Hours before the scheduled start time, people arrive in their vehicles to a Pontotoc plot for the second most revered Sunday tradition after church: the weekly horse show.
Horse neighs punctuate the festival-like atmosphere as riders saunter to the blue registration tent. It’s a jovial heat, where people set up chairs under tents and women hold umbrellas to block the sun. Loud music and the scent of food on the grill fill the air as fans find spots around the ring, sectioned by red dirt and yellow rope.
That day’s host is A Step Above Horse Riding Club, one of the several all-Black riding clubs peppered throughout Northeast Mississippi. It’s horse business for them, but it’s really an opportunity to meet other people and have a good time, said Darnell Wright, who owns a stable in Verona.
“This is something we love to do. Most of us, we ride a horse before we ride anything else, ”Wright said. “It keeps us connected.”
Black cowboys are deeply entrenched in Northeast Mississippi. From the beginning of April to the end of October, different clubs host their own horse shows across the region. Shows are typically held every Sunday, weather permitting. Horse shows, trail rides and banquets are how they create a space that is uniquely Black and southern, forming a community that they hope exists far beyond them.
‘This is just fun’
Many of today’s riders grew up around horses or going to horse shows in their youth.
Unshay Randle, 45, remembers his dad, William Randle, hosting horse shows right by their house. The best, however, are the trail rides. It’s where everyone comes to mingle and does good-natured ribbing.
Some use the trail rides to train, but for Randle, it’s simply a way to unwind. Randle is a Chickasaw County elected constable, sheriff’s deputy, veteran, part-time bricklayer, and owner of Randle’s Body Repair.
“I do police work, so I’m always uptight,” he said. “I’ve got to do this, got to do that, but when I get on the trail ride, it’s like I can relax.”
Trail rides are held a couple times a year when the weather cools. There’s no telling who or what will show up to these events: horses, carriages, trucks, kids on go-karts and 4-wheelers, and tractors to pull hayrides.
Randle started riding horses when he was 8 or 9 years old, and he now competes in and hosts his own horse shows. Often, clubs can form from friends riding horses together. If there are enough of them, they might start their own club, or newcomers may join an established club.
Many smaller clubs came together under the umbrella of a larger group, Northeast Mississippi Riders, of which Randle is president. There’s a stipulation: to join, members have to ride with the club for two years on probation before the club will vote them in. That policy was put in place to separate the committed riders from the casual, Randle said.
A group of younger riders in their 20s formed Ghetto Cowboys, and gave Randle a shirt because they associate with him. On the corner of each is a cowboy hat and boots with wings, and the name “LL Cutter”, aka Willie C. Franklin. The club, where two of his sons are members, all got shirts in Franklin’s memory after his death last year. In the last four or five years, the community has lost several really dynamic cowboys.
The community feels each loss deeply.
“When you get through it, it’s just a big family,” Randle said.
Most years, the group will host an awards banquet – basically a cowboy party celebrating doing shows and working all year. It’s a way to celebrate their community and their love of riding. “We all work every day. We’ve got a full-time job, ”Randle said. “This is just fun.”
‘They are the future’
Shantes Pegues is almost a perfect reflection of her father.
Like her dad, Alex Pegues, she’s been riding since she was 6. Throughout her childhood and into adulthood, she attended horse shows and helped out with chores.
“I had to feed horses, clean stalls, help get horses ready to go to the show,” Pegues said.
It was the same for her father, a rider since childhood himself. Alex Pegues is a founding member of A Step Above, a riding club of friends and deacons from various area churches. The group’s been together so long that they don’t remember the exact year it began, though they suspect it’s been about 15.
The group formed with a mission to raise money to help people in the community and create a space for people to come together.
“That’s what we started it for,” he said. “To have something that we as Black folks can go to.”
Originally seen as a very masculine community, Shantes Pegues said her father initially “got a lot of slack” for letting a girl help in the barn when he began bringing her to shows. Not that it bothered him much. His philosophy was, if she loves horses, why not let her be involved.
In hindsight, it was the right call. These days, Shantes Pegues, now an adult with a bachelor’s degree in Animal and Dairy Sciences from Mississippi State, competes against both women and men. And the group is still growing with each and every event. Each show draws all ages, and the club always tries to cater to kids.
“That’s our first priority, giving the kids something to do first,” Alex Pegues said. “They are the future of whatever we’re trying to do.”
‘You’ve got to love it to do it’
Steve Autry’s time riding in horse shows may be over, but his connection to the sport and community is not.
Last year, Autry transformed his land into a horse show ring by filling in ditches, cutting trees, setting up a DJ stand and adding a building.
Between the cost, time and traveling, horse shows have to be about passion.
“You’ve got to love it to do it,” Autry said.
Autry enjoys watching. He made a cowgirl out of his wife, Cheviere Autry of Beloit, Wisconsin, by teaching her to ride. She rides occasionally, though not in shows.
“Later on, I told her I was going to marry her one day,” Autry said.
“Tell her how long it actually took you to marry me,” she teased.
Autry avoided the question.
The shows Autry hosts on his land draw a different type of family, and a large one at that. Organizers estimated at least 100 registered people attended an April 24 event, although the actual number is likely higher. Some shows have drawn upward of a thousand attendees. Autry mentioned adding lights and parking space on his list of planned improvements.
“Last show we had, they were out in the road,” Autry said.
Autry’s been taking part in horse shows for 20 years. His father didn’t ride, so he took it upon himself to learn when he was 10 years old. He’d go to horse shows with his friends.
These days, Autry no longer rides himself, but works with a rider, Terrell Smith of Shannon.
With walking horses, Autry lives by the motto that it takes the rider and the horse to perform well. With Smith, he’s seen Cash, his 13-year-old horse, perform in ways he hasn’t before.
“The rider makes the difference,” Autry said. “A good rider will beat you on a bad horse.”
Smith, 37, has been showing and riding horses since he was a teen. He even made a living at it for a while, working out deals to break horses for 30 days in exchange for being able to show them.
Smith was glad he was brought up with horse shows. He’s met so many people with a horse, he said. In his youth, Smith was very competitive, taking losses as motivation to work harder. Even now, he still said no one likes to lose, but competing taught him respect and learning to control his temper.
“It kind of sets your mind for the future,” Smith said. “When a person learns to take a loss just as well as a win, they’re about to figure out whatever they’re doing.”
‘Something for our culture’
Jody Glover of West Point is training Black youth to be the next generation of leaders.
“We need something for our culture,” Glover said. “They need someone to spend time with them, someone to tell them they love them and you’re doing good, you’re doing right.”
Glover’s own father figure was a man named Charlie Davis, with whom Glover would farm soybeans, cattle, and other farmwork from 10 to 21 years old. Glover continued helping out even when he got his own job.
Attending horse shows in 2009 inspired him to start Jody’s Stables, based in Houston.
“I wanted to open my own stable, so I went and built me a little barn, and loaned my own horses,” Glover said. “Then kids just started coming around wanting to ride.”
While initially hesitant, Glover began training with parents’ encouragement. Currently, he’s training 10 kids, ages 7 to 17, who ride most weekdays after school.
Two of his youngest riders are brothers Jermanuel Griffin, 7, and Jayden Griffin, 8, of Chickasaw County. They’ve always had an interest in riding, but didn’t have access to horses, said their mother, Latonya Griffin. Since starting, the brothers train nearly daily and compete in nearby shows. They’ve even placed a few times, including at a May 1 show in Shannon.
Every year, Glover takes some of his riders to Greenville for two days to enjoy food on Friday and the big show on Saturday. Jody’s Stables has gone to cities throughout North Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee so far. Competing makes his students eager to learn and improve, Glover said. When they leave school, they want to ride.
“It just excites me for kids this age wanting to come around and learn how to ride, want to get their parents interested in them riding horses,” Glover said. “I didn’t have that growing up.”
It grounds Glover as well. He enjoys seeing his students happy and smiling, especially the youngest ones. The payoff is with his older riders. Rarely idle, many have activities and trades outside of riding.
His oldest riders are William Pickens, whose riding name is June Bug, and Jamal Pulliam, aka J-Boy. Pulliam, 16, began riding three years ago after his friend got into it. His dad always wanted to, so he started riding, he said.
“I didn’t really know much about horses then,” Pulliam said. “I didn’t realize it was going to be this much fun.”
Over the years, Pulliam has improved, placing occasionally, and enjoyed the opportunity to socialize and see other horses. He thinks he might study business and management at Mississippi State University. Asked if he is planning on staying involved with horse shows, he answered with confidence: “Most definitely.”
“That way I can have my own barn,” Pulliam said. “I plan on having about five, six horses.”
The end of a horse show is not definite. Sure, the classes stop showing at a specific time, but the show itself is more than the prize money and the naming of the day’s winners.
It’s kids rushing around and spectators laughing and cheering on a friend’s beer-aided dancing. It’s the man looking dapper in his plaid red button up, khaki pants, black cowboy hat and cowboy boots riding the same ring as the ones in T-shirts with shorts, and the horses re-entering their trailers, ready for home.
The horse shows are something to look forward to every Sunday after church, Smith said. A place to gather, relax and have a bit of fun with a shared community.
“If we weren’t doing this, what would we be doing?” he asked. “I think there’s nothing better.”