Cowboys of Color

Meet a few of the bronco busters and barrel racers who celebrate the forgotten minorities who helped settle the Old West.

In dusty boots and a well-worn cowboy hat, Cleo Hearn looks out of place at the Starbucks in West Village, but the handsome 66-year-old Southern gentleman settles into his chair on the patio as if he were home at his Lancaster ranch. Hearn, known as “Mr. Black Rodeo” in cowboy circles, is the driving force behind the Cowboys of Color Invitational Rodeo Tour, which honors the minority cowboys of the past and showcases the talents of those today.

“We’re telling the history of the settling of the Old West,” Hearn says. “We’re telling the story of the forgotten cowboy. About a third of the early cowboys were black, Hispanic, or Native American. Most people don’t know that.”

The Cowboys of Color rodeo features such standards as calf roping, bronco busting, steer wrestling, ladies’ barrel racing, bull riding, and junior events. But it also includes cultural competitions, including Spanish ladies’ side-saddle teams, Native American dancers, trick-roping charros, and even a tribute to the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments, the famous Buffalo Soldiers.

Hearn, who was the first black Marlboro Man, became a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association in 1959, competing as a calf roper. He put on his first black rodeo in Harlem in 1971 for 10,000 kids. “They were hungry for it,” he says. “Most of those kids had never seen or even read about a black cowboy.”

The Seminole, Oklahoma, native landed in Dallas when he took a job with the Ford Motor Company, where he worked for 31 years. By 1985, he produced his first Black Invitational Rodeo, in Dallas, which evolved into the Cowboys of Color. It is the largest multicultural rodeo in the country and has doubled in size since the first event 13 years ago. Hearn plans to expand the tour to two additional cities next year.

“We’re sharing a part of history and having a heck of a good time doing it,” he says.

J.T. Curtis, bareback rider (bronco busting)

J.T. Curtis says the first time he saw a black cowboy was when he looked in the mirror. Instead of playing on Little League baseball teams as a kid, Curtis worked on ranches and learned how to ride a bucking horse by the time he was 13. Curtis, a member of the Dallas S.W.A.T. team by day, competes in one or two rodeos a month. He turned pro in 1992 and has won multiple championships, including a 12-year winning streak at the Texas Peace Officers Rodeo Association’s bareback competition. The Cowboys of Color rodeo is an event he doesn’t miss. “It’s a little more Western than other rodeos,” he says. “I think we put it on the line a little bit more. We have a lot of fun, and the crowd sees that and loves it.”

The Hearn Family
Rachel Hearn, junior barrel racer; Cleo Hearn, calf roper; Harlan Hearn, calf roper; Eldon Hearn, calf roper; Robby Hearn, calf roper; Robyn Hearn, amateur rider; Taylor Hearn, junior calf roper

Three generations of Hearns participate in the Cowboys of Color rodeo. Cleo Hearn still competes as a roper in both the regular and senior divisions, while two of his four sons and two of his five grandchildren compete in their individual specialties. “I’ve been horse crazy all of my life,” Cleo says. “I guess I passed it on to my family. It keeps the kids out of trouble. You have to be up early every morning to take care of your horse. You have to practice. You have competitions every weekend during the season. Keeps ’em busy.”

Rebecca Rockett, barrel racer

Outside of the rodeo arena, Rebecca Rockett sells insurance. Inside, she could use some. During her first season on the professional circuit 10 years ago, fans gave the Irving native the nickname “The Rocket” for good reason. “I’m a barrel racer, so I’m trying to be the fastest,” she says. As her horse Watch That Flame explodes from the gate at 20 miles an hour, Rockett “hangs on for dear life.” Although the only Japanese person in the Cowboys of Color rodeo, Rockett doesn’t feel like she’s blazing trails in the rodeo world. “Fans are more interested in my horse, the race, or simple things like my shirt,” she says. “No one cares about my nationality.”

David Brooks, bull rider and bullfighter

David Brooks grew up on a ranch in Mansfield with 15 brothers and sisters and a farm full of horses, cows, chickens, dogs, and pigs. His uncle, Dilly Ford, ran the Mansfield Rodeo for many years, and Brooks spent every Friday and Saturday night watching the show. Before long he was competing. He was bull riding at 7, and by 10 he’d moved to something even more dangerous—bullfighting, or what he calls “cowboy protection.” Others call it being a “rodeo clown.” As such, he’s separated his shoulder and broken his leg, his collarbone, and more than a few fingers. Now 43, he’s slowing down a bit, or so he says. Instead of competing in 150 rodeos a year, he competes in only 30. He lives on a 31-acre ranch in Kemp, where neighborhood kids come over for free lessons or just to play on the farm. “It ain’t all about the money,” he says. “I open my doors to anybody who wants to learn.” This year will be Brooks’ last to compete professionally, as he plans to continue teaching eager students and training horses.

Cathy Ochoa, captain of Escaramuza Guadalupana Ladies Side-saddle Team

Growing up in Durango, Mexico, Alvaredo resident Cathy Ochoa discovered she had a knack for horses and a love of riding. She founded the Escaramuza Guadalupana Ladies Side-saddle Team seven years ago but didn’t start performing with the Cowboys of Color until the 2000 season. “I didn’t think we were ready,” she says. “But everyone encouraged us to do it.” Twenty-four girls, including both her daughters, are broken up into three teams—A, B, and juniors—and they are judged on their costumes (which Ochoa helps design), precision of synchronized movements, speed, and exercises. The Escaramuza Guadalupana Ladies always come in first or second.

COME TO THE RODEO
After stops in five Texas and Oklahoma cities, the Cowboys of Color rodeo comes to the Mesquite Championship Resistol Arena on October 22 for the finals. For tickets and times, visit www.cowboysofcolor.org. Video of the Cowboys of Color Rodeo Finals will be available online at www.goldbucklenetwork.com.  A part of the proceeds will benefit National Cowboys of Color Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, ICREA Inc., and the Hearn Family Rodeo Scholarship.

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