man riding horse at rodeo

The Legacy of Bill Pickett & the History of the Black Cowboy

Black Cowboys have inspired much of what we have come to know about cowboy and Western culture today.

Black Cowboys have inspired much of what we have come to know about cowboy and Western culture today. Nat Love, better known as “Deadwood Dick,” was an expert marksman who served as the inspiration for many of the cowboys on TV and in media. Bass Reeves, a U.S. Marshall, was the real-life Lone Ranger, and Johanna July, a Black cowgirl with a gift for taming wild horses, was hired to do so by the U.S. Army.


historical picture of bill picket

Perhaps one of the most famous Black cowboys was Bill Pickett. A Texas native, Bill Pickett was born in 1870 and grew up working cattle on his family’s small farm. He is credited with inventing “bulldogging,” which is better known today as the popular rodeo event, steer wrestling. Like many rodeo events (including breakaway roping), bulldogging was born from working the ranch and watching cattle dogs round up the herd. Bill Pickett practiced bulldogging on his farm and eventually began demonstrating his skills at fairs and rodeos around the country. Bill and the event, which was later renamed steer wrestling, quickly gained notoriety, leaving a lasting legacy within the sport of rodeo.

woman riding rodeo horse
Photo courtesy of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo

Today, the spirit of Bill Pickett and the Black cowboy lives on through the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR).Founded in 1984 by Lu Vason, the BPIR is the only touring rodeo that pays homage to Black cowboy culture and the contributions of the Black cowboy to the American West. As with many rodeos, the BPIR features events like bull riding, barrel racing, and, of course, steer wrestling (the modern-day bulldogging). However, it also seeks to educate attendees and the country about Black cowboys in Western history and incorporates distinct cultural ideologies, including flying the original Pan-African flag, now known as the African American flag, in addition to the American flag, and opening the rodeo with the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“The Bill Pickett Rodeo was a great start for a guy like myself coming from the inner city with no rodeo experience at 19 years old. I wanted to get a feel for how my abilities stacked up against some tough competition. Then BPIR and college rodeo gave me the confidence to step out on a limb, get my PRCA card and go for it.” – Ariat Athlete Tre Hosley, Professional Bareback Rider

man riding rodeo horse
Photo courtesy of Dan Lesovsky

When Lu first founded the Bill Pickett Rodeo, the stands were empty. But Lu knew that if he could just get people to the rodeo, they would begin to understand its significance. Coming from the entertainment industry, Lu recruited some of Hollywood's best known Black celebrities to take part in the event. Over the rodeo’s last three decades of operation, celebrities including Gladys Knight, Chris Tucker, Jamie Foxx, and Jeffery Osbourne, have all participated in opening the rodeo and contributed to the now packed stands at the event each year.

“Camaraderie. That is the essence of the Bill Pickett Rodeo. We are all part of this family and it is what has kept nearly four generations of people coming together over the last 37 years. This is an incredibly special event, not just for our athletes, but for their families and the entire community. At our rodeos, you’ll see grandfathers, fathers, and sons all competing at various levels. They share the stories of competition past and pass on traditions that keep this heritage alive.” – Valeria Howard Cunningham, CEO/President of the BPIR
woman wearing cowboy hat
Photo courtesy of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo

The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo is now run by Valeria Howard Cunningham, the first Black woman to run a major rodeo. After her husband passed away, Valeria took over for Lu and, under her guidance, the rodeo has continued to flourish. This year would have been the rodeo’s 37th year in existence, and although the pandemic has continued to delay the return of the rodeo tour, it hasn’t hindered the spirit of the rodeo and the work of Valeria and her team to continue to honor the Black cowboy. Valeria has big plans for the BPIR, including working towards bringing the rodeo to prime time television and sharing this important history with audiences across the country.

Ariat is a proud sponsor of the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, and we strongly believe in the importance of supporting our vast community of hardworking and diverse individuals as members of the Ariat family. Together with the BPIR, organizations like the Compton Cowboys and Brianna Noble’s non-profit, Humble, are keeping traditions of Black cowboys alive, ensuring that future generations know of and have the opportunity to celebrate their heritage as a foundation of the American West.

man with bull and rodeo horse
Photo courtesy of Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo

Black cowboys played a crucial role in history and we’re beginning to see this depicted in mainstream media – later this year, Netflix will release Concrete Cowboy starring Idris Alba. There remains more opportunity to tell the varied stories of Black cowboys and properly recognize these cowboys and cowgirls for their contributions to our country.

“Representation matters. As a child, when you see another rider of color and know the importance that rider has played in the history of your country, it's inspiring. Telling these stories and continuing to hold events like the Bill Pickett Rodeo allows riders – new and old – to share their experiences and keep the traditions of the Black cowboy alive for generations to come.” – Brianna Noble, founder of Mulatto Meadows and Humble
Related Articles
Related Articles
Related Articles
“So They Say” Episode 4: Special Guest Randy Savvy
In Episode 4, we are pleased to welcome Randy Savvy of the Compton Cowboys. Join us as we talk community, legacy, and sharing the tradition of horsemanship with future generations.
Read More
Brianna Noble with two horses
Ariat Ambassador Brianna Noble
Welcome, Brianna Noble, to the Ariat Family! The lifelong equestrian and founder of non-profit, Humble, is on a mission to make horseback riding accessible to all.
Read More