By Joel Hall
Thad Heard, a 25-year veteran of the Atlanta Fire Department, spends his weekdays at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, on guard against any potential fires that may happen there.
From March to November, one weekend a month, the 46 year-old spends his time wrestling steers with the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the nation's only touring black rodeo.
Heard said the fact that he is an African-American cowboy is more shocking to most people than the fact that he spends his free time bulldogging, a rodeo sport in which one rides a horse, catches up to a steer, and drags it to the ground by grabbing it by the horns.
"The first thing they say is 'black cowboy ... there's no such thing,'" said Heard, who has been fascinated with the rodeo since he was child. A lover of animals and a licensed farrier -- or horseshoeing expert -- said he often has to educate people on the history of black cowboys.
"Mainly, you'll find more black people who are unaware of the history of the cowboy," said Heard. "There were a lot of black cowboys back then," referring to the late 1800s, when Americans were settling the west.
One of the most famous black cowboys is Bill Pickett, from whom the rodeo tour derives it's name. Born during the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War, Pickett, a rancher and rodeo performer, became famous as the inventor of bulldogging.
Invented as a way to keep stray steers from getting away, Pickett's technique included biting the cow on the lip and falling backwards to bring it down. The technique spread from ranch to ranch and was eventually modified into steer wrestling, one of the many events in the modern rodeo, in addition to other events, such as bull riding, bare-back riding and calf roping.
Heard and several other black cowboys from the metro Atlanta area competed in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo finals, which were held Nov. 8-9 at the South Point Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas.
Billy Ray Thunder, a former semi-pro football player, who served in both the Army and Navy, competed in the Bill Pickett rodeo in both bull and bare-back riding. He began riding bulls and broncos after being introduced to it by his step-brother at the Bar C Ranch in Covington, Ga.
"I didn't even know that there were black cowboys at the time," said Thunder. He said that since he first came to the ranch in 1989, the rodeo has become more receptive to African Americans.
"Caucasians know about it, but blacks don't know about it," he said. "That's why we try to go around to a lot of schools. You can win scholarships that can get you into college like any other professional sport."
Thunder, who had his ankle broken in three places by a bucking bronco in Las Vegas, said the sport is definitely not for those with a low threshold for pain. His past injuries include a dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, broken fingers and toes, and a crushed eye socket.
"If you ride bulls, you are going to meet nurses and doctors," said Thunder.
Heard considered himself one of the lucky ones, and said that in the 12 years he has been competing, he has only pulled some muscles.
"I have always loved horses, and I will always want to be a cowboy," he said.