Ahesahmahk Dahn is a Black horseman; he has been for decades. Perceptions of cowboy culture were long shaped by Hollywood depictions of White men on horseback, yet Dahn is part of a tradition that goes back centuries. To keep that tradition alive, he teaches Black children about horseback riding and the contributions Black riders have made to history.
Dahn, now 76, remembers being a kid in South Carolina, where his uncles were sharecroppers. He rode mules to visit his cousins. Around age 10 he moved to Baltimore and later got involved with horses at a Black-owned country club. After a career in public schools, the military, the corporate world and the nonprofit sector, he founded City Ranch outside Baltimore, which for 15 years has provided mostly Black young people with riding lessons and taught the basics of equine care.
“There was a time when the children of the North went back to the South to spend summer with their relatives and to learn about the outdoors,” says Dahn, referring to the aftermath of the Great Migration, in which 6 million Black people fled the South for the urban North and West during the 20th century.
And some learned about handling horses. At City Ranch, Dahn tells students about Black cowboys, something they typically have not covered in school. Many Black people worked with horses and other livestock during slavery, and after Emancipation those skills allowed them to find employment as ranch hands and cowboys. Some became Buffalo Soldiers, working as part of the military and as National Park Service rangers. Historians estimate that 1 in 4 cowboys in this country in the 19th century was Black.
In westerns, however, there was little inclusivity: Few of the cowboys seen on TV and in movies were Black. And during the years of legal segregation in America, Black cowboys faced the same discrimination as other Black people, including being denied lodging or other services as they traveled for work and facing the threat of lynching. Some say that the term “cowboy” (as opposed to “cowhand”) is a specific reference to slavery and segregation, when White men commonly referred to Black men pejoratively as “boy.” (Dahn doesn’t use “cowboy” himself because he sees it as a term that Whites applied to African people who worked with livestock.)
Dahn says it’s important to teach this history to future generations. “When things mean something to me, I tear up,” Dahn told me about sharing these stories. “There is a warm reception from the children. They quiet down, and now you can tell them something because they’re quiet. They’ve seen a man cry.”
Teachers have reported that, after joining the City Ranch program, their students show higher academic achievement and lower truancy, Dahn says. The program aims to instill a variety of life skills through working with horses, including critical thinking, collaboration, leadership and self-control.
“It’s not just about the subject matter, or the hands-on experience in a particular project. It’s all the other skills that come with that process,” says Nia Imani Fields, assistant director of the University of Maryland Extension and a Maryland 4-H program leader. (4-H is the nation’s largest youth-development organization.) Fields is loosely connected to City Ranch through 4-H; the two groups have an informal partnership. She says she has seen young Black 4-H participants develop skills like public speaking by being involved in horse-judging classes and competitive events. There are emotional benefits as well. “Folks gravitate to [riding] as a form of mental well-being and self-care,” she notes.
Morgan Piper, 13, and her sister Mariah Piper, 11, got involved with City Ranch when their parents found a Groupon online for horseback riding. They simply thought it would be a fun summer activity, but their interest deepened from there, and later they joined Maryland 4-H as well.
Morgan is drawn to veterinary science and polo, and Mariah wants to do show jumping. “It’s so fun. It’s every girl’s dream to ride horses,” Mariah says. There’s no history of horseback riding in the Piper family. City Ranch introduced Morgan and Mariah to the history of Black cowboys. They also learned that in the larger world of horses, Black riders are in the minority and may face obstacles to inclusion.
“We can really achieve things when we set our minds to it,” says Morgan, referring to what she learned at City Ranch. “We just have to have a positive attitude and be around the right people to set you on track.”
Brittaney Logan gave her son this kind of exposure to horses at a young age. Logan is an original member of the Maryland-based rodeo team Cowgirls of Color; in rodeos she formerly focused on relay racing and barrel racing but now specializes in mounted shooting. She was introduced to horseback riding around 2007 by a Black colleague (nicknamed Bronc) who came to their Verizon call-center office every day in boots, a large belt buckle and a cowboy hat. Bronc was indeed a bronco rider, and he started coming to birthday parties for Logan’s son, which turned into pony parties.
Logan and her son now attend trail rides together along the East Coast. She’s also spoken to Black children about the history of Black cowboys — her favorite figure being Jesse Stahl, who in the early 20th century was famously under-ranked in his impressive rodeo performances because he was Black.
Today, in the culture at large, Black riders are gaining greater visibility. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, images of Black protesters on horseback — including the Compton Cowboys, Houston’s Nonstop Riders and the Bay Area’s Urban Cowgirl Ranch — went viral.
For organizations like City Ranch, meanwhile, the goal isn’t necessarily to turn out professional riders. It’s simply to give young people a chance to understand and enjoy this tradition. That can mean riding horses, but it can also mean just coming to observe and connect with nature. “Outdoors is where I’m comfortable,” says Dahn. “I come home to rest for a minute, then go back out and enjoy the world.”
Earlier this year, Morgan and Mariah Piper represented both City Ranch and 4-H at a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Annapolis. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Mariah says. “I’ve always watched parades and [thought], ‘I wish I was that person riding that horse.’ And that day, I was that person riding the horse.”
Sarah Enelow-Snyder is a writer from Texas, based in New Jersey. She has an essay in the anthology “Horse Girls” from Harper Perennial.