Editor’s note: We’re sorry to learn about the passing of Bobby “Big M” Martin on September 27, 2021. Our hearts go out to the Martin family.
Black cowboy culture is strong in Charlotte.
That may shock a lot of Charlotteans, even those who’ve been in the area a while. But it’s there, and one of the leading families still lives just outside of Uptown.
Big M Stables, started in Druid Hills by 86-year-old Bobby “Big M” Martin in the 1970s, is one of the oldest Black-owned stables in Charlotte. It boards about two dozen horses. Located in Druid Hills just about a mile away from Camp North End, the stable attracts people of all ages and backgrounds.
- Some parents credit it with keeping local teens off the streets by simply providing them with a rewarding hobby.
- “Horses is like a therapy,” says Ron Martin, Bobby’s son, who handles day-to-day operations at the stable. “It gives you a lot responsibility, but it also grows you up. And the spirit of a horse is kind of soothing.”
The big picture: Black cowboys have largely been left out of American cowboy history, but an estimated 25% of cowboys were Black, according to the Smithsonian. Here in Charlotte, most folks who call themselves cowboys aren’t working in a traditional role that involves herding cattle. Instead, they’re riding in competitions and caring for horses as a hobby.
- And this kind of horse enthusiast can be found far beyond the posh equestrian centers and stables in the city’s wealthier suburbs.
The Martin family home is right next to the stable. The redbrick house holds over 60 years’ worth of equestrian competition trophies, awards, pictures and a whole lot of memories.
The house is still a gathering place for the Martins and friends of the stable. The front porch is the most popular meeting place, even on hot summer days. There, folks will cool off with a drink or take a quick break after feeding or grooming the horses.
Details: Boarding horses can be a lucrative business, but that’s not the case at Big M. Most people board their horses for free or for a donation with a promise to come to the stable regularly to take good care of their horse.
“He was just trying to make it where a Black man can have an animal,” Ron says of his father making it easy for folks to board horses. “He knows what it done for him. ‘If I can get another young Black man involved in something, make it affordable for him to do it, then that’s a good thing.”‘
Zoom out: Big M isn’t holding down Charlotte’s cowboy culture all on its own, though.
- Trail Bred Riderz is a saddle club that provides opportunities for Black Charlotteans to ride together. From time to time you’ll see the club riding through Uptown.
- Sanderosa Stables is a Black-owned stable in Huntersville on Beatties Ford Road. You might even catch Charlotte rapper Elevator Jay there sometimes.
- And even outside the Black community, cowboy culture is making a fashion comeback by way of cowboy boots, cow print and shearling jackets.
Background: Charlotte’s so-called oldest cowboy, Bobby Martin, opened the stable that’s now introduced generations of kids to equestrian sports back in the 70s.
Bobby, now 86, got his first horse from his great-grandad who was a blacksmith in Charlotte. He named the horse Rocky, and trained him to be a trick horse who could take off his owner’s coat and hat. Training Rocky inspired Bobby to enter into horse shows.
- “He’s a pioneer for Black men showing horses,” Ron says.
It wasn’t common then for Black folks to have the money for horses, and so it was almost unheard of for Black Charlotteans to enter into the horse shows.
At first, most of his peers mistook Bobby for a groomsman. Ron says his father had to push through discrimination and being called racial slurs at competitions. But he went on to make a name for himself regionally and inspired many others to do the same.
Ron’s love for horses runs deep, too. We talked a lot about his dad’s mission to help the community through horses. But Ron’s passion for the animals and for serving the community is just as strong, especially now that he’s taken over for his aging father.
On the hot July day that I visited the stable, Ron got back up on his horse for the first time in a few months. He’s had two separate knee replacement surgeries this year, but he was adamant about showing me what he could do on his horse, Taco.
- He looked over and said, “I probably shouldn’t be doing this,” as he put his foot in the stirrup.
- But kind of like riding a bike, once he got up there, nothing had changed. He got Taco to twirl around and to turn to the right and then to the left. They even did a little dance.
Once he was done, it was my turn. Ron taught me (a complete novice) a few basics and cheered me on when I got Taco to follow a couple basic commands. And in so doing, the legacy of Charlotte’s oldest cowboy lived on through his son.