For Steve Lyons, a Master at Santa Ynez Valley Hounds, and Ghuan Featherstone, Executive Director of Urban Saddles, sometimes a simple and earnest invitation is all it takes.
By Josh Walker
When Steve Lyons, a Master at Santa Ynez Valley Hounds, saw a group of black men wearing cowboy hats at an event honoring Michael B. Jordan, he knew exactly who they were. He’d just watched Brett Fallentine’s 2018 documentary, “Fire on the Hill,” the night before at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Lyons immediately recognized Ghuan Featherstone, Executive Director of Urban Saddles, from the screen as one of the men in the group. Fallentine’s film chronicled the Urban Saddles’ journey (then known as the Urban Cowboys) to preserve and resurrect The Hill, an inner-city horse stable in Los Angeles, California, and an important piece of Featherstone’s own life journey.
“Since I knew of the Compton Junior Posse, I wanted to see the film to learn about The Urban Cowboys,” Lyons said. “The next day, I saw Ghuan and others who were in the film and asked if they were the guys from the film and if they were affiliated with the Compton Junior Posse.”
He told Featherstone how a Santa Ynez Valley Hounds member had introduced him to the Compton Junior Posse. Lyons, a former high school teacher at Crenshaw High School in South Central Los Angeles, felt a familiar connection to those kids, so he invited them to join his members for a hunt. They loved it so much, “I then invited them to come back during the summer to camp at our ranch,” he said. “We had riding clinics for them each day and had an absolutely wonderful time.”
Featherstone knew of the Compton Junior Posse and some of the kids rode with him. The men exchanged numbers, and shortly after that night, Lyons extended an invitation to Featherstone and his group to join Santa Ynez Valley Hounds for a hunt. “I don’t think he thought I would actually call him,” Lyons remembers. “He sounded surprised but grateful. Ghuan is a very friendly and grateful person.”
It was a simple invitation that meant the world to Featherstone and the Urban Saddles crew. Since they didn’t have trailers to haul horses, they brought a group of kids to meet up with Lyons and borrow some of his mounts for the day. Featherstone and William Bias, Director of Youth Activities for Urban Saddles, rode with the hunt and a young boy named Kobe. The rest of the kids followed along in two trucks to watch the field.
“I honestly didn’t know how it was going to play out,” Lyons admitted. “The members were wonderful. The whole group was wonderful. It turned out to be one of my favorite days of hunting ever. It was wonderful having that young man, Kobe, ride with me and having the chance to learn more about him.”
“Everyone really seemed to enjoy the experience,” Featherstone said. “Everything about it was memorable for the kids and us.”
After the hunt, the group connected over breakfast. “I asked our members and guests to introduce themselves and tell everyone something about themselves. I got each child to speak in front of everyone and I treasure that time,” the ex-teacher said.
“Opportunities like that, to participate in a fox hunt, just don’t happen in our neighborhood,” Featherstone said. In Lyons’ simple invitation to join the hunt that day, Featherstone saw his own mission: Building hope and opportunity for youth and community through the equine experience. “I would love for more hunt clubs to offer the opportunity to participate in communities that normally wouldn’t have those opportunities.”
Invitations like the one Lyons offered didn’t exist during Featherstone’s childhood. That came later for him. He recently shared that story with a Podcast called Meditative Story. At the age of 5, he remembers fidgeting with an old crooked hanger that served as an antenna to receive a broadcast on his old wooden-frame television with an oval screen. He’d sit in the living room of his mother and step-father’s one-bedroom unit in Inglewood, California, and tweak that hanger until a picture of The Lone Ranger flared to life.
He watched The Lone Ranger fight the bad guys and saved the day every Saturday morning while mimicking his moves in the living room near the couch where he also slept. His friends always told him, “Ain’t no horses up in the hood.” It was a rough neighborhood. It still is. When his family moved to South Central, California, it got even rougher. He did his best to avoid the fights and gangs, but it wasn’t easy to just turn away from those kinds of things in that neighborhood.
The Cowboy Code, though, the one he had watched religiously every Saturday morning on television, kept him straight, he said. To him, the Lone Ranger’s code said, “all men are created equal. We all got it in us to fight for what’s right. That’s cowboy.”
With that code in mind, Featherstone navigated a perilous childhood, never joined a gang, and went on to serve in the Army, after which he returned to Los Angeles. Seeing the world and meeting people from dozens of other countries had opened his mind. It showed him there was another way of life.
When he returned home, he started spending time with his high school sweetheart. She was easy to talk to, he said. He opened up about his childhood, his time in the service, his passion for cowboys and the code, and his dream to do good. That’s when she told him about The Hill–stables in the middle of Los Angeles where many black and Latino people rode and learned about rodeo.
He didn’t believe her until he found himself there with her, surrounded by dozens of horses. He felt like a kid again. There it was all around him, another life he never knew existed. Riders who looked like him welcomed him and taught him to ride. Despite being bucked off time and again, he kept coming back. He found peace in grooming and talking to the horses. He eventually gained enough skill and confidence to ride out with the group through some of the most traumatized neighborhoods within five miles of The Hill. He remembers watching hardened gang members smile like little kids when they saw the horses come through. Children asked to pet and ride them. They’d never seen anything like it.
Featherstone later founded Urban Saddles in 2011 with the mission of providing a holistic approach to solving some of the biggest problems he sees and has seen in society. Now based in South Gate, California, the crew at Urban Saddles offers trail rides, lessons, and horse rentals.
For Featherstone, it answers the Cowboy Code; he fights for good to make the life he wants where he is, so he can share the wealth of that wisdom and experience with the people who need it most. For Lyons, his mission is much the same.
“I know I am extremely fortunate,” Lyons said. “I didn’t grow up with any of this. I never thought I’d have a horse. I never thought I’d have a ranch, but now I have this space and all of these wonderful fixtures. I think if we want the sport to continue, we have to share our good fortune. We have to expose a wider range of people to this sport and lifestyle.”
When Lyons taught high school in South Central, he often invited his students to stay after class if they wanted help. Instead of flat refusal, many instead met him with a puzzled look. No other teacher had ever extended an invitation to them to stay after class simply to help. They weren’t in trouble. He just wanted them to know they were welcome to stay.
“It’s healthy for the kids to see that there is a different life than the way they’re growing up,” he said. “If we want the sport to continue, we have to offer it to a wider range of people,” he reiterated. “Donating to Urban Saddles is tax-deductible. They need to raise money to buy a trailer and van so they can pick up kids and bring them to their barn. Reach out to local groups and let them know you’d like to help. Start with the Boys and Girls club. Talk to local schools. Extend the invite. They may not ride, but at least they could have an opportunity to experience the country and the animals and see that there is a different life than what they know.”
Learn more about Urban Saddles here.