The Mississippi Horse Trainer Reviving Black Cowboy Culture

Black cowboys, though once commonplace, have been largely written out of history. One Mississippi horse trainer has spend his life trying to revive the Delta tradition.
Black cowboys, though once commonplace, have been largely written out of history. One Mississippi horse trainer has spend his life trying to revive the Delta tradition.Rory Doyle

ON A FARM outside Tillatoba, Mississippi, Joe Wrenn is barefoot and shoeing a horse. Sweating in the summer heat, the 59-year-old cowboy uses a pick to remove dirt and manure from a hoof. “My grandfather taught me everything I know about horses,” says Wrenn, who’s sporting a belt buckle that bears the words “All Around Cowboy.” “My mama said he picked me up and carried me around on a horse when I was just a few days old.”

In the nearly six decades since, Wrenn has become something of a legend here in the Delta for his affinity for the animals. From 1860 to 1880, a quarter of all cowboys were black—though you wouldn’t know it from watching spaghetti Westerns. For decades, Wrenn has worked to correct this misconception. An informal leader of a network of black cowboys called the Delta Hill Riders, he has trained some 600 horses for other black riders, in exchange for minimal pay. In doing so, he has played a critical role in reviving the region’s black cowboy culture. In the ’80s, he and friends organized the first trail rides for local black cowboys, and their outings now draw scores of riders from across Mississippi and beyond.

Wrenn (far right) and a group of Hill Riders hit the trail, as kids keep pace with four- wheelers.
Wrenn (far right) and a group of Hill Riders hit the trail, as kids keep pace with four- wheelers. Rory Doyle

“Hands down, Joe has been one of the most influential cowboys in Mississippi,” Aubrey Smith, a longtime Delta Hill Rider, tells me later. “He’s taught so many kids how to ride and take care of their animals.”

Today, like most days, Wrenn chose to work barefoot. He was born and raised on this five-acre farm, and he likes to feel the earth beneath his feet. The property is part of the same tract that his parents worked as sharecroppers, and where his great-grandfather trained horses when the land was still part of a slave plantation. In the 1970s, the Wrenn family inherited the plot from the original white owners, and Wrenn’s eight siblings still live within shouting distance. “This land is my family’s history,” he says. “It went from sharecropper land to a sweet, loving community.”

Wrenn and his wife at Club Black Castle, in Ruleville, Mississippi
Wrenn and his wife at Club Black Castle, in Ruleville, Mississippi Rory Doyle

To support himself, Wrenn runs cattle and works odd jobs; other Hill Riders make their livings as grocery-store clerks, factory workers, and Walmart employees. To them, the term cowboy is more about tradition than occupation. The Hill Riders now number a few hundred strong, and many of them were first exposed to horses on the trail rides that Wrenn still helps to coordinate. On one recently, a dozen riders struck out from Wrenn’s farm, as he towed children with a tractor. “I’m trying to teach these kids about their country roots,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand that black cowboys did a lot of the jobs that the white landowners didn’t want to do. It’s sad that our stories haven’t been shared, but that doesn’t stop me from being a cowboy.”

Over the years, Wrenn has endured his share of racism in the Delta. When he was a child, the local doctor wouldn’t treat black patients on the same floor as white ones. Horses afforded Wrenn community and an escape from such injustices. Along with the weekly rides, nearly every weekend for the past 20 years, Wrenn and some of the Hill Riders have gathered at local clubs for “Cowboy Night.” As a DJ blasts R&B, soul, and Western hits, Wrenn moves freely across the dance floor. The other riders call him the Dancing Cowboy. “He’s a real-deal cowboy,” says Jessie Brown, another rider. “But he doesn’t have an ounce of rhythm.”

Wrenn, in addition to his notoriety as a horse trainer, has gained a following for his paintings of horses and farm scenes, which he began exhibiting in the 1990s.
Rory Doyle

On another day at the farm, Wrenn is in a fenced-in pasture, working with Bree, his 12-year-old granddaughter. Wrenn stays by her side as she rides a young colt, getting a feel for the reins. Though black cowboys are still overlooked, Wrenn hopes the upcoming generation of riders can change that. All the same, he’d always dreamed of spending his life on his family farm, “and the way it is now, my dream came true,” he says. “You can’t ask for anything more than that.” ♦

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