They are among a number of black rodeo riders in metro Atlanta.
Cowboy and rodeo rider Thad Heard retired from the Atlanta fire department. CONTRIBUTED
“A lot of urban people have never seen a horse in real life,” said Thunder. “And the only cowboys they know are John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.”
However, he wants youngsters to know about black cowboys like Bill Pickett, Jesse Stahl and Nat Love, also known as Deadwood Dick, an ex-slave, cowboy and rodeo circuit competitor.
Keith Roberts, president of the Atlanta Black Rodeo Association, said there a lot of black horsemen in metro Atlanta, but only a “handful” of rodeo competitors.
Roberts, from upstate New York, competed for 13 years and also produced rodeos.
Most of those who participated came from Texas and Oklahoma, where there are long histories of being cowboys and cowgirls.
Some of the biggest names today are champions Cory Solomon and Fred Whitfield, who is also author of “Gold Buckles Don’t Lie: The Untold Tale of Fred Whitfield.”
“They couldn’t beat him,” Roberts said of Whitfield, a top calf roper. “It didn’t matter what they did, they couldn’t beat him.
There are a lot of challenges on the rodeo circuit, he said.
The biggest, perhaps, is money. It costs a lot to be on the road, including gas, flights, hotels and meals. It’s even more expensive if you compete in a field that requires you to haul and care for a horse.
As for race being an issue, “there are biases, yeah, but if you know rodeo, you understand that the bias is that unless you come from a family that has generations of history in the Texas or Arkansas area, then you’re not in their circle. They are hard on each other and they’re harder on us because we don’t come from those circles and because of our color.”
Back in the day, the crowds could really turn on black rodeo competitors. He said they might throw things at you or spit on you as you left the arena.
A few years ago, Roberts said he arrived at a rodeo to compete and noticed some other calf ropers. As he walked up to them, the conversation stopped.
Roberts turned and walked away.
“I’m not really here to be your friend,” he said. “I’m here to take your money.”
The 6-foot-3 Thunder, who was born William Ray Higginbottom, lives on a ranch on several acres of land in Union City. He owns a half-dozen horses and several dogs including Tombstone, which he says is a gray wolf and husky mix.
“Being a cowboy is laid-back. It’s not stressful. It’s comfortable,” said Thunder, who grew up watching his dad and grandfather break horses in rural Ohio.
Billy Ray Thunder spreads hay on a ranch in Union City. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Thad Heard, a retired Atlanta fireman, started competing in 1994 in steer wrestling.
“I can kill that myth that people think there’s no such thing as a black cowboy,” said Heard. “They don’t know the history. I go out there and show people that black cowboys are for real. Man, I can’t describe what it’s like when children come up to me and want to shake my hand. It’s such a good feeling.”
The biggest problem some have, he said, is landing sponsorships.
Interest in black cowboys and rodeo riders has risen with the success of the Bill Pickett rodeo and the recent smash by Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus — “Old Town Road.”
“It opens the conversation,” said Valeria Cunningham, owner and president of the rodeo.
“People recognize that there are black cowboys and cowgirls and they want to be part of the rodeo,” she said. “A number of people have called me to say this is on their bucket list.”
There have been black cowboys since the beginning.
After the Civil War, an estimated 1 out of 4 cowboys were black, according to William Loren Katz, author of “The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States” and “Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage.” Many were also Latino.
History, though, often overlooked their contributions. Many African Americans were skilled at handling horses and livestock, having worked the ranches and farms of slave owners.
“The story of the cowboy is as American as apple pie,” said Katz. “Cowboys became symbols of the American pioneering spirit, and that didn’t fit in with the story of slavery and the way slaves were treated. The story is that the American West was founded by white people who did all these wondrous things.”
As much as efforts were made to whitewash history, black cowboys didn’t disappear.
“Their stories unfolded because it was hard to keep them buried,” said Katz.
Take Bill Pickett, born in 1870, who left the fifth grade to become a ranch hand.
He went on to be a respected cowboy and traveled the world as a rodeo performer and actor. He’s credited with inventing the technique of wrestling steer to the ground in the fastest amount of time, which was then called bulldogging. In 1905, Pickett, performing under the name of the Dusky Demon, joined the 101 Ranch Wild West Show with such other famous cowboys as Tom Mix and Will Rogers.
“Bill Pickett taught them the rope tricks and a lot of things like that,” said Katz. “He was one of the greatest cowboys that ever lived.”
In 1989, Pickett was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Arkansas Dave, who competes in rodeos, rides his horse on a ranch off Flat Shoals Road in Union City. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Thunder dreamed of a career in the NFL, but his size kept him off the field.
A military veteran, Thunder entered his first rodeo by chance in 1988 in a move to impress a woman he was interested in.
The other guys goaded him into riding a bull. The ride lasted about four seconds. He landed on his back and in the hospital with two broken ribs.
But he was hooked. “Some of the Caucasian cowboys thought that I wouldn’t last,” said Thunder, who spends most of his time dressed in a Wrangler shirt and jeans with a wide-brim straw cowboy hat atop his head with a turkey feather and hawk’s claw stuck in the band.
“After playing football, though, when I put my mind to something, I can do it. I was older than a lot of guys who start, but I was in great shape from playing ball and going to the gym. If someone else is 40 years old and not in great shape, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
It’s tough work. He’s had broken ribs, a broken foot and nearly had his eye gouged out. His hand reaches out to touch a beaded Native American medicine pouch around his neck that he says deflected a horn that came dangerously close to piercing his neck.
His grandson, Justin, 11, wants to be a bull rider and has already participated in his first rodeo.
Ben Carr, 28, travels around the country competing in rodeos and roping events with his horse, King, a 16-year-old bay gelding. He’s won numerous buckles, prize ropes and financial purses.
Born in Riverdale, Carr spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ ranch in Covington, where he learned to ride horses. His uncle and father often took him to rodeos.
“I didn’t consider myself to be a real cowboy until I was 19 or 20,” said Carr, who played baseball in college. “I started throwing the rope and I was good. I started winning prize money. There are two types of cowboys — those who compete and those who work the cattle and horses. You’re not a cowboy because you have a horse. There’s a lot more to it.”
Today, Carr’s love of the rodeo is being passed down. His 4-year-old son, Caden, has been competing in junior rodeos since he was 2.
“Being a cowboy has to do with family pride and pride in your country,” he said. “Being a cowboy is an honor.”
35th annual Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo
Aug. 3-4. Adults, $25 (advance tickets) and $30 (at the door); children, $19 (advance tickets) and $23 (at the door). Group and VIP prices available. Georgia International Horse Park, 1996 Centennial Olympic Parkway, Conyers. billpickettrodeo.com.