Southwest Louisiana’s Creole Trail Riding Clubs
By Alexandra Giancarlo
Photos by Jeremiah Ariaz
You could say trail riding and horse culture is in Acynthia Villery’s blood. “I was going to rodeos in my mother’s womb,” she explained to me. A Texas transplant, Acynthia hails from a long line of Creoles in south Louisiana. Her heritage has such mixed origins that, when asked about her background, she jokes that she’s “a Heinz 57,” referring to the alleged fifty-seven varieties of the famed sauce.
Trail riding—recreational horseback rides featuring anywhere from a few dozen to thousands of participants, held on a weekly basis by a rotation of dozens of trail riding clubs—occurs throughout southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana, even spreading into Mississippi in recent years. Despite the practice’s present-day geographic breadth, it is most closely associated with the Creoles of rural Southwestern Louisiana who descended from some of the region’s earliest settlers, many of them landowning gens de couleur libres (free people of color) in antebellum times. Others were enslaved and played a crucial role on the farm and the ranch. All had multiracial origins, owing to the multi-generational mixing of people of European (usually French), Native American, and African ancestry.
Recently uncovered archival evidence sheds light on this heretofore little-known role of enslaved cattlemen in the colony. Louisiana State University geography professor Andrew Sluyter identified that in 1766, one of the major landowners in the former Attakapas Post, along the Bayou Teche, boasted fifteen thousand cattle, fifty muskets, fifty slaves—and no households. Sluyter noted, “It implied that fifty enslaved blacks armed with muskets and under no direct supervision by whites were riding around on five pre-Acadian ranches that contained more than half of the cattle in the Louisiana colony.” This revelation led him, and others after him, to reconsider the role that people of color had in creating the region’s unique cattle-ranching ecology, particularly along the Bayou Teche. In 2012, Sluyter offered a paradigm-shifting assessment in his book Black Ranching Frontiers: African Cattle Herders of the Atlantic World, 1500–1900: “Actors of African, European, native, and mixed origins participated in a Creole act of creation on those first Louisiana ranches.”
Although the archival traces of these early cattlepeople of color—and enslaved peoples, especially—are minimal, the existing records provide a glimpse into the lives of black cattlemen and women in south Louisiana. A 1785 document of succession for one of the five pioneer white ranchers in the Attakapas district, Jean-François Lédée, recorded one of his slaves’ occupations as “cowboy.” And although black horsemanship occurred throughout the state and the country, its modern-day imprint is particularly pronounced in south Louisiana. Indeed, the masses of people who convene, in the name of culture and heritage, to ride horses every weekend near the trail-riding hubs of Opelousas and St. Martinville are a powerful testament to the role of people of color in the region’s early cattle ranching industry.
Creole” can be both a confusing and loaded term, its meaning having undergone multiple permutations and connotations within Louisiana since the late 1700s. Across Creole societies worldwide, a firm definition cannot be agreed upon. Suffice to say that for people of African origin in Louisiana, it was a word once most closely associated with the free people of color, but many scholars and community members today agree that it can refer to people having African origin regardless of whether their ancestors had been free people or had been enslaved. After the Civil War, Louisiana’s tripartite racial structure—white, free people of color, and black—faltered, and fell completely as the state became pulled into the American mainstream. To add a complicating element, many of those who today identify as Cajun were once called Creole, which had been a term that connoted higher status for someone of French origins, whether Acadian or not. The meteoric rise in acceptance and promotion of the delineation of “Cajun” for whites and “Creole” for blacks began relatively recently, in the mid-twentieth century; scholars Cecyle Trepanier, Rocky Sexton, and Eric Waddell have argued that the trend of identifying as Cajun occurred because “Creole,” in the eyes of American outsiders, had undesired racially ambiguous connotations that called into question one’s claims to whiteness.Today, it is reasonable to suggest that any black person in south Louisiana could lay claim to the term Creole, and more often than not, it is used as a cultural signifier rather than a racial one. Ask ten self-identifying Creoles, and more than half will confirm that Creole is their ancestry, their heritage, or their culture; their race, however, is black or African American. This shift to identifying with the African-American mainstream, which some argue is to the detriment of maintaining their French ethnicity, had its genesis in the World War II–era and picked up speed during the Civil Rights Movement—when, as one interviewee told me, his relatives who had more of a Native American appearance grew out their hair and permed it to achieve Afros.
This culture is one of the most enduring and most striking in the United States. Against the most difficult odds of entrenched racism, racial violence, poverty, language denigration, and cultural appropriation, Creole-identifying people have held fast to their Catholic faith, their rural roots and land ownership, their food and musical traditions, and fought to maintain their ancestral French language. In fact, trail rides—accompanied by zydeco music, cookouts, and campouts—could be considered in their purest form to “embody all things Creole,” according to Dustin Cravins, whose father and uncle held a hugely popular trail ride for decades and whose radio show, Zydeco Extravaganza, often held remote broadcasts from the events.
For such a popular and culturally defining tradition, trail riding’s origins are somewhat hazy. There are possible and probably overlapping geneses: some interviewees maintained that trail rides’ earliest purpose were as fundraisers for local Catholic churches, community centers, or other charities. Linus Jordan from Eunice fondly recalls how he, his siblings, and their extended family took part in fundraisers for St. Matilda’s Church going back some thirty years as The Rough Riders. Other Creoles suggested that trail riding emerged more so as an homage to their path-breaking ancestors—black cattlemen and women—and grew out of an era when horses were used for transportation and for everyday farm life.
Perhaps the majority opinion combines elements of the above: that trail rides became a social gathering for rural folks whose forebears were cowboys and cowgirls, and as they became more formalized, they often benefitted a good cause in their community. Longtime rider Rex Mills, whose ranch in Branch was home to multiple trail rides per year, explained his understanding of the roots of Creole trail rides in an account in Le reveil des fêtes: Revitalized Celebrations and Performance Traditions, published by LSU–Eunice’s folklife series in the late 1990s: “[A]t first rides were casual, just a group of friends getting together to have a good time. Most people who live in the country have always had a few horses on their property. . . . As interest began to grow, the riders began to form associations to organize things better. Now trail ride organizations encompass most of Southwest Louisiana and parts of Texas.”Far more than a simple horseback ride, trail rides are a dizzying array for the senses. The festivities begin Friday evening as folks trickle onto the site with their campers and trailers, gathering for a “cowboy stew” (a free, hearty mixed-meat gravy with rice) once they have settled in. A concert or a DJ follows later that evening, offering zydeco and swing-out favorites. Attendance picks up on Saturday, when participants cook and visit with one another; sometimes a “mini-ride,” or a shorter version of Sunday’s ride, is held. That evening, crowds descend on the grounds for a sweaty, lively zydeco dance that can stretch to the wee hours of the morning. On Sunday, tired from the night’s festivities, participants get a later start. By mid-morning, horses are brushed and fed and watered, beer is iced down, and last-minute preparations for the ride are underway.
In today’s incarnation, horses are optional. Participants, especially women and children, can ride on purpose-built wagons that hold at least a dozen people and are often festively adorned with the trail riding group’s signature colors, name, and motto, in addition to a Port-a-Potty, speaker system, and barbeque. For an average-sized trail ride, two or three wagons are usually available for those desiring a more relaxing ride (or simply lacking a trusty steed). The wagons lead the charge, along with the food and beer truck and the flagman or trail boss, appointed by the Association to keep order on the route. Horseback riders—mostly men and boys, and usually all Creole—follow behind, in sum forming a veritable parade of about a half mile.
The route is short when taken in historic trail-ride context, a distance of certainly less than ten miles, compared with the inter-city or multi-day rides that occurred in previous generations. The route is also, somewhat incongruously, not on a trail at all, save the notable exceptions of Pineywoods Trailride, held near Oakdale for the last thirty-two years, and Barnyard Posse, another very popular ride held near Opelousas, which in the past few years has also had more rustic routes. Every other trail ride that I have attended, approaching a dozen now over four years, has taken us on a pre-approved route on public roads, escorted by uniformed police officers and/or marshals. The route-approval procedure is a highly formalized, expensive, and somewhat opaque process that some argue verges on absurd; today’s requirements vary from parish to parish, with St. Landry Parish generally considered to have the strictest rules, and are a serious departure from trail rides past, when, according to Kenneth Wayne Bellard of the Eunice Easy Riders, “I went to the substation in Eunice, told the dispatcher I was having a ride this weekend—I needed two officers. Two officers were sent, and that was the extent of it.”
Indeed, despite their being a long-established part of Creole heritage and expressive culture, the rides are not without controversy, and public debate about their cultural value has reached a critical point in recent years. Local officials have dismissed the cultural importance of trail riding and nearly regulated them out of existence altogether, an approach and attitude that simply has not occurred with majority-white events in the area. In 2010, the St. Landry Parish Council proposed to ban Step-N-Strut, the wildly popular annual ride that had been most recently held at Evangeline Downs, near Opelousas. Although the parish council stated that they were proposing the ban in response to citizens’ complaints about traffic and participants’ behavior, much of the discussion during the heated and heavily attended parish council meetings centered on the perceived cultural significance—or lack thereof—of these events. Councilman Jay Guidry drew a line between the trail rides under fire and what he called “traditional” trail rides, such as Mardi Gras runs, “that have been in existence for hundreds of years and have benefits.” Guidry did not acknowledge that black trail rides, too, have a long history and deserve special consideration.
These comparisons with Cajun Mardi Gras—another disruptive event that draws often boisterous crowds and involves the usage of public roadways for horseback riding—led trail-riding defenders to ask, “How can you still have Mardi Gras, but you’re going to ban trail riding?” In fact, councilmember Pam Gautreau raised the ire of trail riders at a later council meeting when she suggested lowering the permitted number of participants to 250 with an exception made for Mardi Gras. Councilmember Jerry Red countered with concerns about a cultural double standard, reminding the council that it would be hypocritical for them to approve Eunice Mardi Gras at 800 riders—which they had just done—and impose a lower limit on trail rides. In a conversation where the black trail rides had been positioned in contrast to the predominantly white Mardi Gras celebrations, Red asserted, “This is a cultural event on both sides.”
The practice of trail riding, though, is not without detractors in the Creole community itself. Some Creoles, particularly among the older generation, view the infusion of hip-hop and reggae sounds into zydeco music as compromising the essence of trail rides and attracting a young, more urbanized crowd whose conduct, at times, taints the good reputation of the community. One well-known Creole voice explained to me that trail riders should not be wearing “sagging pants, t-shirts all the way down to your ankles.” Paul Scott, an organizer with Step-N-Strut, takes a more moderate stance, pointing out that what today’s zydeco artists are playing reflects the influences of the music of their generation: “People say Lil’ Nate has too much hip-hop. Well, Lil’ Nate grew up on hip-hop!”
It is worth emphasizing that, especially from an anthropological perspective, no culture is static and no culture is free from intra-cultural debate and conflict. Other scholars concur; Sara Le Menestrel, in her 2015 book about race and music in south Louisiana, Negotiating Difference in French Louisiana Music: Categories, Stereotypes, and Identifications, took note of this shift toward a more urban aesthetic and suggests that it “is not necessarily at odds with the image of the cowboy, which maintains its aura and continues to be celebrated by a younger generation of zydeco fans, whether they are of rural origin or urbanites.”
Many active trail riders agree that some criticism of the practice in its present form is warranted; youth should be better supervised and disagreements resolved through dialogue, not violence. The presence of increased security, they argue, has gone a long way to decreasing conflicts and promoting a more family-friendly atmosphere. The trail riding associations—the most popular in Southwestern Louisiana being the Rainbow Association and Border2Border, each with a dozen or more clubs—have their own strict rules about safety and conduct, both on the horseback ride itself and on the event grounds, and proponents state that inappropriate behavior is now on the decline. The former president of the Rainbow Association, Neil Bob, explained to me that his association has been diligently striving to eliminate safety concerns at trail rides because of the tradition’s cultural importance.
Beyond serving as a means of cultural continuity, trail ride groups also have a more tangible function: community service. It is a little-publicized aspect of their activities, but multiple groups undertake charity work within the community. In 2013, the Showtime Riders of Iberia Parish made local headlines for hosting a field day for elementary schoolers. I-49 Riders of Opelousas are a particularly civically engaged group, donating to shelters, providing scholarships, hosting school supply drives, and supporting the city’s Stop the Violence campaign. In February 2014, they received a commendation from the parish government for their community service. In 2014 Lafayette City-Parish Council proclaimed December 6 “Rainbow Trail Ride Association Day” in honor of that group’s dedication to charitable causes, such as preparing food baskets for the needy and fundraising for the Susan G. Komen foundation. Within the trail riding community itself, groups often rely on one another’s financial or social support; dinner sales or charity dances are common events to assist those who have fallen on hard times. Mary Milton-Fontenot of the Buckwild Divas emphasized, “We do a lot of good.”
For many of today’s attendees, their purpose for trail riding is relatively simple: to pass along what has been a culture-sustaining tradition to the next generation, driven by fond memories from their own childhoods. Robert Phillips, an enthusiast who at sixty-four years old is still highly active with his group The Crazy Hat Riders, explained, “Trail riding has always been my pleasure . . . at like six years old, [my grandfather] put me on my first horse. And I still remember that to this day.” For cultural outsiders, trail riding may be an inconvenient road closure on a Sunday morning. For many Louisianans, though, it is a way to honor their collective past and chart a path for the next generation. It’s a way of life.
Alexandra Giancarlo is a recent PhD graduate in cultural-historical geography from Queen’s University (Canada) with specializations in human rights and anti-racism. Also an LSU alum, her PhD research focused on the history, expressive culture, and struggles for representation of southwestern Louisiana’s rural Creoles.
To learn more about the work of photographer Jeremiah Ariaz, click here.