Taeon Antonio Saunders, a young man with more drive than most at 21 years old. Born in suburban Silver Springs, Maryland, he should have been anything but a cowboy. But, from an early age, Taeon knew that was just what he wanted to be. Coming from a family of city folk, it wasn’t something many understood. But, acceptance wasn’t really a concern for the kid who felt like a cowboy to his core.
As a child, Taeon was always different than the rest of the kids. On casual dress days, when most kids his age were wearing Jordan’s, he was wearing cowboy boots. He used to spend time with his great grandfather, watching old westerns when he would visit from Florida. This is where a love for horses and riding began, though it wasn’t until just 6 years ago that he began trail riding. But, after doing that for a few years, he wanted more.
Enter, Bareback Bronc riding. When trying to decide what type of event he wanted to pursue in rodeo, Taeon didn’t want just any event. He wanted the toughest, most challenging event that not many black men were involved in. Two years ago, he told his mom he wanted to get into rodeo, and she assumed he meant calf roping or steer wrestling. Instead, he chose to get tossed around on a 1,200 pound bucking bronco. To this day, his family doesn’t exactly understand just how tough the sport really is; the strength and skill it takes to stretch out and spur a horse’s neck while it’s bucking, balancing on its back with nothing more than a small piece of leather to hold on to, all while making it look good in a matter of just 8 seconds. There are two other types of bronc riding-saddle and ranch-but, bareback is by far the toughest of the three, and that was exactly what Taeon was looking for.
When word got out that this young cowboy was wanting to get into bareback bronc riding, he could not have asked for better mentors to guide him. Billy Ray Thunder, “The Living Legend” has been active in rodeo for over 30 years. He was responsible for giving Taeon not only an amazing example to look up to, but also a means to get there, providing him with his first rigging. Still using the rigging today, he looks back on his debut at the Bill Pickett Rodeo in Memphis, TN. Encouraged by Bareback Champion and Compton Cowboy, LaMontre “Tre” Hosley, Taeon watched some videos of other riders and just went for it; no training, no experience, just determination. He remembers jumping on a bus and riding 22 hours, just to be tossed straight on his behind right out of the chute. That was one of three rodeos he entered that year. Since, Taeon was able to attend Clint Cannon’s Southeast Texas Bareback Riding School, where he was able to get on 9 different horses, use a spur board and bucking machine, and really learn what he needed to do to be successful. He has gone to several rodeos over the past two years, mostly to learn as much as he can from the others. After a pretty bad hang up this season, he tore his rotator cuff, fractured his wrist and had hairline fractures on two ribs. This put him out for a while, cutting his season short.
Outside of actually riding broncs at rodeos, training for the event has been tough. Without having his own bucking stock or a bucking machine, the real-life experience it takes to ride successfully is limited. For now, Taeon does a lot of full body workouts to build strength to hold his 5’7”, 145 pound frame on a fiercely wild 1,200 pound beast. And, riding his trail horses with his bareback rigging, he is able to work on balance to an extent. Currently a Marine Corps reservist, a construction worker and a performance horse ranch-hand, Taeon is trying his hardest to save up the $1,000+ to buy a bucking machine. Having a pull-behind machine would allow for him to really react to the bucking and direction changes a bronc will put him through in the arena. In the meantime though, he is also considering learning to steer wrestle so he is able to enter-up in that event, while perfecting his bareback riding outside of competition.
So far, he has mostly competed on the Bill Pickett circuit, but has also ridden in The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) First Frontier Circuit Rodeo, locally. Taeon had a chance at a PRCA membership last year, but wanted to stay on the smaller circuit to get more experience with that stock before jumping into the more elite circle.
While it has been tough to break into this sport, most of that has been due to the skill, and not the community. While bronc riding has been a predominantly “white” event, the rodeo family is not one full off racism or prejudice. Everyone is there to support each other. Surprisingly, most of the adversity Taeon has experienced has been within his own circle of family and friends who just never understood where his drive to be a cowboy has come from, or other trail riders that had no ambition of their own to branch out. While his family may not understand, they are still very supportive. Probably the most support and understanding though, has come from his horse family. John Wilson, Sandra Dorsey, Brittaney Logan, Harrison Todd and Jason Griffin; to name a few, have been a constant source of encouragement for him moving beyond trail riding, but they will also tell it like it is, pushing him to be better. Perhaps most influential in that role has been Tre Hosley. Taeon describes him as one of the most down to earth guys he has ever met. A mentor. Someone that encourages him to learn from his mistakes and constantly pushes him to not only be a better cowboy, but a better man. Tre is very active in this community and never asks for anything in return. This is the type of man Taeon strives to always be.
Next on his plate, Taeon hopes to learn the proper way to train horses. He wants to break the stereotype that you have to beat a horse into submission. You can break a horse by gaining its trust, gaining a willing partner in the process. That being said, he hopes to send one of his horses off to learn how to be a trained steer wrestling horse, getting himself and his partner ready in time for the Bill Pickett circuit to kick-off.
Having the support from the Black American Outdoorsman community would be absolutely priceless for Taeon, as well as the growth of young black men and women breaking into sports like this. A group of 28,000+ rallying behind such a determined, driven person like Taeon could have ground-breaking results. One thing Taeon said to me during our chat was “Anything that we, as black folks, put our minds and our hearts into, we become great at.” So, I urge you, dear reader, to put your heart and your mind into whatever it is that you want to do. Become great.