody, then you just never see him again. Riding takes you away from the bullshit of the world and just helps you grow and develop yourself as you naturally would. When you’re in the ranch, the bullshit can’t see you.”
Lil Ant, a Compton Cowboy and former member of the Acacia Blocc Crips gang, says the ranch helped him transition back into society after completing a two-year sentence for drug dealing.
“I’d rather hang with the horses; that’s my passion now,” he says. “Once you’ve been in jail, you can’t go back to the same thing. I had to change it up. I love my horses, so I picked that.”
He eventually purchased a Tennessee walker named Sugarfoot for his young children, who have since become avid riders.
In Compton, Richland Farms is much more than a ranch; it’s a major pillar of an underserved community that’s often plagued by violence. It’s a refuge for Compton youth looking for a place to belong that isn’t gang-affiliated, and it’s a resource for those same youth to learn leadership skills and build self-esteem. In the confines of this spread, with its 16 horses, three cows and one affable llama, members rehabilitate the often-donated horses and train for rodeo competitions and the showjumping circuit. Watching it all, I feel transported. I feel safe.
Keiara, the only cowgirl in the Compton Cowboys, competes in rodeos throughout the state. She’s often one of the few riders of color out of several hundred. “No one acknowledged me until I started winning,” she says.
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