What happens on the Texas border with Mexico has a way of making the news these days. But sometimes, those who travel the roads from the Rio Grande Valley up to Houston are making the trip for symbolic reasons. Reasons of heritage and history, and these people make the trip on a horse.
I’m talking with 81-year-old Larry Ramirez when some of his friends pull into an abandoned parking lot off Highway 59, their wagons and horses moving a little slower than the cars flying by behind us.
“It’s a good ride, it’s a long ride,” Ramirez says. “A long, hard ride.”
He and his team are headed to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Ramirez founded this trail ride team, one of 13 teams converging on Houston from all over Texas. His group started their journey at the border.
A lifelong Houstonian, Ramirez drove big rigs for about two decades, but he wouldn’t call that his life’s work.
“I’ve done everything a man could possibly do,” he says.
Ramirez founded “Los Vaqueros Rio Grande” 45 years ago for one simple reason.
“Because there were no Hispanic rides when I started.”
“I approached the stock show and I said well, ‘how come there are no Hispanic rides coming in?’ And they said ‘well nobody has approached us,’ so I approached them and they granted me a permit.”
As to why he figured the ride should start from the border and travel the farthest distance of all the rodeo trail rides?
“Ah, it was just a wild idea” he says. “I just thought ‘why not start from Mexico?'”
Ramirez wanted this ride to honor his Hispanic heritage. He doesn’t know much about his grandparents or family further back, he says he was just too busy working most his life to investigate the family tree. So this is, in a way, his chance to explore that history.
One of Ramirez’s riding buddies is Gary Foster. He braves the Texas highways on 19th century wagons out of a fascination with old customs and old technology. He shows me around his ride – a “Melbourne Model 88.” Foster says he believes it was built somewhere around the middle of 1890.
Explaining the art of a horse harness, he says he keeps this wagon as authentic as possible to the time it comes from – no rubber tires, all original undercarriage – and he drives mules, not horses, like the old-timers used to. Foster’s taken the wagon on longer rides through Texas ranches, and he says there is more to it than just the gear.
“When you spend six months traveling around like that, it’s a camaraderie that is unusual in this day and time, when a lot of people in the cities don’t even know their next door neighbor’s name.”
Trail riders are a family he says, and family is what’s keeping “Los Vaqueros” alive.
In his old age, Larry Ramirez is handing this ride off to his son David. Some parts of the ride have changed: decades ago the team started the trail from Mexico, but with tighter border controls through the years, it got too complicated and expensive to bring horses across the river. Still, the younger Ramirez says the team will be around for decades to come.
“Oh it’ll last,” he says. “I mean somebody’s always going to be trail riding. I raised my kids up in this, and they’re going to continue to trail ride, it’s in their blood.”
The elder Ramirez says he’s proud of what he’s accomplished with the riding team.
“My sons are taking over the ride, it seems like they’re going to keep it alive after I’m gone, course I won’t know that,” he says with a hearty laugh.
After a day of rest, the Ramirez family and their team will saddle up for Houston ahead of Saturday’s downtown parade.