Modern Day Horsemen: Behind the Scenes With the Compton Cowboys x Vanner Hats Production
Horseman, n. rider, equestrian, equerry, roughrider, cavalryman, horse guard, dragoon, horse driver, horse trainer, keeper of horses, gaucho, pricker, buckaroo, postilion, broncobuster, saddle sitter, live weight, gypsy; see also COWBOY.
The term horseman has been deeply rooted in my vocabulary for years, a term I used freely in characterizing people of exceptional equestrian skill and solid equine understanding. But it wasn’t until I spent the day working behind the scenes for Noëlle Floyd covering the collaboration project between the Compton Cowboys℠ and Courtney Ellzey of Vanner Hats that I truly began breaking down this phrase (perhaps even a term of endearment) that I had bestowed upon so many previously. Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains underneath the oaks of Paramount Ranch, I saw it. I saw the skill, I witnessed the connection, and I felt the passion that every single person on that fateful day had for both one another and for the horse. It came void of pretension, ego, or privilege. It was love, it was pure, and it was overflowing with style.
Courtney Ellzey (the powerhouse behind Vanner Hats and C-Word Productions) and Randall ‘Randy’ Hook (one of the founding members of the Compton Cowboys) met over a year ago at an art showing in Los Angeles for the Compton Jr. Posse. It was a match made in heaven and a collaboration project was immediately put into work. Both Courtney and the Compton Cowboys turned their collaboration into a true passion project that would encompass everything both entities represented to their core. It was no small task, especially for Courtney, who not only handled the complete styling of each member of the Compton Cowboys and the creative and photography direction, she was also tasked with finding the perfect location.
After pouring over several different locales, Courtney was presented with Paramount Ranch, a historic “movie ranch” formerly owned by Paramount Pictures that was home to a slew of productions dating all the way back to 1927, currently most popular of which was HBO’s “WestWorld”. Situated on 2,700 acres, the icon of the ranch was undoubtedly Western Town, a permanent film set built in the 1950s using Paramount Pictures’ old prop storage sheds. In 1980 the National Park Service purchased a portion of the ranch and set forth revitalizing it, making it available to both the public and for continued movie production.
“There was something about this property that spoke to me,” Courtney said. “It was magic, and almost divine. I knew it would be the perfect backdrop for this project and the ideal intersection of Vanner and the Compton Cowboys.”
Nine horses, Nine riders, two photographers, seven assistants, one overly-accommodating and kind facility manager named Ranger Sean, and an entire day on set is what it took to accomplish it all.
Have you always wanted to be a cowgirl? It's never to late to find your dream job.
We spent the day talking about riding, our past, what influences us, who inspires us, music, art, food (we talked a lot about food), fashion, travel, our experiences, technology, where we see ourselves in our ripe old age, horses, and style. In fact, listing out these topics the conversation wouldn’t seem too different than what you might experience at the barn, surrounded by barn mates. But this was different. What came up in our conversations (conversations that were made sitting in a pole barn, eating pizza, listening to music, and taking a smoke break) time and time again was the term horseman and what it means today.
Take Randy for example, the man behind the enormous explosion of the Compton Cowboys into modern day culture. His vision for this brand and business-savvy ways is taking the Compton Cowboys to new heights having orchestrated major big-name collaboration deals, signing on for publication of their first monograph, launching their first wearables line, and so much more. And probably the most admirable achievement thus far? Literally taking the reins of the newly rebranded Compton Junior Equestrians (formerly the Compton Jr. Posse) as their Executive Director and continuing the dedicated work of founder Mayisha Akbar in keeping kids on horses and off the streets.
“The streets raised us, and horses saved us; this is what we say, our tagline, our mantra,” Randy explained. “Whatever you want to call it, this phrase is truth and at the beginning of this year it’s gonna be our time to give back to these kids.” With his crush-inducing charm and undeniable wit, he has accomplished what many would only dream of doing, in a short time and with overflowing style. Hearing his story, the wheels in my mind began turning on the concept of the Modern Day Horseman: business, community, philanthropy, family, and style all culminating together and topped off with a passion for the horse.
What about Lamontre “Tre” Hosely, the once football player turned up-and-coming rodeo bad ass? With a kind smile and honest personality, dressed in a variation of typical rodeo cowboy attire and a straw Lawrence by Vanner Hats, Tre openly shares his journey towards being a full-time cowboy. “I always knew I wanted to rodeo, I just had to wait for the right time,” he says. “I saw my dad get on a bareback horse once, and I was instantly drawn to the roughstock life. Honestly, it was the only real option I had at the time. I didn’t have the money to buy a horse and stick my nose into the time events then.”
Six years later, Tre is making a name for himself both in the bareback field and in timed events such as tie-down roping. Hard work, humility, dedication, and grit all leading this young man from Compton, Calif. down the path to a professional rodeo career.
But every person there that day had a purpose and a message to convey – a message that spoke to their individuality, their immense respect to the horse and the sport, and a style all their own. I was so taken by Terrence Hurd, whose quiet-yet-sweet demeanor was completely contrasted by the total GQ persona he inherited as soon as Courtney styled him. Towering over his cohorts, Terrence was striking in a classic, camel wool trench that he wore draped across his shoulders paired with a dark grey, tweed sport coat and topped off with the black and leather-detailed Marti by Vanner Hats. It was as if this hat, and his exceptionally-curated ensemble was made just for this man. The entire look was elevated further once he climbed atop his equally quiet-yet-sweet mount – a picture perfect scene as they gracefully galloped across the fields near the Paramount Ranch chapel.
Yet again, the wheels in my mind turned as I continued thinking of what it means to be a modern day horseman and horsewoman. I found definitions along the lines of “An inherently skilled and knowledgeable horseperson who can communicate with an animal in a way others cannot.” And I agree with this. But in today's age, I think the modern horseman and horsewoman are a combination of those skill sets and who we are individually, what we do for a living, what we do for fun, where we live, where we came from, where we are going, how we interact with the world, our cultural differences, how we position ourselves to the world, our personal style, what inspires us, and more. I continued asking each of the members about this concept, asking for their off-the-cuff explanations.
“This equestrian life and love for the horse is the thread that connects us all,” Courtney offered. “Whether you are a professional or someone who cares for the horses, the horseman and horsewoman of our modern day society recognizes what the horse gives to us as humans, maybe more so than what we give to the horse.”
I loved the deep insight Kenneth “Stona” Atkins had on the topic. And when I say deep, this guy gets deep. It comes with the territory, I guess. His infectious personality keeps you coming back for more and more conversation. We talked about the language of the horse and the unspoken understanding between human and horse. We also talked about video games, Adidas tracksuits, working as a caretaker, maybe someday having kids (but not too soon), super fly style, and superheros. But we kept coming back to the horse, primarily his own Tennessee Walker, “Ebbs”.
“Well, she is one of my best friends, she just can’t speak to me,” Stona laughed. “We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years, so I guess we’ve picked up on each other’s habits. I think this is a form of how they communicate with us humans. She’s my living transportation. Seriously. And for sure, she is my outlet from the stresses of the world, so I guess you can call her my therapist too.”
This group of cowboys, with their lighthearted and sibling-like antics, would normally be softened by the addition of a beautiful cowgirl. But with Keiara Wade, oh heck no. This girl is queen, and the boys know it. Having been riding since toddler-hood and grown up with this group of men, she stands her ground – if not rules the school yard – cracking jokes, keeping everyone in their place, and downright slaying the photo shoot in her wide-brimmed Gitano by Vanner Hats. But when you sit her down and let her open up, she comes back to her young daughter, her life as a single mother, and her hopes for the future.
“I’ve been riding all my life, the first time I was on a horse I was probably eight months old,” Keiara explained. “I had my daughter a couple years ago, and now with everything feeling full circle, I’m just getting back into riding and barrel racing. It’s been a rough road, but when I think about my daughter, horses, and the life I had growing up with all of these animals, I think about how I would love for her to develop that same passion and share in that same experience.”
Of all the conversations I had that day, my conversation with Anthony Harris was by far the most endearing. We talked about family, his relationship with his beautiful mare Koda, who has become essentially another kid to Anthony, and we talked about style – the man feels like a million bucks when he looks good. Who doesnt?! But what we really talked about was his job. Anthony works at Richland Farms Ranch as the lead hand. He told me how he wakes up before dawn every morning to prep for the kids of the Compton Junior Equestrians that will arrive later on that day. I was floored by his commitment to these children and this program and asked if he ever makes time for just himself and his horse. “After I get everything ready for our 50 kids, I ride my own girl, Koda. It’s usually dark out when I ride her, but it’s the only time I have to get on so I take what I can get. That’s how I start my day.”
From horse-crazy kids to working adult amateurs to Olympic medalists, being part of the horse community gives us all the immeasurable gifts of friendship and family.
As the day continued and the photo shoot carried on, pride filled the air. Courtney had done a hell of job styling and dressing every single one of us, myself included. How could you not be proud AF when you looked so damn good? Keenan Abercrombia was no exception, but I sensed his pride extending beyond just how he was dressed that day. Who else could rock a hunter green trench coat layered over one of Courtney’s denim aprons from the Vanner line and finished off with a leather, wide-brimmed hat? The compilation was so suited for Keenan as this guy spends his days working as a chef in downtown Los Angeles. Having been dubbed “Chef Kee” by the group, Abercrombia can regularly be found whipping up something for the Compton Cowboys
“I could have been another stereotype, another statistic. We all could have. But I am so fortunate,” Keenan said. “After my time riding as a kid with Mayisha, I was at a crossroad and the time came for me to grow up and get a job. I chose to work in the restaurant field, starting from the bottom and eventually working my way to sous-chef.”
As the sun began to set, Courtney organized all the members to mount up and begin riding around the chapel of Paramount Ranch. That golden hour of photographic light was just starting to pass, and the group was ready to turn it up. I told Layton Bereal that he looked every bit of a Marlboro Man galloping on his grey Quarter Horse gelding wearing his Vanner Gitano hat. Layton and I spent a lot of time talking about style that day – brands we love and the aesthetics we are drawn to. Working as a computer tech by day, engineering music by night, and riding horses in between, Layton is clearly influenced by a multitude of factors.
“Basically I dabble in a bunch of s***,” he laughed. “I’ve been riding as long as I can remember. I tried the English thing for a short while and instantly hated it. So now I ride Western.” He added that these varying disciplines have also influenced his own personal style. I told him he is a bit street and a bit Ralph Lauren, and he perked up. “Like someday, somehow, I would love to do something with Ralph Lauren… I’ve always loved that brand. I’ve been wearing it forever, it’s iconic American style. Add in some Supreme, Yeezy, maybe some Nike, and that about sums me up.”
We wrapped up the day shooting in two locations on Paramount Ranch – one a dark and tiny sheriff's office and the other inside a light-filled and open chapel. The chapel was magical and pure and the conversation that followed was equally matched. Earlier that day I had asked the group if they were a competitive bunch, which they all shouted “yes” in unison. I then followed it up with “who’s the best rider and the best horseman?” And once again, the vote was unanimous: Charles “Ceejay” Harris.
“I love competing. Competing brings something else out of me, I love the complexity of it and the sport. You really have to think when you are competing,” Ceejay told me. “I’ve done and tried just about every discipline out there, but I really gravitate towards jumping. I’ve ridden with all kinds of trainers over the years and each person brings new things that I take away, mash together, and then make my own.”
We finished the conversation with one of my favorite statements of the entire day, a statement that really summed up what I was looking for in my concept of this modern day horseman and horsewoman. “My past inspires me, like where I come from, how I used to live. But that made me who I am today.”
Several weeks after this inspiring day passed, California was rocked by wildfires that paved a path of destruction from Northern to Southern California. With resources stretched thin and ample vegetative fuel and climate conditions not in the state’s favor, a fire was sparked in the Santa Monica Mountains. Within hours, Paramount Ranch was one of the first locations to succumb to its devastation. When we awoke to hear that Paramount was gone, the memories we made there seemed overshadowed by grief. However, surrounded by apocalyptic-like ruination, one structure at Paramount was spared. Sitting in the middle of the scorched and smoking fields stood the white chapel. “If that chapel is truly still standing, then it is absolutely divine,” Courtney had said. And divine it proved to be. Officials have stated that Paramount Ranch – a little slice of history – will be rebuilt.The fires are out, but the fight isn't over. California still needs our help.
How fortunate we were to make the memories and have the conversations we had in such a magical setting. For on that beautiful, sunny day near the Pacific coast, the raw love and connection between human and horse were witnessed. An unparalleled level of camaraderie was experienced. And the style was practically overflowing. I learned that the definition of a true horseman and horsewoman extends beyond simply skill and in today’s modern world encompasses so much more.
Want more Vanner? Get yours at NF.shop.Read this next: Dress to Impress (Yourself): How the Clothes You Wear Affect Your Psyche
Photography by Danica Taylor for Noelle Floyd.
Styling and Art Direction by Courtney Ellzey.
Graphics by Alli Addison.
Written by Alli Addison
Rode-before-she-could-walk California girl Alli Addison spends her days in the whirlwind that is kids, husband, career, horses and real life. She favors Cubano-Style lattes, black and white stripes, gel manicures and a good pair of sweatpants. She also continues to ask Santa for a dappled grey jumper, year after year, to no avail.