Photo by Gwen Aucoin
Horsing around the western prairies.
“There were these black cowboys from Louisiana…” sounds like the beginning to a joke you’d rather not hear the end of. Cowboys look like John Wayne, give or take a squint, and exist in that dusty, generalized hinterland known as “out West.” The few words they spit out, like broken teeth after a bar fight, are twangy English, not French. This is what we think we know about cowboys; but it’s far from the whole story, as folklorist Conni Castille reveals in T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story, her award-winning documentary about horse culture in South Louisiana.
Released in 2012, T-Galop is Castille’s fourth documentary about the people and folkways of South Louisiana; the University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor has previously investigated ironing as a medium for the transmission of women’s culture (I Always Do My Collars First), plate lunch houses (Raised on Rice and Gravy), and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival (King Crawfish). As a girl in Breaux Bridge, Castille watched Creole cowboys ride through town on Sundays; and these sights, remembered in adulthood, formed the seed of T-Galop.
The subtitle is A Louisiana Horse Story, but the horse saga of Louisiana is made of smaller, intertwined horse stories—Creoles and Cajuns, work and play, history, tradition, and memory. Castille gently unlaces these strands so we can see the individual tales: Creole cowboys working horses to a zydeco beat; small-town Cajuns keeping medieval traditions alive; revelers celebrating courir de Mardi Gras from a saddle; and Louisiana jockeys snagging purse after purse on the racing circuit, including at their own Evangeline Downs in Lafayette. Throughout it all, we come to know a bunch of people having a great time celebrating their heritage and their horses.
It’s easy to forget, but Louisiana used to be the western frontier; as late as the Civil War, the struggle for control of the Mississippi and its tributaries and cities was known as the Western Theater. When today’s Louisiana was just the relatively accessible tip of the sprawling French empire in North America, French colonists and traders salivated at the potential richness of the plains just inland from the coastal swamps and bayous: the flat, green land was perfect for raising cattle and horses, and by the 1730s, south-central and southwestern Louisiana were dotted with trading stations to facilitate the exchange of horses and cattle between the French and Native Americans.
Anxious to profit but reluctant to abandon either the trade prospects or the comforts of cities, the French left their slaves behind at these outposts to negotiate with the Native American traders, beginning a tradition of African-American horsemanship in Louisiana. The prairies of the Attakapas and Opelousas districts, covering most of South Louisiana west of the Atchafalaya, afforded grand opportunities to those who would take them, and the early records of ranchers in the area list the unsurprising settlement of Frenchmen, but also women, Native Americans, and free people of color—the ingredients of the Creole world that would soon arise. In the words of Creole cowboy Andrew Cezar, “You know, they say ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ Well, we the first cowboy, and the Indian too.”
These cowboy-Indians have persisted until the present day, still raising and riding horses in the flatlands of Louisiana. At a time when many local cultures seem to be on the ropes, pummeled by the demands of a changing world, this multiracial horseman identity still thrives. One of the best interviews in the documentary features a group of boys, aged between seven and twelve, talking about the Native American tribes from which they descend as well as how they’re learning to ride, drive, and care for horses—except for the youngest, who has to make do with a donkey until he grows a little.
When asked what she wanted viewers to take away from T-Galop, Castille replied that she wanted to show how the Cajuns and Creoles of South Louisiana had incorporated the horses on which they relied for a living into their culture and play. This admirable spirit of fun, so admired and envied by outsiders, is everywhere in T-Galop. The Creole vacheurs and their families regularly participate in trail rides, rowdy festivals where people gather to visit, eat, listen to zydeco music, and celebrate their horses. At many trail rides, riders will compete in trap races, in which a horse pulls a rider along on a light wheeled frame, “unless it rains, then we drink beer and eat peanuts.” (Sign me up for a rainy day.)
Very slightly less adrenaline-fueled is Ville Platte’s annual Louisiana Tournoi, a re-creation of a medieval tournament that forms part of their annual Cotton Festival. The French of these contemporary knights has changed from the court language of half-remembered kings and queens, but their athletic feats still thrill their audiences. Mounted knights charge forward with lances, but instead of unruly peasants or rivals for a lady’s affections, their targets are symbols of the enemies of cotton: flood, drought, boll weevil, bollworm, silk, rayon, and nylon. The rider who “slays” them all will reign as champion for the next year.
Viewers will be struck by how deeply tradition runs through the horse cultures presented in T-Galop. Nearly every participant interviewed says something in the vein of, “Well, I grew up watching it” or “I always wanted to” or “I’ve been doing it since 1952.” Revelers at the Elton Mardi Gras wear Saints jerseys and follow the horses in trucks, but the convocation ends with the phrase, “…to enjoy Elton Mardi Gras as we always have.” (Well, technically it ends with a man screaming, “Play ball!” immediately after the “amen.”)
Viewers will also come away really liking everyone they meet in this documentary: a very pleasant, mildly intoxicated man at Elton Mardi Gras introduces his steed, shows off its winter coat, and asks the cameraman to please come find him if he sees the horse without him, while famed Cajun jockey Calvin Borel, who has won three Kentucky Derbies, starts his interview by saying how blessed he is to have a beautiful wife and a mom and dad that love him. These are good people who value tradition and family, and it’s those attitudes that have allowed these horsey traditions to be passed down for so many years.
There’s no way to write down every interesting, arresting, touching, or funny moment in this documentary. Incorporating home movies of midcentury cattle drives, interviews with today’s horse-loving Louisianans, and the beautiful, deep-Louisiana voices that make English words out of French sounds and steal every scene they’re in, T-Galop cuts no corners in presenting a rich portrait of the many ways horses help make up the cultural landscape of this part of the country. Horsemanship is a part of culture that’s easy to miss if you live in town; but it runs deep in this state, and the Louisiana story wouldn’t be the same without it.
To order T-Galop or one of Castille’s other documentaries or to arrange a screening, visit connicastille.com. For info about upcoming trail rides, visit zydecoevents.com/trailriders.html. For more on the Louisiana Tournoi, visit louisianatournoi.com. (And hurry, it’s in October!)