WASHINGTON PARK — For a particular group of South Siders who gathered in Washington Park Saturday, horseback riding is central to their identity.
"I'm a cowboy," said 58-year-old Chicago native Will Faulkner while atop his horse of 11 years, Shenandoah.
"That's my lifestyle when I'm not at work. I live in Chicago, but I have the heart of a Texan."
The South Chicago resident was among the many who took to the riding path in Washington Park ahead of a parade to the lakefront for the Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club's 24th Anniversary Highnoon Ride & Picnic.
The annual event is one of the biggest for an organization that began on Jan. 15, 1989, Martin Luther King Jr.'s 70th birthday, not an unintentional decision according to club founder Murdock, The Man With No First Name.
Though known for its South Side "black cowboy" members, the club is open to people of all backgrounds.
"Being in the city, horses and the cowboy way of life allows people to have tranquility," said Murdock, acknowledging that the black cowboys were small in numbers but had a proud tradition. "We wanted the club to represent peace. That's why we have a broken arrow as our symbol."
There are about 100 active participants in the organization, which also holds its Speed and Action Rodeo at the South Shore Cultural Center every June, Murdock said.
On Saturday morning, the northeast corner of Washington Park was taken over by dozens of families with members dressed in cowboy gear and many riding their horses that they loved.
Later in the afternoon, the cowboys planned to go on a ride that would take them south then east through Hyde Park's Midway Plaisance before going north on the lakefront to 47th Street before doubling back.
Murdock said it was important to have horses plod those paths to keep horseback riding legal along that route.
The 65-year-old founder also said he has talked with the Chicago Park District about opening stables at 59th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, though that's "not at all close" to becoming a reality.
"This experience allows us to come together as a group," Murdock said.
Almost all cowboys interviewed at the event said that they fell into the urban cowboy lifestyle while they were young.
Aaron Baxter, 19, grew up near the South Shore Cultural Center, where a stable holds the Chicago Police Department's horses. He studies equine science at Southern Illinois University.
Wearing a black cowboy hat, Baxter said he's loved riding since he was a young kid. The cowboy life, he said, set him on the right path.
"Being a black cowboy is basically something out of the norm," Baxter said. "It's kept me out of things that could have ended my life."