With young mothers and their toddlers gathered in a park by the Trinity River, and as the lunch crowd settled in at the Press Café patio nearby, a cherished piece of Fort Worth’s heritage came riding in.
There were four of them on horseback, cowboys down to their hats and boots and spurs, who dismounted and tied up their animals in a shady spot near the restaurant. Within seconds they were engulfed. Or it might be more accurate to say that the horses were engulfed — by the moms, little ones and diners.
One of the horsemen, Chris Campbell, handed a peppermint to 2-year-old Milly, who was in the arms of her mother, Beth Welsh. Milly tentatively fed the candy to Campbell’s quarter horse, Nugget.
Behind them, Courtney Kerns held her mesmerized infant son, Creighton.
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“We just moved here from California,” the mother said. “This is awesome.”
That has been the reception pretty much everywhere that Campbell and like-minded, horse-loving entrepreneurs have shown up. Over the last eight years they have cantered up and down the banks of the river, galloped through Trinity Park, clip-clopped up to the trendy clubs and restaurants of the West Seventh district, and grabbed the spotlight at the Fort Worth Stock Show.
While some on the Trinity trails look askance, “I would say that 99 percent of it is positive,” Campbell said. “We started to notice we were getting a lot of attention. People say, ‘Look, there’s a new sheriff in town,’ or ‘Only in Fort Worth.’ Everybody wants a picture. A lot of people actually come up and kiss the horses. Crazy.”
They are also welcomed enthusiastically by management of popular eateries like the Press Café, The Woodshed, Social House, Rodeo Goat and Magnolia Motor Lounge. There is something to be said for serving a taste of the Old West with burgers and fries.
“People on the patio see these guys on horses ride up, and then they see they are coming in here to eat. They knew we allowed dogs. But horses?” said Laura Fernandez, manager of the Press Café. “That’s what makes Fort Worth special. You don’t see that in Dallas.”
‘Fort Worth’s sport cars’
After a recent visit to The Woodshed, manager Brent Holmes proudly posted a photograph of the horses, calling them “Fort Worth’s sports cars.”
Though initially surprised by the reception, the riders have grown accustomed to it, and relish playing the part.
“Just so much fun to see,” said Steve Sexton, who with Campbell formed the unnamed riding group.
“There is just this nostalgia about Fort Worth,” Campbell said. “I’ve heard talk that Fort Worth is becoming the new Dallas, but there is really no talk about keeping Fort Worth authentic.
“So if there is something we can do to promote that image, and let people know there are still cowboys in town, we’re glad to do it.”
In the beginning, the rides were networking opportunities for business types who would rather be riding horses than be out on a golf course. Like most of the others, Campbell’s love of horses began in boyhood. As a fifth grader on the family farm northwest of Fort Worth, with no previous riding experience, he somehow managed to saddle-break a gray Arabian foal he called Smoky.
“I got my share of bumps and bruises, but to my knowledge, I didn’t break anything,” he said.
A career in fiber optics eventually brought him to the city. Campbell, 39, is co-founder and president of Fort Worth-based Polarity Network, a telecommunications company. It was in a 2009 business meeting that Campbell discovered another like-minded entrepreneur.
“I was in the conference room of Steve Sexton, and we were going over some construction details,” Campbell said. “Somehow, we got on the subject of horses. I found out he had horses, and it was a passion of his. We decided to start riding together.”
Their first rides took place on the LBJ grasslands near Decatur in Wise County, about an hour west of Fort Worth. Other horse-loving business types from around the Metroplex began to join in, talking about manufacturing schedules and business leads from the saddle.
‘We were always respectful’
The need for a more centrally located place to ride soon became apparent.
“I thought there has to be some place in the middle (of the Metroplex),” Campbell said. “I’m sitting on Main Street in Fort Worth and I look up, and there are three or four mounted patrol officers. I thought, ‘There you go. If they can do it, we can do it.’ We were going to ask forgiveness rather than permission. I figured if we ever got stopped, I’d say, ‘I’m sorry. We’ll never do it again.’ ”
The riders first saddled up in a parking lot near Billy Bob’s Texas in the Stockyards district, and later discovered a popular food truck park near University Avenue that had plenty of room for horse trailers.
“We pulled up one day, and a police officer was sitting there,” Campbell said. “He didn’t say anything. He watched us saddle up the horses and get on.”
It would be a sad day when you couldn’t ride a horse through the streets of Fort Worth.
Fort Worth cowboy Chris Campbell
They rode downriver to The Woodshed. A few rides later, they ended up miles further, at the Press Café. In the other direction, riding through Trinity Park, they found an irresistible opportunity in the park’s popular miniature train.
“We’ll pull our cowboy hats down and our bandanas up and point our fingers like pistols and ride alongside that train in a full-out run,” Campbell said. “The kids and moms and dads are cheering us on.”
The urban riders have also turned up in the West Seventh district, tying up at the most popular venues to eat and have a drink or two.
“We were always respectful,” Campbell said. “If the horses had an accident, we’d go inside and ask for a broom and a garbage bag to clean it up. I wouldn’t want someone bringing in an animal to my place of business and have it take a country on my floor and then leave.”
‘Keeping Fort Worth real’
Perhaps inevitably, the Fort Worth Stock Show became another destination. The riders were let onto the grounds for free, then accosted by families, who lined up for the chance to photograph children in the saddle.
“At one point, I looked across at Steve and it was like, ‘Good God, what did we start?’ ” Campbell said. “We couldn’t even get out of there, but it was so much fun. A lot of these people in the city don’t have access to horses, and that’s what this is all about. It’s about keeping Fort Worth real.”
About 20 different men and women have joined in the monthly rides over the years, though typically only four to seven at a time.
“You can get four or five horses tied up on a patio, but after that, it just gets to be too much,” Campbell said. “The last thing we would want is for anyone to get hurt.”
He and Sexton limit the rides to experienced equestrians with horses that are comfortable in the urban environment.
“There are cars and motorcycles and all kinds of things that go on if you’re not real experienced,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t say we’re immune to those dangers, but when you’ve been riding so long there is just a feeling we have.
“We try to keep the group small, and weed out anybody who would be a little wild or cantankerous and who we think might not best represent the group.”
The goal is to avoid doing anything that might jeopardize what has become a cherished ritual both for the riders and those they come across on the urban trail.
“I would never want to put a bad name on what we do because of a lack of respect, leaving feces behind or riding down the middle of the street without being cautious,” Campbell said.
“It would be a sad day when you couldn’t ride a horse through the streets of Fort Worth.”