Admit it, the first image that pops into your brain when you hear the word “Compton” is of Ice Cube walking down the street, spitting bars and introducing the world to both N.W.A. and their hometown just south of downtown Los Angeles. N.W.A. may have brought fame to the town of roughly 100,000 residents, but the stigmatization of gangsta rap by the mainstream during the late ’80s also made Compton infamous overnight. Randy Savvy and the Compton Cowboys are doing everything they can to lift up their beloved community while shattering the stereotypes that have been associated with it.
Every time the Compton Cowboys mount up and take their steeds out onto the streets of Compton, people can’t help but stare. “They still trip out,” Savvy explains. “But they trip out in a positive way. They’re super blown away by the horses. It’s magical, especially when you’re talking about the kids.”
Compton’s roots are actually far more agricultural than one would ever guess. When the town was incorporated in 1889, Griffith D. Compton stipulated that a certain acreage be set aside for agriculture. That area, Richland Farms, has been the home of the Compton Junior Posse for the past 30 years. The nonprofit group was founded by Mayisha Akbar, Savvy’s aunt, and has stood as a beacon ever since.
“She thought, ‘Here I am with these horses and in this community that’s so affected by all of these negative things,’” Savvy says. “She realized that the kids around there all loved the horses—they loved to see them, they loved to be around them and they always came to ride the horses. So she thought, ‘If I could use my horses to attract the kids, I could then teach them the good things like staying in school and keeping off the streets. Maybe I could change the community.’
“The Compton Cowboys are basically proof of that concept,” he continues. “It’s 30-plus years of a snowball effect from my auntie using horses to keep kids off the streets.”
The tight-knit group of friends all connected with each other through their participation in the Junior Posse, each finding their own way to the equestrian organization. For Savvy, who practically grew up on the ranch, it was something he was born into. Despite his familiarity with the animals, Savvy still remembers the chills he got at his first competition. The first time is challenging enough, but the degree of difficulty was ratcheted up thanks to the particularly fiery horse he was handling.
“I was just so little,” Savvy recalls. “I was so nervous and anxious to do this event, but my aunt walked me into the arena and instilled so much confidence in me. She was like, ‘This horse knows the patterns, all you have to do is stay on and steer him in the right direction and you’ll be fine.
“I ended up winning that competition,” he continues. “That ended up being a very profound moment in my life. I use that same lesson in my life every time I’m facing something really big that’s making me anxious. I don’t back down. I breathe, I remember those moments, and I just go out there no matter how scared I am. That made me realize how special the horses were, because it was the horse that inspired me to continue to do that.”
All of the emotions of that day are reflected back onto Savvy decades later when he works on the ranch and watches children have the same experience. As he recalls the story of one girl in particular, Savvy starts to tear up. There’s pride in his voice as he recounts the personal growth he’s watched her experience on the ranch.
“She would come in and just look so frustrated. Kids don’t know how to express themselves and she looked like she was going through a lot,” he says. “They’ll just bottle it in. I could see that she had some troubles, but also that she loved the horse."
Channeling the way his aunt worked with him, Savvy picked a particularly feisty and green horse for the girl to work with once he was convinced she could handle it. Large and relatively untamed, the horse was a challenge only an advanced rider would be able to handle. Savvy showed the girl he had faith in her, and with that confidence filling her heart, she was able to rise to the occasion.
“I remember just looking at all the joy in her face and thinking, ‘This is what it’s all about,’” he says. “Changing these kids... if they’re sad or mad or whatever, they can ride a horse and feel better. I know what that feels like. Trying to give that feeling to another kid is what gets me up every day. If I save one life, I’ve lived a good life. But if I can do that over and over again…that’s good work.”
The mission of the Compton Junior Posse is two-pronged. Bringing joy to kids who aren’t finding a lot of it in their lives shows one half of it; the second part is to instill the skills needed to navigate the perilous world awaiting them just a few years down the trail.
Every time Savvy and the Junior Posse travel to a competition they find themselves in a place quite different from Compton. It would be easy for a kid raised in the city to feel like a fish out of water among a smattering of horse enthusiasts, most of whom are white and from rural areas. But as Savvy learned, the experience provided him with valuable expertise.
“When we come across people who have a whole belief system about what they think horse people are or what cowboys are and we don’t match up to that, that definitely creates some types of vibes,” Savvy says. “The beautiful thing about horses is that they create that thread between people. Even when we go into an environment where we might be experiencing some racism or anything like that, once they see how much we love the horses and how we ride, they see that we are just as much horse folk as them.
“And that starts a conversation, and the conversation is what changes everything,” he continues. “Most [times] people misperceive each other just because they don’t understand each other. The horses have always been the icebreaker between us and the outside world.”
It is only through a modern lens that the concept of Black people riding horses seems alien. Black cowboys played an essential role in the western expansion of the United States, with historians estimating that one in four cowboys were Black. It was only through the whitewashing of history and the mythmaking of Hollywood that Americans were led to believe that every cowboy looked like Gene Autry or John Wayne. Every day the Compton Cowboys go out they are doing their part to fix the historical record as they carry on the legacy of Black cowboys.
For Randy Savvy and the Compton Cowboys, this isn’t just a hobby. They aren’t weekend warriors and they certainly aren’t putting on boots and chaps for fashion. They’re honoring the idea Mayisha Akbar had 30 years ago to keep some kids off the streets because it fundamentally altered their lives and doing everything they can to pay it forward to the next generation.
“These horses saved us,” Savvy says. “Without these horses a lot of us wouldn’t be here today. Many of our friends ended up getting killed or on drugs or in a bad situation, but because we had the horses that pulled us to the yard and pulled us to each other. It gave us a focus and a different level of understanding and appreciation for life.
“The love for the horses comes from how they changed our lives,” he continues. “They’re our saviors. We owe our lives to these horses.”