Azja Bryant is a pharmacy technician. Jazmine Bennett works for UPS. Krishaun Adair works for state of Texas as an agriculture inspector. But they also call themselves cowgirls.
They first met competing against one another in a rodeo in Houston more than a decade ago. The friends have competed throughout the South and traveled as far west as Oakland and Los Angeles to ride.
Last month, the three prepared for the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo in Atlanta, the largest black professional rodeo in the United States. Competitors win cash prizes and, of course, the bragging rights.
Jazmine Bennett, 35, learned how to ride horses with members of the Compton Cowboys when she was growing up in Los Angeles. Twelve years ago, she moved to Houston. “There was nothing going on for me in Compton and I wanted to compete in rodeo.”
“I really came to Houston with a duffle bag and my horse saddle,” Bennett said. “I didn’t have much when I left Compton and had to stay with a rodeo family out here. They really helped me out.”
“I love the adrenaline rush and riding and the scene that we have. I love the thrill of competing in rodeo,” she said. “It feels like a big family event. You can bring your kids, and your kids can learn how to ride. Everyone roots for each other. We are all just chasing the dream. Everyone is just trying to make it.”
Adair, 38, was born and raised in Houston, and comes from a family of horse riders. “My grandparents on both sides were friends, and they did trail riding. My parents were the first ones to rodeo — that makes me a third-generation rider and second-generation rodeo competitor,” Adair said. She’s now helping her own daughter get started on horseback.
“I can call my mom or send her a video of a competition and she will know exactly what to say. She will ask me ‘did you do this?’ or ‘did you do that?’ And I do the same thing with my sister.” Adair said. “I wouldn’t be in rodeo if it wasn’t for my family, they always push me to compete because they see that in me.”
Bryant, 29, also comes from a riding family. “I was a baby when I first started,” she said — Adair calls her “the little sister that I never had.”
In August, the three friends loaded their horses and saddles into an oversized trailer for the drive to Atlanta. On a trip like this, they’ll take turns driving through the night and make periodic stops; the horses have to be walked every six hours.
“We try to give them a day off if they’re going to be on the road,” Adair said. “I also pray right before a competition. I try to get in a good head space. I pray for everybody, not just myself, because it puts a layer of stress when you travel across the country with three ladies and four horses.”
Bryant has her own preparation rituals. “I exercise and practice the horses days before the rodeo. I have to make sure they are ready to perform. It’s kind of like doing my homework during the week, so that we’re ready for the weekend.”
She also gets all her clothes cleaned the week before the competition. “I like to look nice at the rodeo,” Bryant said.
After 14 hours, they finally arrive in Atlanta.
The women were among dozens of riders set to compete at the invitational. According to the event organizers, approximately 1,500 spectators came to watch. In between rides the fans danced to the sounds of hip-hop and zydeco.
The three women all competed in lady steer undecorating, an event that requires competitors to chase down a steer to remove a ribbon from its body. The rider with the fastest time wins. Bryant won first place, with a time of 2 minutes, 14 seconds. Adair came in fifth and Bennett in sixth.
“Cowboy and cowgirl culture is really popular right now,” Bryant said, after black riders having gone unnoticed for so long. “We’re all getting more recognition now.”
Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.