Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Black Cowboys Ride the Range in Queens, and Keep a Sharp Lookout for Traffic
(Rufus Earle, left, sells western gear near the stables for the Federation of Black Cowboys, and Ali Rahman calls himself a Muslim wrangler.)
By: COREY KILGANNON, from The New York Times
Link(Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
In a shallow valley just off the Belt Parkway near the Brooklyn-Queens line, there is a dusty ranch where cowboys in wide-brimmed hats, muddy boots and pearl-buttoned shirts saddle up and ride the high plains of Howard Beach.
Most of these urban cowboys are black men getting up in years. But they take out their quarter horses or appaloosas or dappled paints and head out onto the streets of New York. They are members of the Federation of Black Cowboys, which keeps alive the heritage of the forgotten black horsemen of the old West. They keep their horses at that dusty ranch, the Cedar Lane Stables, at the junction of Conduit Avenue and Linden Boulevard. There are no cattle rustlers here or gunslinging outlaws to face. But there is one pervading peril: negotiating the heavy traffic that has steadily increased in an area that 50 years ago was largely farmland and wooded lots.
“Yes, we do a lot of riding in the streets, and traffic is dangerous,” said Edward J. Dixon, the president of the federation. “A horse can bolt anytime, so you always got to have your guard up.”
This is exactly what happened to a 13-year-old boy returning to the stables Sunday afternoon from a horse ride along city streets. The boy, Jared Johnson, was riding a 7-year-old quarter horse named Romeo that had been boarded at Cedar Lane Stables. The boy and the horse were stopped on a grassy median of Linden Boulevard opposite the stables, waiting to cross at the traffic light. The horse suddenly lunged into traffic and struck a yellow cab, the police and witnesses said. The boy was knocked to the ground, suffered head injuries and was taken to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in Manhattan, where he remained in critical condition last night. The horse, which the boy had borrowed from a family friend, slammed into the cab’s hood, windshield and roof, slightly injuring the driver. The horse suffered a severe gash across the belly from the cab’s roof light fixture and died at the scene, according to the police.
Mr. Dixon called the accident a tragedy, but emphasized that the horse belonged to a man who is not a federation member, but who simply rented a stall at the stables. The boy, who is not a member, was not taking part in a federation event, he said. The federation, a nonprofit group formed in 1994, has 35 members, many of them former law enforcement professionals. Roughly 45 horses are kept in the stables on the 24-acre site, which the federation has leased from the city since 1997. The group’s mission is to teach poor black children horsemanship and the role that the black cowboy played in the old West.
About a dozen of the horses here belong to nonmembers who lease stalls from the federation, according to Mr. Dixon. Members do not let unskilled riders take their horses off the property, but cannot dictate to nonmembers what to do with their horses, he said. Doug Elder, another federation member, said: “We can’t police every person who takes a horse from here onto the street. Anything could spook a horse out there, even a plastic bag blowing by.” Mr. Dixon, 66, a retired transit worker from Brooklyn, said, “We’re in the middle of New York City; Queens is right there, and Brooklyn is over there.” “The kids we teach to ride start from the ground up and learn to ride in control,” he said. “They have to pass a test, and we keep a very tight watch on them.” “We keep alive the heritage and history and culture of the forgotten black cowboy,” said Mr. Dixon, who was wearing Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and a white wide-brimmed hat as he picked okra and green peppers in the small garden on the property, next to a graffiti-scrawled wall.
Members teach the children to muck out the stalls and groom the horses. The federation stages Wild West shows and holds rodeos that feature bronco-riding and calf-roping in the main corral. The group often plays host to school field trips and church groups. The horses stay in rudimentary stables in long, low-lying structures with tar-paper siding. Some have been converted from large metal shipping containers, with stable door spaces cut out of the corrugated metal sides.
“We used to have many stables around here and hundreds of horses,” said Rufus Earle, 78, who sells western apparel and gear at Leatherworks by Rufus on a desolate stretch of 78th Street near the stables. It is decorated with vinyl siding, wagon wheels and horseshoes. There are saddlebags and chaps inside. Outside, lariats sell for $20 apiece. “Once upon a time, black cowboys helped build this country, but somewhere along the line, we lost our heritage,” said Mr. Earle as he sat yesterday in the strong noonday sun on his porch with Ali Rahman, 65, who called himself a Muslim wrangler.
“You got Muslim cowboys, yep,” Mr. Rahman said. “Why not? A cowboy is a working man. You got cowboys who are businessmen, truckers, entertainers, even presidents. A cowboy is a working man, is all he is.”