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Meet the Compton Cowboy riding to honor Black cowboys and Juneteenth

Tre Hosley will take part in the Bill Pickett Invitational, an all-Black rodeo airing for the first time on network television Saturday.
Image: Tre Hosley
Tre Hosley, a nine-year rodeo professional from Compton, splits his time between competing and mentoring young potential Black cowboys. Bethany Mollenkof / for NBC News

Tre Hosley grew up riding horses even though his hometown was neither on a Midwestern prairie nor was it a tony equestrian community.

He grew up riding in and around Compton, California. 

“It’s not the typical thing you’d expect someone from Compton to do,” the 28-year-old said. “But it’s what I love and it’s changed my life. It’s made my life. I love it.”

Two decades after his father first put him on a horse, his life has come full circle. The nine-year rodeo professional — contending in bareback horse riding — splits his time between competing and mentoring young potential Black cowboys in Compton about the virtues of the sport, opportunities in it and its lifestyle.

Hosley said he has committed himself to encouraging young Black people in Compton to embrace the virtues of the rodeo world because, for him, the sport brought him stability and instilled focus, drive, integrity and social skills. And it took him to all corners of America.

 “It’s about showing these kids here that there is another world outside of Compton,” he said. “There’s not a lot happening there. But I can share my experiences and they can learn from it.

“I know about success, but I also know about failure. It was a rough road for me. But it builds character. I can show them what I’ve learned, tell them about where I have been. They don’t have to ride bareback horses or steer calves or ride a bull to be in rodeos. They can be a timekeeper, work in agriculture, show horses, a secretary. There are lots of career opportunities that can take them away from here.”

Hosley hopes the kids — and anyone watching — will gain a level of respect for Black cowboys June 19, or Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the last enslaved Africans being freed in Texas. That day, he will ride in the Bill Pickett Invitational, an all-Black rodeo that will air on national television for the first time, on CBS.

Valeria Howard-Cunningham, the first Black woman to serve as president of the Bill Pickett Rodeo Invitational, called the occasion “one of the most important events in our 37-year history.” 

“Our mission is to educate people about the talented and skilled Black cowboys and cowgirls who not only compete in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, but historically, have made significant contributions to American history,” she said. 

Even after his first time on a horse, Hosley said, he did not expect rodeos to dominate his life. He thought it would be football —  he was a standout cornerback for Jordan High School in Long Beach and performed in rodeos in his free time. 

His mother gave him an ultimatum in the 10th grade: football or horses. He chose the gridiron, and later enrolled in junior college with plans after two years to transfer to a 4-year school. He had an eye on the NFL. But into his first year at Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, California, something happened.

Images of Tre Hosley's belt buckle and Hosley putting on his cowboy hat.
“Wasn’t much good happening in Compton,” Hosley said. “To get a chance to get away from it and try something different ... that appealed to me.Bethany Mollenkof / for NBC News

Hosley could not shake the feeling of riding horses. He missed it. He missed it more than he enjoyed playing football. The challenge of trying to stay on a bucking horse longer than his competitors gave him the physicality and level of competition he craved. And the cowboy lifestyle that was a disparate world from life in Compton drew him in.

“Wasn’t much good happening in Compton,” he said. “To get a chance to get away from it and try something different . . . that appealed to me. I always loved being around horses. The more I experienced, the more I wanted.”

He had benefited from his time as part of the Compton Junior Posse, an organization based at a farm in the heart of Compton, which made it accessible for local kids to ride horses and learn about them. Hosley took it seriously.

When he was 17, a friend showed him a flyer about the Southeast Texas Bareback Riding School in Warren, Texas. It was free. All Hosley had to do was purchase riding gear and get there.

“My football coach had coached my dad, too, and was so disappointed in me,” Hosley recalled. “He thought I had potential. But I looked at what would make me happy and followed my heart. And I was like, ‘I’m just gonna go after it.’

“I used my financial aid money and asked my job for more hours to save money,” he added. “They had top professionals in the sport, the top horses. I decided that, at time, that whatever it took, I was going to do it.”

His parents were not exactly thrilled with his decision, either. 

“They thought I was crazy. No one was happy for me,” Hosley said. “It was not something that was done. I was stepping out to a whole new lane. There was no blueprint. The people in the rodeo business were happy, but not my family and friends. But I was confident in my decision. I had found that one thing.”

Bethany Mollenkof / for NBC News

Hosley took a Greyhound bus to Texas. He turned pro at 19. In 2013, he was the Bill Pickett Rodeo’s Rookie of the Year. He has won a bareback riding title and is the five-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association California Circuit Champion.

All the while, he said he has enjoyed the journey so much — the broken hand and other injuries, the weeks without checks, the disappointing efforts, the growth as a man, fatherhood, the victories, the camaraderie, the exposure — that the racial dynamics of the sport have not been a hindrance. But he is aware of the diversity void.

“You don’t have many Black people interested in rodeos outside of the Bill Pickett,” he said. That’s why the event airing on Juneteenth “is so big,” he said.

Denard Butler, one of the most respected cowboys on the pro circuit, is a Black steer wrestler from Atlanta who has made a name in the profession. 

“It’s few and far between that I see people who look like me on the circuit,” Hosley said. “When I do, it’s cool to see, especially when I see someone like Denard. He looks good, wins and represents himself well. They have to respect him.”

Butler said early in his career he endured racism consistently on the rodeo circuit and got into several bar fights to defend his honor along the way. “But nothing would run me off, I love it so much. It’s the life I chose, despite that stuff. All I ever wanted to do,” he said.

Black cowboys are entrenched in the history of cowboys in America, and it will be highlighted during the Juneteenth broadcast. Authors Phillip Durham and Everett L. Jones wrote in the 1965 book "The Negro Cowboys" that as many as 8,000 Black men were cowboys in the 1800s. Bill Pickett, who invented “bulldogging,” a technique used at rodeos to wrestle and ground a steer, Nate Love, a marksman who inspired many film characters, and Ned Huddleston, a former rodeo clown who became an outlaw, were among the first and most famous Black cowboys. Back then, after the Civil War, an estimated 1 in every 4 cowboys were Black, according to the Smithsonian Magazine

Recently, the awareness of the Black cowboy has gained some momentum in Black culture. Actor Idris Elba starred in the popular Netflix film "Concrete Cowboy" about Black horse riders in inner-city Philadelphia. Artists Solonge and Lil Nas X interjected American Western style into their work.  

The 6-foot, 180-pound Hosley said he has enjoyed the cowboy life — tending to horses, competing, the peace of living on farms — and that his biggest worry had been about settling down his schedule, which he learned from Melissa Hijdik, the mother of a classmate he met in bareback school.

When school was over, Hosley was offered a rodeo scholarship to Wharton Junior College outside of Houston. But he had nowhere to live and could not afford a hotel.

 Hijdik volunteered her home. 

“I got to know Tre and his story touched me,” she said. “He wanted it so badly. And his talent was amazing. I had the space and I wanted to help. My friends thought I was crazy to do so. ‘You don’t know him,’ they said. We had to work through some things. But we did. In the end, all I did was provide somewhere for him to live. He did the rest.”

Hosley called Hijdik “my Texas momma.”

“I didn’t go into rodeo trying to make friends,” he said, “but I made some great ones anyway. She and her family are like family.”

Image of Tre Hosley in his cowboy uniform walking away.
“It’s few and far between that I see people who look like me on the circuit,” Hosley said.Bethany Mollenkof / for NBC News

And riding a majestic, powerful horse in competition is like an out-of-body experience, a feeling Hosley said that cannot be replicated.

“How do I explain what it’s like to be on top of that horse that’s trying to get you off it? It’s better than getting an interception and running it back for a touchdown in football,” he said. “I have a healthy respect for the horse. The horse has no idea of what your resume is. It just wants you off its back. So, there’s a fear beforehand, knowing you’re going to get onto a powerful animal. But when it’s over, when you last those eight seconds, it used to be like I’d black out. I couldn’t really remember the ride. But all the feelings of nervousness go away. And it’s like you don’t believe it was you on that horse. But you were that guy. And it’s an amazing feeling.”

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