By M. Scott Morris | NEMS Daily Journal
Bad weather isn’t an excuse when the horses are saddled and friends are expecting you. “If you’re going to ride, you go all the time,” said Madreaus Watkins, 17, of Verona.
“It doesn’t matter,” 21-year-old J.J. Jackson said. “We rode in a thunderstorm one time. We just rode.”
“If you call a ride, you ride,” added James “Blade” Cunningham, 52, of Okolona.
It’s plain to see what Northeast Mississippi groups like the Easy Riders, the Lonesome Riders and the Shy Riders have in common. In this fast-paced modern world, the guys like to saddle up, mount up and, well, ride.
“With this group, it’s about every weekend,” said Michael O’Neal, a 57-year-old Pontotoc resident. “We go on trail rides and to horse shows. It’s about a 50-mile radius.”
“We go everywhere,” said Gary Banks, 55, of the Chesterville community. “We go to Holly Springs. We go to Shannon, Fulton, Verona, Pontotoc, Belden.”
For a trail ride, the groups follow roads and cut through fields, and they sometimes go for 20 or 30 miles. They can make round trips in one day, or stop for a camp out.
“We ride into the neighborhoods, too. That’s something we like to do,” said Ozie Lee Gardner, 53, of the Green T community. “We let the kids see us. It’s really fun to see their reactions.”
“Yeah, they come out,” O’Neal said.
‘Pride in your ride’
Late November and early December are prime time for the groups. Riders attend parades throughout the region, including the Reed’s Tupelo Christmas Parade last week.
“We do all the parades,” O’Neal said. “The horses are pretty much familiar with what they have to do.”
Parade organizers know the messes horses can make, so the riders usually bring up the rear with Santa. Gardner’s horse, Lollipop, isn’t always comfortable with the slow pace set by the floats and marching bands in front of her.
“She really likes to ride, but she gets a little weird at times,” Gardner said. “She doesn’t like anyone to pass me. She gets upset, but we handle it.”
Some decorate their horses with ribbons, bells and tinsel. Others keep it simple, figuring horse and rider make a good enough show as they are.
“Take pride in your ride. That’s one of our mottos,” said Amp Watkins, 38, of Verona.
“You’ve got to ride or try,” Jackson said.
“That’s another motto: If you ain’t riding, you try,” Amp Watkins said.
Care and feeding
It’s not all parades and trails. Horses have needs that must be met before and after a ride. A lot of the guys have barns or stables, and it can be a lonely job taking care of what goes in and out of their horses.
“It’s something I do,” said J.D. King, 67, of Okolona. “My family watches.”
Cunningham laughed and added, “That’s about like me. I do all the work myself.”
At 7 years old, Kameron Smith of Verona can’t do everything himself, but he does what he can.
“I go feed him every day,” he said. “I take care of him.”
Kameron’s fellow riders help him trailer his mount, Matlock, and they get him where he needs to be.
Many of the older members started riding when they were Kameron’s age. They know a passion for sitting tall in the saddle can hit early in life.
“Oh, since I was a little, bitty baby,” Banks said. “I’ve been riding 50 years or more.”
“I’ve only been riding 64 years,” King said.
To a man – or a boy, for that matter – their enthusiasm for riding the trails through rain or shine comes down to one word, “love.”
“I just love the horses, just love the freedom of it,” King said, “and the camaraderie, hanging out with the fellows and trying to keep up with the young guys. That’s what it’s all about.”
Several of his companions said, “Amen.”