HUNTINGTOWN — Kisha Bowles discovered the rodeo when she was spending most of her day in front of a computer and reeling from the loss of her mother.
Her Sundays suddenly transformed into an all-day outing of donning leather riding boots, climbing on to a powerful bay mare and galloping around a track under the hot sun, alongside other black women like herself.
She had ridden a horse only a few times before and knew nothing about rodeo events, let alone competing in them, but the time she spent in a Calvert County equestrian ring was a spiritual awakening.
"It just changed my view on who I really am," said Bowles, 40, of Washington. "When I get on the horse, I'm full of life."
Bowles is one of four women known as the Cowgirls of Color, a team that will compete Saturday in Upper Marlboro in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the country's only African-American touring rodeo competition. The Bill Pickett features events like bull riding and calf roping, and while black women have always been a part of it, most of the Cowgirls' competitors will be men.
The all-female team has competed in the rodeo for the past two years. This year, in a timed baton-passing relay event, they hope to pick up a prize.
But for the Cowgirls, the rodeo is about more than winning.
"Coming outside, being with the 1,200-pound beast, being in the trees, being in the sun, being with my sisters... it just lifted the hurt and the pain and the crying," Bowles said.
For another woman on the team, the experience is almost sacred.
"I always say it's like going to church," said Takia Gaylord, 31, of Baltimore. "It's very relaxing, very therapeutic. We literally are working our entire bodies. And [the horses] are amazing to be around."
The team had a lot to learn. Some of the women hadn't been on a horse since childhood, or had never been on a horse. But they have fallen in love with the sport. Gradually, they dropped other hobbies. They travel far to practice. Caitlin Gooch, 24, of Wendell, N.C., drives five hours to make the weekly workouts. The women's time on the horses is when the complications and problems of life fall away.
Today, all but one of the Cowgirls own their own horses.
"Now I'm only a mother, an equestrian, and that's it," said Brittaney Logan, 30, of Upper Marlboro.
The foursome would have been the rare all-female team to compete in the Bill Pickett, but last month Gaylord was injured after falling from her horse and was ordered by her doctor to sit out the event.
"The rodeo is important, but being a good rider is more important to me," said Gaylord, a postdoctoral researcher in nanodiagnostics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "I'll be back on the minute that I can."
Taking her place Saturday will be the cherished, passionate trainer who helped pull the Cowgirls of Color together. Ray Lockamy.
The women learned through mutual acquaintances about Lockamy, and an all-female rodeo team sounded appealing.
"There were no girls of color riding like them, so I opened up my ranch," said Lockamy, 54, who keeps 10 horses and an array of wild hogs, goats, donkeys and other animals at his Calvert County property. "I knew they were going to get attention once they teamed up and started riding together."
Lockamy, who says he built the house on the ranch with his own hands, has coached the girls for three years. As a teen, he stole a car to see a girl and served time in prison. Now, the team is his passion.
Lockamy sometimes channels a preacher's style while training the cowgirls, exhorting them to tap into their instincts and work as a sisterhood. He proclaims himself the best rodeo teacher and likes to talk trash to the other rodeo teams.
"We have one guy just lost his leg in the military, and he bringing his family and he riding, and we ain't gonna show him no mercy because he got one leg," Lockamy declared. "They get respect because of me. I ain't producing no mess."
Next year, he wants to get the women into more events, including something called 'steer undecorating,' in which riders have to rip off a flag stuck to a steer.
But mostly, the Cowgirls focus on honing their horseback riding skills.
Competing in a black rodeo event insulates the team from some racism they might otherwise encounter, Bowles said.
"I haven't experienced the whole male, white male thing a lot because where we are, we're around a lot of people that look like us," Bowles said. "But we know that that's there. Some of our daily life prepares us for that. It's not new to us to experience racism or prejudice."
Though rodeo is a predominantly white and male sport, people of color got involved in rodeo-like activities — riding horses and herding cattle — as slaves around the 1830s and 1840s, according to Tracey Owens Patton, a communications professor at the University of Wyoming who wrote a book on race and gender in the rodeo. Hispanic and Native American people also have long been involved in the sport, which evolved from competitions between ranches in the late 1800s, she said.
While the numbers of women involved in rodeo are dwarfed by men, they have grown steadily. Ann Bleiker, a spokeswoman for the Women's Professional Rodeo Association, said the organization's membership has risen steadily to more than 3,000.
There can be many barriers for women to compete. It's a sport that is usually passed down through generations of families, Patton said, and people must have access to horses or cattle. It can be prohibitively expensive.
"There are also people who have no familial ties to rodeo, but simply love the sport as much as somebody who comes from a rodeo family," Patton said. "For many of us, rodeo is not just a sport we compete in; it is a lifestyle that is steeped in tradition and culture."
Though there are some other prominent cowgirls, Patton said the Cowgirls of Color and the attention they've gotten may draw more people into the sport.
Gooch, the North Carolina team member, said she wanted to be an example for other black girls who might want to compete in the rodeo. She got a thrill when a college friend showed her 3-year-old daughter a video of Gooch riding, and the little girl said she wanted to become a cowgirl.
"It's a really awesome thing just to see black women represented," Gooch said. "I needed that when I was younger."
Gaylord, the Hopkins researcher, said that though owning horses is expensive, she wished more children in Baltimore could ride horses.
At a recent Sunday practice before Gaylord was injured, Brittaney Logan's horse raced around a circular track as Lockamy shouted instructions.
"Now move it, move it!" Lockamy hollered as Logan rounded a barrel, her horse kicking up clumps of damp sand. "He's running slow, he's running slow!"
The Cowgirls kicked it into gear. With their horses running full speed around the track, they deftly passed the baton, Logan to Gaylord, Gaylord to Bowles, Bowles to Gooch.
Bowles said she pays no mind to those who would disparage black women in the rodeo.
"Not everyone will understand your journey," she said.
If you want to go, the Bill Picket Championship Rodeo is holding two sessions at The Show Place Arena and Prince George's Equestrian Center on Saturday, at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. The center is located at 14900 Pennsylvania Ave. in Upper Marlboro. Ticket prices range from $23 to $26 for adults in advance, $27 to $31 at the door. A reduced entry price is offered for children 12 and under.