Saddling up with Texas’ Creole trail riders

A film fromHuck Presents
The Texas Regulators are a women-led trail riding group who celebrate zydeco music, Creole heritage and African-American cowboy culture in America’s Deep South.

“When a horse rides past you, you can feel it if you’re not even looking,” Ashley Lewis explains. “When you have so many horses moving together, it’s pumping. It’s pumping the ground where we ride. We ride across several fields of cattle. As we ride, you see the cattle stop what they’re doing, come to the fence of the road that we’re riding on and they start to run right alongside of us. You’ll see people come out on their porches or in their front yards, they’re in awe. Whatever they were doing, it’s interrupted because they wanted to come and see. Everybody’s just in sync, they’re rolling. The dust is flying, they’re kicking up dust. The Earth is interrupted.”

Ashley is president of the Texas Regulators, a women-led trail riding group based in Eastern Texas, near the Louisiana border. Each year, the group meets for a boot-stomping weekend of trail riding, zydeco music and celebration of Creole heritage. Unfolding over one trail ride with the Texas Regulators, Interrupting the Earth is a sensory immersion into this truly ground-shaking spectacle in America’s Deep South. Directed by Gwendolen von Einsiedel and co-produced with Creole filmmaker and lifelong trail rider Drake LeBlanc, the film’s intimate portrayal of trail riding and the women who hold the culture together is the product of Einsiedel’s decade-long research into zydeco music and creative collaboration with its protagonists.

Gwendolen, or Gwennie, came to zydeco as a piano accordion player. Searching for accordion music from the Americas, she discovered the work of Clifton Chenier, the undisputed “King of Zydeco.” After covering cowboy song festivals in southern Brazil for the BBC, Gwennie developed a fascination for music that comes out of horse cultures. Then she made a fateful discovery in a junk shop: a record by another zydeco icon, Boozoo Chavis. “The cover picture of Chavis in his cowboy hat and boots astride a horse, holding an accordion, is a very famous image down here,” Gwennie explains, “but it was possibly the first time I’d ever seen a Black cowboy. It woke me up to a fundamental part of the American story – a story the world is coming to realise has long been missing from the mainstream narrative.”

Gwennie found an advert for a trail ride, called the number and was invited to join, which she documented in her article for Huck 53, The Change Issue, back in 2015. Ten years after that first phone call, connecting with Ashley and other riders, and after writing her PhD on zydeco trail riding and human-animal entanglements, Gwennie is now a Professor of Ethnomusicology at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette and holds the Dr. Tommy Comeaux Endowed Chair in Traditional Music.

Zydeco is high-energy dance music originating from the rural Creole communities of southwestern Louisiana. Its roots can be found in juré, a form of a cappella praise sung by field hands who, too poor to afford instruments, accompanied themselves with hand-clapping and foot-stomping. In this corner of America’s South, descendants of French and Creole-speaking African Americans (who still call themselves Creoles) began playing their traditional folk songs on fiddle and accordion. Later, they added the frottoir, a Creole washboard instrument, and integrated rhythm and blues. The word “zydeco” is thought to come from the French expression “les haricot sont pas sales” which, spoken in Creole, sounds like ‘leh-zy-deeco sohn pa salay’ – and translates as ‘the snap beans aren’t salty,’ a way to say that times were hard.

“You turn around 360 degrees and just see everyone feeling that dance or feeling that beat and the vibe of the band and of that music. How they move through it, it’s just electrifying.”

Ashley Lewis

For Ashley, horse riding and zydeco music are both inseparable parts of the experience. Just like the horses’ hooves, the dancer’s feet and instruments also beat a rhythm out onto the ground: “It’s how the earth feels what we do,” Ashley reflects. Neither words nor film can truly capture the energy of a zydeco dance – it’s something you have to feel for yourself.

“Oh, man…” Ashley says, as she takes a long pause to think about how to convey the sensation. “It’s the bass thumping on the one-two beat, you can feel it through your bones. You turn around 360 degrees and just see everyone feeling that dance or feeling that beat and the vibe of the band and of that music. How they move through it, it’s just electrifying.”

Growing up in South London, Gwennie’s background is worlds away from the Creole communities of the American South. This is something she recognised when she first began her exploration of zydeco music and which has shaped her approach to both her research and making the film.

“There are clear power asymmetries embedded in the production of ethnographic knowledge, and in documentary making too,” Gwennie explains. “Just acknowledging those power asymmetries is no longer good enough. For academics or filmmakers who don’t belong to the communities they’re working with, and where there could be a historical or current context of colonialism, I think it’s really important to confront that. I didn’t want to just write a thesis that was going to sit behind a paywall. It felt vital to work collaboratively to create something that my trail riding friends could use for their own means, and that would also be accessible for audiences beyond academia. So with Interrupting the Earth, I tried to reposition authorship and make the film as a participatory project.”

Although the visuals were shot over one weekend-long trail ride, the film’s narrative structure emerged from nearly two years of conversations with Ashley and Queliquia Darden, the film’s other main protagonist. “The Texas Regulators call their own histories into existence,” Gwennie says. “The structure was led by how they narrated the activity.”

Gwennie co-produced and shot the film with Creole filmmaker and media artist Drake LeBlanc from Lafayette, Louisiana. As well as being a lifelong trail rider himself, Drake is the co-founder of Téle-Louisiane, a multilingual media platform celebrating Louisiana’s diverse languages, cultures and people. He has also just released Footwork, a short documentary shining a light on the Creole cowboys and cowgirls of South Louisiana.

When Gwennie began her research a decade ago, information about the zydeco trail rides of East Texas and South Louisiana was hard to find. Today, the culture is more well-known and there has been considerable pushback against the whitewashing of American cowboy history. The profile of zydeco trail riding was also raised thanks to Beyoncé, whose just-released album Act II: Cowboy Carter references zydeco music, with lyrics such as, “Turn a bad night to a good time on the trail ride to the zydeco, I’m coming home” on the track ‘Sweet Honey Buckiin’’. Creoles from South Louisiana who moved to Texas, primarily in search of oilfield jobs, took the genre with them, and it can regularly be heard in Beyoncé’s hometown of Houston, Texas.

“The Texas Regulators, our trail rides and our rodeo, are the epitome of what this culture is – and that’s love.”

Ashley Lewis

Keeping any tradition alive – particularly one that involves groups of horses and the immense organisational challenge of pulling off a successful trail ride – is no easy feat. Pressure comes from outside, from local authorities, who banned trail riding in the county after a joint ride with a Louisiana and a Texas-based group descended into violence in 2023. One attendee who was trying to defuse an altercation was fatally shot. Despite having a great safety record and relationship with law enforcement, the Texas Regulators were unable to ride in 2024 but Ashley is working hard to get the ban overturned. There are also internal tensions, between the traditionalists and those who want to take the culture in new directions – or just come to party, as Ashley laments.

But with stewards of the culture like Ashley and Queliquia, who have been raised with trail riding and zydeco music their whole lives, the culture is in good hands. They’re determined that the Texas Regulators will continue to celebrate the very best of trail riding and create a welcoming and inclusive experience for everyone.

“The Texas Regulators, our trail rides and our rodeo, are the epitome of what this culture is – and that’s love,” Ashley reflects. “It’s just appreciation of the music, appreciation of the horses, appreciation of unity. There’s always going to be zydeco music there. The horses are always going to roll in unison and in sync. We don’t even look at each other like a trail riding group or a club: it’s a family. You see people who do this week-in, week-out because it is their culture. You grow to love them like family as well. Not only that, the music envelops you. Once you pick up their vibe, you’re just flowing with that too. All the smiles, the hugs, the laughs, it’s all love.”

Interrupting the Earth is directed by Gwendolen von Einsiedel and co-produced with Drake LeBlanc, featuring Ashley Lewis and Queliquia Darden.

Huck Presents is our brand new stream to celebrate films we love and champion emerging filmmakers we admire. If you would like your film featured, get in touch.

Subscribe to Huck on YouTube to catch all Huck Presents films.

Watch Next

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue