A Horse Tale from the Louisiana Prairie

A Horse Tale from the Louisiana Prairie

By Conni Castille

Most everyone is familiar with the ubiquitous guiding principle associated in the business industry: location, location, location. However, the catchphrase is equally relevant in the business of filmmaking; the setting of a movie has the power to tell most of the story. Setting can create emotion and deliver information, whether it’s the mysteries and secrets suggested by a dark forest or the psychological state of a character told by the contents of their private space. In Western Genre films, arid, wide-open spaces are a recurring backdrop that playa a leading role. Not only does the main character in a Western have Indians, outlaws, and prostitutes to contend with, they also have to overcome the environment itself. In a Western plot, civilization is pitted against wilderness: the untamed land must be conquered. The best-known Director of the genre, John Ford, made famous the land straddling Utah and Arizona: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Placing his cowboy in the middle of this vast empty space made his cowboy appear both insignificant and vulnerable. Debuting in Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach, the Valley is the focal point in nine more of his films.

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Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org)

For seventy-five years, Hollywood’s romantic image of the American Cowboy is branded in the minds of most Americans as John Wayne, tumbleweed, and dust.

For Creoles and Cajuns of South Louisiana, who historically have kept one boot in America and the other boot in their isolated marshes and prairies, a different image is held in their mind. Indeed, their conception of the cowboy predates that of what Hollywood depicts. If Monument Valley is “where the West was filmed”, then South Louisiana is “where the Cowboy was born”.

History

Ranching in southwest Louisiana dates back more than 250 years, pre-dating the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the arrival of the Acadians (1765). Southwest Louisiana’s geography of prairie lands and marshes is where the American cattle industry and the cowboy were conceived. If Louisiana is shaped as a boot, a cowboy boot, a “vast meadow” of prairie grass extended from her westerly heel, upward to mid-calf and across her arch to the Atchafalaya Basin in the 1700s. This Attakapas-Opelousas territory, as it was known, offered liberal grazing grounds for cattle: the purchase of feed unnecessary. Drivers today that pass through Mamou, Opelousas or Elton will see subdivisions and agricultural fields. It’s hard to imagine what the landscape originally looked like. But, so striking was the prairie, and the thousands of cattle that grazed it, that in 1805 it caught the eye of surveyor William Darby as he mapped out, at the request of Thomas Jefferson, this new acquisition to America – the Louisiana Territory. Of the spectacle Darby wrote:

Viewing a map of Opelousas and Attakapas, the most remarkable features in their geography are those prairies. Here you behold those vast herds of cattle which afford subsistence to the natives, and the inhabitants of the city of New Orleans.

It is certainly one of the most agreeable views in nature, to behold from a point of elevation, thousands of horses and cows, of all sizes, scattered over the interminable mead, intermingled in wild confusion.

The mind feels a glow of corresponding innocent enjoyment, with those useful and inoffensive animals grazing in a sea of plenty… it is no extravagant declaration to call this, one of the meadows of America.

 On this “vast meadow of America”, trading posts were established as early as the 1730s by Europeans who traveled from New Orleans with slaves to tend to these posts. On their return, it was the slave who was left behind to form business and personal relationships with the Native American cattle and horse traders in the region. Even before the Acadians arrive and transform the cattle industry through the Dauterive Compact, these slaves became the first vachers, or ranchers, in the territory. Oral histories, public records, and branding books identify the early ranchers as Indians, women, and gens de couleur libres, or free people of color. Together, these people formed what is called the Creole population, and are considered by most to be the birth of some of America’s first cowboys: French, Black, and Indian.

When the Acadians arrive in 1765, they were encouraged through the Dauterive Compact to pursue cattle ranching. For some, this is seen as the start of the American cattle industry. The compact specifies that:

 Mr. Dauterive promises and obliges himself to furnish five cows with calves and one bull to Acadian families…. the said Acadians have accepted purely and simply and have promised and obliged themselves to take care of said cattle.

 The prairies offered opportunities to people who had little or no land. In contrast to the plantation model, which demanded large plots of land, no land ownership was required to raise cattle. Capitalizing on the nutrition found in prairie and marsh grasses, local laws allowed the cattle to roam au large, no fences confining them. Fences were only used to keep cattle out—out of gardens. Branding took the place of fences, separating one person’s cattle from another. Every year, men on horseback herded together their cattle to bring to slaughter, brand, or sell off stock. For these people, horsemanship became a way of life.

Today, only a few ranches remain on Louisiana’s vanishing prairie. Yet, despite the passing of time, many Creole and Cajun descendants maintain a love affair with their horses. While new industries have replaced the cattle industry to some degree, the horse continues to have an important cultural function. For most, horses are a source of entertainment. This horseplay is what caught my eye growing up in Breaux Bridge, and later as a grownup and a filmmaker. Still today, it’s not uncommon to see young black men trotting through town on any given Sunday. It is as natural as going to church. As I got older, I began to see a pattern, folks—black and white, Creole and Cajun—on horses having fun. I watched men in overgrown pajamas gallop the countryside chasing chickens. I watched kids on horseback race against each other on dirt tracks. It seemed to me that horses were yet another thing that Cajuns and Creoles shared, in addition to their food, music, and French language. Since they shared a geography together, the landscape formed in them a strong connection to land and animals. Another thing they share is a deep-seeded love of play. Naturally, horses are a part of that. In my documentary T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story (2012), many horseback traditions of Southwest Louisiana take to the screen. Here are some of the people carrying on horse back traditions appearing in the documentary. 

Sulky Racing

For the Creole culture, by most accounts, one of the best cowboys was Cypriene Cezar, a free man of color who became a prominent landowner ranching many heads of cattle in Allen Parish. His descendant, Andrew Cezar of Triple C Ranch in Soileau explains, “You know, they say `cowboys and Indians’. Well, we are the cowboy, the original, and we the Indian too.”

Cezar has been involved with horses all his life, and today hosts the only buggy races in Louisiana. The races take place every other Saturday in the spring and the Fall. “If it rains, we drink beer and eat peanuts,” says Cezar. Arriving at the The Triple C Ranch on any given race day, you can’t help but notice Cezar’s grandkids and nephews, kids ranging in age from seven to sixteen, all helping prepare horses and buggies for the race. Being around horses and caring for them teaches them a lot about life.

I was a bully then he [Andrew Cezar] changed my life. He made a deal that if I get better grades he’d give me a horse. So I got my stuff together and I got my horse and I came back and I was student of the year and that was it. I kept showing him all of my grades and he said if I drop em he’d take the horse back so I kept em up ever since.

 The influence that horses can have on young kids cannot be overstated. Each of the jockeys featured in the documentary learned their riding while young boys in South Louisiana.

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Andrew Cezar at the Triple C Ranch, Soileau, Louisiana (Photo by Conni Castille)

 Cajun Jockeys

“Bush tracks, it made me,” says Calvin Borel, three-time Kentucky Derby winner. “If you can ride in the bush tracks, you can ride anywhere.” Indeed, the bush tracks, unsanctioned dirt tracks, dotted rural southwest Louisiana for over a hundred years spanning 1890 to 1990s, serving as a breeding ground for world-class jockeys. Over 70,000 professional races have been won by Cajun jockeys throughout the years. Borel’s story echoes that of many Cajun riders, including Hall of Fame riders Eddie Delahoussaye and Randy Romero. “When I first started, I was seven, eight years old,” says Borel. “We were so small, we couldn’t stop ’em. When the track ran out, we just jumped off.” The lack of stewards to govern the races, along with the inherent fearless nature of Cajuns, resulted in the making of tough riders. When I asked Borel whether or not we will see another generation of world-class riders like himself, Mark Guidry, Robby Albarado, or Kent Desormeaux, he remained optimistic despite the disappearance of bush tracks. Bush tracks are parking lots and subdivisions now. “There’s still good riders coming out of Louisiana,” says Borel.

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Calvin Borel is interviewed for the documentary. (Photo by Allison Bohl)

Mardi Gras

Although horse racing is an aspect of Louisiana’s horse culture that has harnessed the most attention, Cajun and Creole rural Mardi Gras celebrations are becoming a more well-known tradition to outsiders. Centered in the community, Mardi Gras is typically closed to outsiders. But the sheer spectacle of revelers on horse back draws audiences from beyond Louisiana. “From anyone who’s outside, looking in at the Mardi Gras, it looks like a mindless drunk. It is a drunk, but it’s not mindless. Because it is a celebration,” says Pat Patterson, a rider in the Elton Mardi Gras. On the back roads of Elton and Mamou, in and out of crawfish ponds and rice fields, riders can be found on horseback and on trailers, carrying on a pre-Christian ritual. In South Louisiana, it’s tied to the Catholic calendar, a celebration before the beginning of lent, the 40-day period of sacrifice. The procession takes about eight hours. En route, masked riders visit neighbors, teasing and begging for ingredients for the communal gumbo to follow. Most often, a chicken is released. Riders dismount to chase the bird, and to catch it if they can.

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Conni Castille (right) and Allison Bohl interviewing a Mardi Gras rider in Elton. (Photo by Kristie Cornell)

Creole Trail Rides

Another procession that takes place on rural roads in South Louisiana, but that is more publically accessible, is the Creole trail rides. An homage to the once common cattle drives, these horse lovers gather to leisurely parade their horses around the community for three or four hours. Upon their return to base camp, they are met with community spectators and live Zydeco music. On any given weekend, a trail ride can be found. These rides are the largest gatherings of le monde Creole, the Creole community. Many rides attract up to 3,000 friends, family and social riding clubs. Emblazoned on tee-shirts and horse trailer, many riders display images of their towns and horse clubs. Food, beer, Boones Farm, and music flow throughout the ride. Zydeco music is tightly associated with trail rides. Some Zydeco musicians like Geno Delafose and the late Boozoo Chavis embrace their cowboy culture and sing in their Creole French language. The site can be surprising to some. “You know, a lot of people will look at me, you know, going out of state, you don’t see too many black cowboys,” says Delafose. “Then they’ll come and hear me play. First they have a black guy wearing western clothes, playing an accordion, and then when he opens his mouth, he’s singing French.” Another image assured to draw attention is that of Cajun men dressed as knights on horseback.

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Le Tournoi

“It started in France and someone came here and said, ‘hey let’s do this here’ and naturally the horsemen from this area were game for anything,” says Kent Guillory, a long time rider of the Tournoi in Ville Platte. Tied to the Cotton Festival, seven rings dangle from seven poles, each representing an enemy of cotton: boll weevil, drought, rayon, silk, nylon, boll worm, and flood. At 35-miles-per-hour, men in knight-like clothing gallop from one ring to another, aiming their lance to the inside of the ring hoping to spear it. Time and ring counts determine the winner. Surrounding the horse-shoe shaped field are spectators, mostly families and friends of the riders. With barbecue pits smoking, they cheer on their cousins, brothers, and fathers. Once the racing is over, and the smoke and dust clears, the track returns to an empty pasture with a few light poles.

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(Photo by Kristie Cornell)

Conclusion

T-Galop is a documentary about cowboys and cowboy life in South Louisiana, a lifestyle pre-dating western settlements and Hollywood’s cowboy. A cowboy movie, set in South Louisiana with French Creole and Cajun cowboys, has yet to be made even though the genre has strayed from its formula and from Monument Valley. In the 1960s television series Star Trek, each episode began with Captain Kirk’s monologue, “space, the final frontier…” suggesting a comparison between the wild west and the Milky Way, places yet to be explored. In Star Wars, Hans Solo, played by Harrison Ford, resembles a cowboy in both dress and character: He wears a holster below his vest and walks in ships and on planets in boots. His personality is brash and reckless, embodying the cowboy mentality needed to explore unknown places. The cowboy mentality is also seen in the movie Space Cowboys to describe four retired astronauts, one played by Clint Eastwood, who return to space to save the planet. And, in the film Aliens and Cowboys, it’s cowboys who fight off aliens in Arizona in the 1840s. In many ways Cajuns and Creoles are still alien to America and to Hollywood. Few movies have tried to depict the culture, and even fewer have gotten it right. Today, reality television is making a poor attempt at depicting the Cajun. It would be nice to see other cowboys on the screen: Creoles and Cajuns riding off into the sunset through marshes and prairies speaking French.

T-Galop

Release date: 2012
Director: Conni Castille
Writer: Conni Castille
Producer: Conni Castille
Cinematographer: Brian C. Miller Richard, Allison Bohl
Editor: Misty Talley
Music Supervisor: Kristi Guillory

To purchase the DVD: http://connicastille.com/t-galop/

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