I shot this on a trail ride with the Delta Hill Riders in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The gentleman in the foreground, Joe Wrenn, organises this group ride every fall in the hilly terrain to the north of the Mississippi delta. I’ve been going for a few years.
Trail rides are universal in the American cowboy tradition. In other states you might find thousands of people on a single ride. Here there were about 100 people, many riding, and others, who you can’t see in the photo, on dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
Most of the delta region is completely flat. Up here, though, are rolling hills, which is where the group gets its name. The ride wasn’t following a trail – part of it was along an old logging road. We had all stopped for a break. People were relaxing, playing music and then, when we started back out, Joe drove the truck up alongside these three horses. I shot I don’t know how many frames. I remember feeling so excited at getting both Joe and the kids on their horses silhouetted against that beautiful, late-afternoon sun bursting through. That is Joe’s grandson on the first horse.
Elsewhere, I have photographed a great-grandmother who had just turned 92 – her husband, now deceased, was one of the first cowboys to start organising these rides in the delta. And I’ve photographed little kids, maybe four or five, riding around a horse show.
The riders go to the R&B clubs dressed as cowboys and the DJ plays cowboy songs and zydeco music
Being a Delta Hill Rider is like being a member of a biker club. They have been riding horses for generations, and they take great pride in passing down the skills – riding, grooming, competing – from one generation to the next. The riders go to R&B clubs dressed as cowboys and the DJ will play cowboy songs and zydeco music.
My interest started by chance, in December 2016, when I was working as staff photographer at the university in Cleveland, Mississippi. I stumbled across a small group of riders during the annual parade and asked one of the riders if I could come and photograph where they keep their horses. He was excited that somebody was taking an interest. He invited me to a Black Heritage rodeo, which was happening the following month.
To begin with, I had very minimal knowledge of the deep history of black cowboys. Right after the civil war, more than a quarter of cowboys in the country were African American. But I think even people who have lived in the delta their whole life might not know about this. Mississippi is not really thought of as a cowboy state in the way that Texas or Oklahoma are. Beyond that, though, the story told of what the American cowboy is has been so white – it’s John Wayne, the stoic white man. I know from oral-history interviews I’ve started doing with [black] riders that this is frustrating for them. Theirs is a part of history that has been overlooked.
Meeting the Delta Hill Riders has been life-changing. I grew up in Maine, in a place that was not diverse. This was the first time in my life that I developed a deep connection with the African American community. I am really grateful for that. I feel like, if people made the time to get to know neighbours who were different from them, it would relieve a lot of the tension and divisive thinking that we have.
Rory Doyle’s CV
Born: Maine, 1983.
Trained: Journalism at St Michael’s College, Vermont.
High point: “The excitement of getting my first magazine assignment. It was a huge honour to have someone believe in my artistic approach.”
Low point: “I struggled to find an enjoyable career right out of university, and photojournalism helped me get out of that rut.”
Top tip: “Never feel as if you’re done learning.”