Beyond the familiar scenes of Washington Park in the summer, recently visitors to the South Side green space encountered a rarer sight: beautiful russet quarter horses tethered to trees or gently trotting around the park’s perimeter in twos and threes.
Last Saturday was the 28th annual gathering of the Broken Arrow Riding Club, known as the High Noon Horse Ride. The industrious owners of about 100 horses gathered near the park's northern end, mucking out box stalls as soul music played over the speakers, the smell of barbecue masking the slightly less fragrant scent of manure.
Though some have attended the ride for nearly three decades, this year's is the first after the city's last public stable in Old Town was demolished to make way for an apartment building this spring. But despite their horses being forced out to the suburbs or country, the cowboys return annually—“a show of force,” as one rider puts it.
Its founder and president—who, enigmatically, goes by Murdock, the Man with No First Name—says that he’s been urging the city for years to build a stable near Washington Park that can become a venue for competitions and classes. “It’s not quite the same as basketball courts, which you can build anywhere. But the people that are interested can come,” he says, adding that like other sports, it could give young people something to do to keep out of trouble.
Ideally, around noon—in reality, it’s usually an hour or two later—the cowboys begin to ride en masse along the park’s bridle paths. Murdock explains the route: south through Washington Park to the Midway Plaisance, then east to Jackson Park and the 57th Street underpass, which will take the riders onto the Lake Shore Drive trail. The gravel paths have existed as long as the parks themselves, and make up perhaps the most extensive horse-riding venue in the city: a 1937 Chicago Recreation Survey counts 7.5 miles worth of path between the two parks, about half the total length of horse paths in Chicago at the time.
The riders last weekend are familiar with that history. Ron Cousins, a 78-year-old, now-retired horse trainer who estimates that he’s been riding horses since he was six or seven, recalls the segregated stable system that used to exist: the black stable on the north end of the park, and the white stable 10 blocks to the south.
“Washington Park used to be a big horse park, where you could ride around or rent buggies,” says Jerry Harris, a member of a loosely affiliated group of riders who call themselves the Red Shirts. “But now they’ve taken out some of the trails around [the] Midway. So we come back every year, just to stake our claim.”
Regular participants arrive dressed in full regalia: straw hats (the more familiar felt Stetsons are too warm for the summer), Wranglers held up by tooled-leather belts, and cowboy boots. They are deeply devoted to their animals. “For us, the horse comes first. My horse eats before I do,” says Harris.
Despite its rich horse-riding past, Chicago cowboys (at least the ones who aren't Chicago police officers) now must keep their horses outside city limits. Murdock houses Calypso and Django, his two painted horses, in Steger, near the Indiana border, and a group of the other riders board their animals in nearby Sauk Village. It's a long trip for many riders who, like Murdock, live in the city.
At the moment there’s little political momentum for the Washington Park stable proposal; Murdock says he was briefly in touch with members of the second Daley administration, but he hasn’t made much progress since then. The South Shore resident plans to renew his efforts this year, already collecting a couple hundred signatures on a petition (he hopes to get to 4,000).
Most of the attendees are devoted hobbyists—tellingly, Harris notes that “everyone here probably knows every word to Tombstone”—but there are some, like Cousins, who make their living around livestock. There are others who hope to: 23-year-old Aaron Baxter is an aspiring bullrider. His mother, Sharon Baxter, says she started taking him to the High Noon picnic when he was four, after they saw some mounted police near the South Shore Cultural Center. “He saw the horses and he said, ‘Look, tall dogs!’ I decided I couldn’t have a dumb baby, so I started educating him. Bought him flashcards, started reading books, took him to the picnic,” she explains.
Baxter, who still rides horses and mounted one Saturday on behalf of a friend who is too old to ride, has taken easily to bull riding. “When you accomplish turning a bull into a rocking chair, there’s nothing better. Riding a bull really can be poetic,” he says. That’s not to say he hasn’t suffered his fair share of injuries: once, he broke his toe after he tethered himself to his bull with a "suicide wrap," which makes it harder for the rider let go.
Indeed, given the opportunity, most riders will cheerfully recite a litany of the injuries accrued while in the saddle. “I’ve broken both legs, an arm, and some of my ribs,” says Cousins, adding, “Horse riding is the ultimate thrill for a crazy person.” Murdock’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Naailah, recounts how she fractured her left arm during her first rodeo. Remembering the injuries functions as proof of perseverance, evidence of a connection to the hardscrabble cowboy ethic. “If you want to get back on the horse after falling off,” says Harris, “That’s what makes you a rider.”
Even if Murdock doesn't succeed in returning a stable to the city, the riders in attendance appreciate him for the annual opportunity to get together, share some food, and ride to Lake Michigan. When he gets on the loudspeaker to tell everyone who hasn’t paid the registration fee to “get off their high horse” (thankfully, one of very few horse-related puns overheard on Saturday), Harris expresses his gratitude to me: "Insurance, safety—it’s a challenge organizing this. It’s worth paying for it. It’s a beautiful day.”