This summer I had the opportunity to follow a trail ride in Louisiana. Being a native-born Washingtonian who’s only lived in the South for a little more than a year, the experience was one of the most uniquely Southern things I’ve ever done.
I pitched this story to the editor of Country Roads Magazine earlier this fall and had my piece published, alongside the images of a local photographer who has also been documenting the trail riders, Jeremiah Ariaz.
There is so much to say about the trail riders, especially from my own personal perspective, but alas, there is only so much room to write in a magazine. My piece details the history and culture of the trail ride, how it has modernized over time, and how it is, at its core, a family tradition.
Traveling in the dead of July in South Louisiana (easily 110 fahrenheit or higher), I rode in between convoy of horses, golf carts and pickups, taking photos and chatting up some of the riders. The thing that got me about the event was how paternal the tradition was. As I saw fathers, young and old, riding alongside their sons, I was reminded me of going to “fish camp” with my dad back in Washington state.
Although fish camp was a world apart from the trail ride, they both bridged the gap between two generations. Fathers shared a beer with their sons, told dirty jokes and bonded over manly things, be it a fish or a horse.
Being one of about three white guys at the trail ride, I was thankful how easily people accepted me. In fact, this was something I was anxious about before I left my apartment in Baton Rouge that morning. Of course, my anxiety was proven utterly pointless.
I barely had to tell people my name before I was invited to go on another trail ride. Everyone wanted to be in my photos and most were eager to tell me where they were from, what riding clubs they were with and how long they’ve been at it.
I like to think I’ve been around a little bit in my time; that I know how different people are. I get the whole “Southern hospitality” thing, but I did not fully understand it until I took that trip in the cane this summer.
My story and some of my own photos are below:
Cane & Dust: The tradition of horse-riding clubs within le monde creole
“When you take care of your horse, it will treat you right,” Joe Andrews said, a lesson he shared with his son, Arsenio. “You can tell which riders don’
t take care of their horses when you get out there on the trail.”
The trail Andrews refers to is a dusty, mostly unpaved road that winds through seas of sugar cane fields in Torbert, Louisiana, a small farming community in unincorporated Pointe Coupee Parish just a few miles east of Livonia. Throughout the year, Joe and Arsenio travel across Louisiana to join trail rides down similar roads—each one hosted by multiple horse-riding clubs—alongside hundreds, sometim
es thousands, of other riders.
The trail in Torbert that Joe and Arsenio were about to travel was hosted by “Lock & Load,” a horse-riding club based out of Brusly, Louisiana, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River. It is one of many rides that take place every weekend. Hundreds of riders convened at the trailhead, taking cover under whatever shade was available on that sweltering Sunday in late July. Father and son fed and groomed their horses before saddling them and hopping on for the ride, which began three hours behind schedule once riders and logistics were eventually coordinated.
Leading the pack was a roofless school bus filled with young children and booming, bouncy zydeco tunes that could be heard a mile away. A rented porta-potty was strapped to its back end. Scattered among the bus and the unorganized clutches of horses were small pickup trucks, four-wheelers, and golf carts, some filled with ice cold beer and water bottles tossed up and down the mile-long line of thirsty travelers, from cart to cart and horse to horse.
Trotting through the hot dust of the trail and the shade of the sugar cane, the riders inhabit a world where trail rides are no longer borne of economic necessity; but the gatherings are also more than just a party. For riders such as the Andrews, both members of the “Wealthy and Rogue” riding club in Opelousas, the trail is a place where values are instilled, memori
es built, and wisdom extended to future generations.
Joe and Arsenio, separated by a generation, are at the forefront of a long line of riders dating back nearly three hundred years, when the trail ride was less about having fun and more of a routine job. The trail rides are part of a continuing legacy of horsemanship that began in the vast swathes of South Louisiana’s grasslands during the eighteenth century among les gens de couleur libres or “the free people of color,” according to Conni Castille, the producer of T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story, a documentary that details Louisiana’s equine culture. As far back as the 1730s, these early riders traveled on horseback under the supervision of their white owners, from New Orleans to trading posts in Opelousas and Attakapas (present day St. Martinville) to assist with purchasing cattle. Rather than travel back to the city, these early trail riders were given partial autonomy, leaving them in this wilderness to look after their herds of livestock and to establish permanent relations with the area’s Native Americans and cattle traders. This semi-autonomy, along with the mixture of African, Native American, and European cultures, formed the genesis of Louisiana’s Creole community, or le monde creole. Despite its origins in involuntary servitude, most participants today will say that trail rides are all about tradition, a source of community-building and a tap into a deep well of cultural heritage that draw horses and riders down Louisiana’s country roads for weekends filled with home cooking, zydeco music, and family.
There is no telling how many riding clubs exist in Louisiana. In the Baton Rouge area alone, there are anywhere between fifty and two hundred depending on who you talk to. Some of the larger clubs with big budgets boast dozens of members and broadcast their annual trail rides with big zydeco headliners like Lil Nate or Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band. Some of the smaller clubs, comprising only a handful of members, have no official listing, just a club T-shirt and a few horses.
Mike Pete, in attendance at the “Lock & Load” ride, recalled his grandfather’s stories about rides into the headlands and through the sugar cane fields. Back then, they used to camp out, cook, and race horses on the “bush tracks,” Pete said. “That’s how they all kicked it off years ago.”
That was back when trail riding really began to take more of a social shape, explained Pete, also the club president of the “Crazy Hat Riders” in Lafayette. It wasn’t long after when the horse clubs began turning trail rides into weekend-long festivals, he said. Nowadays, you don’t have to own a horse or even live in the country to enjoy the trail ride. In his forty years of trail riding, Pete has helped numerous riders purchase and care for horses. The inclusiveness is a good thing, he said, though there is some distinction to make between the weekend trail riders and those maintaining the stables.
Every day, Pete heads out to his barn in Breaux Bridge. His horses are fed twice a day (in the morning and at night), washed and groomed two-to-three times a week, and wormed about every two months. “If I go to the barn and I can saddle a horse and ride, it’s like me and my horse become one. I relieve a lot of tension when I’m at the barn,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t ride. Sometimes I just go to the barn and groom the horses and play with them.”
When he can’t make it to the barn, his boys, fourth-generation trail riders—ages 10, 13, and 14—take his place. “The culture is still there. I love the way my sons like it,” Pete said.
After a couple of hours of sweating it out on the trail, the riders in Torbert flip the bus around and trot back to base camp. The smell of cracklins and jambalaya and the sound of live zydeco greets them. The final day of the trail ride is nothing less than a feast filled with live music and dancing. “You gonna meet some nice people; you gonna meet some wild people. They could just first meet you and they gonna act like they been knowing you,” Pete said. “I never meet a stranger.”
The article on Country Roads Magazine can be found here.