Nicholas Jackson, the 2020 Junior World Finals bull riding champion, sits in the stands with his family at the Washington International Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Md. At left is his sister, Ryan, 12. At right is his brother, Dylan, 9. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When the Super Bowl of horse shows returned to Prince George’s County after more than a 20-year absence, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks knew who her guests of honor would be: Morissa Hall, 16, and 14-year-old Nicholas “Nic” Jackson.

She singled the teens out at a news conference touting the 64th annual Washington International Horse Show at the Show Place Arena as cowboy-boot-walking proof that Prince George’s County is the rightful home for equestrian sports in the metro area.

“Let it be known that the rodeo queen, for anyone who’s curious about it, grew up in Prince George’s County,” Alsobrooks said, looking at Hall before turning to Jackson. “Let us take a look and see what a champion looks like.”

In the arenas where they have competed across the country, Hall and Jackson, who are Black, had not seen many champions who look like them.

They smiled, used to performing. Few truly understand the dedication and athleticism behind their seemingly improbable wins: Hall, Maryland High School Rodeo Association all-around cowgirl and rodeo queen, and Jackson, the 2020 Junior World Finals bull riding champion.

It has taken years of discipline and sacrifice to get here, and the support of families determined to see their children excel while breaking down any barriers.

Rodeo queen

Morissa asked her father for a horse when she was in first grade.

She initially wanted a dirt bike, but they were all too big for her at the time, she said.

Like most parents, Morse Hall III, now 50, entertained his only daughter’s request and told her it was possible — if she brought home straight A’s from school.

For seven years, she did.

“I really think that first time I achieved straight A’s, [the horse] might’ve been motivation,” she said. “After a while, I forgot about the horse. … So, it’s just a standard I hold for myself.”

Her father, however, had not forgotten about the horse. The licensed physical therapist had to find a way to fulfill his end of the bargain he made when the pair was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C.

“When you see a kid or a person excel like that for that long, it shows you their level of commitment,” he said. “I had to make it happen. I couldn’t say, ‘You’ll grow out of it.’ I was an honors student all the way through college, but I never made seven years of consecutive A’s.”

Morse took on more shifts, added extra clients and worked at a feverish pace until his nest egg grew enough to purchase a horse. It eventually dawned on him that Morissa would need a place for the horse to live. So, he began looking at properties around Prince George’s County that would be big enough for the both of them and a horse — or four.

Morse and Morissa’s mother, Terry Moriarty, 60, also had family connections to horses.

Moriarty, a nurse and clinical research nurse manager, grew up in Landover Hills with a father who had family horses in Tennessee she would sometimes visit throughout her childhood. Morse’s maternal great grandparents had workhorses on their farm, and he had relatives who used draft horses for farming, in Front Royal, Va. He also had an uncle in Prince George’s County who had a stable with a friend that held up to 20 horses, he said.

When Moriarty and Morse were together, they would often take weekend trips to Virginia to ride horses, and his family gatherings often had ponies for young children to ride, Moriarty said.

His passion would lead to multiple trips to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, a rodeo that celebrates Black cowboys and cowgirls and a strong connection to Corey Jackson, Nic Jackson’s father. The two rodeo fathers have formed a bond that has blossomed into a brotherhood in which they talk all things rodeo and marvel at the athletic heights their children have reached.

Morse eventually found an 11-acre fixer-upper, when Morissa was about 6 years old, that would serve as home for Morissa, her future horses and her rodeo dreams.

She put in the work. So much work that Alsobrooks proclaimed Oct. 24 Morissa Hall Day in honor of her accomplishments: being named Maryland High School rodeo queen for two years by the Maryland High School Rodeo Association and snatching other titles in rodeo all while remaining an honors student at Elizabeth Seton High School, a private all-girls Catholic school in Bladensburg, Md.

Morse is a self-taught rodeo instructor for Morissa who brings in outside help when he knows he has reached his level of teaching her. Her achievements give him goose bumps, he said.

Morse and Moriarty gaze upon their rodeo queen with the humble pride that can only belong to a parent.

Still, they think about how Morissa could achieve more with the advantages her competitors often have: generational wealth, access to more horses and training.

“It’s like you go to a Ferrari racecar track with a Yugo. It doesn’t matter how good of a driver you are, you still got a Yugo,” Morse said. “As her father, I want her to be competitive. I want to give her a shot. She has to have a better horse. … It’s nothing for these kids to have a $200,000 horse.”

For now, Morissa is focused on her grades, upcoming competition and where she might go to college — hopefully on a rodeo scholarship.

Fifth-generation cowboy

The costs of participating in equine sports pile up, said Robyn Jackson, Nic Jackson’s mom: Paying for riding shoes, hay for horses and places to ride them all lock children out of participating. Though local nonprofits and charities help families bypass some of those expenses, how to make more Morissa Halls and Nicholas Jacksons in Prince George’s County will not be an easy puzzle to solve, she said.

“It’s very difficult to kind of not have any connections to this life,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s very difficult … it’s very prohibitive for lots of families of color … families in general.”

Nic became interested in rodeo after watching the sport on television. At just 3 years old, he started mutton busting, or riding sheep, against other children. After aging out of the sport, it was natural for him to enter bull riding, which he described as “like a dance” because of the countermoves required to work with the bull.

“I think it’s taught me to show respect to the animals, too, because they’re out there doing their job just as well as we are,” he said.

Jackson, 41, has birthed her family’s fifth generation of cowboys and cowgirls.

In addition to Nic, her 12-year-old twin daughters, Ryan and Reagan, are making names for themselves in rodeo competitions, and 9-year-old Dylan seems to be captivated with bull riding, like Nic.

“I don’t know that these kids would be excelling as they are had I not I had a leg up, you know. My dad had a leg up,” she said. “Although I did not [do] rodeo as a child, we had the leg up at the property available. We had the know about the horses.”

Jackson’s ancestors were sharecroppers in Prince George’s County during the Reconstruction era, and her family’s history with horses began as they were tasked with caring for work mules and horses, she said.

That skill would travel across generations and leave an indelible memory with her late father — well into the civil rights era. As a young boy living on the land his family continued to work for years, he remembered a time when he wanted to ride a pony that belonged to the land owner.

The owner told her father that he would not know anything about the pony and that it was best to stick with the work mules and horses his family handled for a living, she said. That denial, she believes, spurred her father to prove that owner wrong well into his own adulthood.

Jackson’s father, Robert Harper Sr., purchased a wooded, nearly 10-acre area of land in Upper Marlboro, Md., built a home on it and brought horses he had boarded elsewhere in the county to his property, she said.

She would later find a life partner who devotes himself to learning as much as he can about horses as her father had.

Corey Jackson, 46, a Winston-Salem, N.C., native, fell in love with horses by watching Saturday morning “shoot’em-ups,” or westerns, with his grandfather. As a child, whenever there was a rodeo that came to town, he made sure he was there.

Jackson displayed some impressive tricks with his horse at the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, where they first met, despite not growing up with horses, Robyn said.

A few months passed without seeing one another until they attended a Western cabaret where she was decked out in full Western attire.

“At that moment, it was on,” Corey Jackson said. She was the one.

The marriage would yield a life with five children, eight horses, six bulls and a full rodeo arena in the backyard where four of the children sharpen their rodeo talents when they are not being home-schooled.

On a typical day, Nic finishes his schoolwork around 3 p.m. before heading out to “buck the dummy” or ride a dummy bull that simulates riding. He’ll then get one of his bulls to get real-life experience.

Though he is aware that he hails from a long line of cowboys, Black cowboys at that, he does not much think about being different from others when he travels at least 11 months out of the year to compete.

“There’s usually a small group of [Black kids]. We all see each other at most of the bigger rodeos we go to,” he said, noting that he never focused on the quantity. “I never thought of it that way.”

College is still some years off for Nic, so he is just enjoying the dancing feeling of bull riding.

More opportunities?

The Jacksons and the Halls note they often travel out of state, adding to the costs of the sport, because there simply are not enough local high school rodeo competitions in the area.

One of Morissa’s goals is to expand exposure to the sport and to increase the number of people in Maryland who compete.

“When you go to all these big shows, a lot of people don’t know what Maryland is or where it is,” she said giggling at having to explain the state’s proximity to the White House.

Morissa recently asked Alsobrooks at the ceremony where she was honored how the county could aid in increasing exposure to rodeo and help grow the Maryland High School Rodeo Association, which is one of the smallest high school chapters in the country, and host more rodeos in the area, reducing the need for rodeo competitors to travel out of state.

It appears Alsobrooks has been mulling over Morissa’s question.

“In addition to hosting world class competitions like the Washington International Horse Show, we will certainly be seeking ways to identify funding for improvements and other needs that will allow us to host rodeo competitions right here at home,” Alsobrooks said in a statement.