It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Austin and I’m struggling with a recorder in one hand and a mic in the other. The rest of me is riding a mule. That’s right: a mule.
The scene gets weirder. The man riding another mule next to me is dressed as Santa Claus. His name is Sam Grey Horse.
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“When you’re on a bike, you’re still moving quick. When you’re in a car, you don’t see this,” he says. “But on a horse or a mule, you’re 8 feet higher and you see stuff that the average person will never see. Never. And it’s beautiful.”
Grey Horse – also known as the "Sixth Street Cowboy" – is taking me on a ride along his normal East Cesar Chavez route to help me answer a question Dana Harada asked our ATXplained series:
"Where do the people who ride horses around the streets of downtown come from? Do people own horses nearby?"
“You know you ride for a few hours and it just opens your eyes,” says his friend Nico Leophonte, who is riding a mule alongside us. “You see the city in a totally different way, too, because you have time.”
As we pass, people on the sidewalk stop in their tracks to take photos. Drivers slow down and open their windows, so kids can get a good look. Others stick their heads out and yell "Santa!" at the top of their lungs, to which Grey Horse replies with a hearty, "Ho! Ho! Ho!"
Soon we find ourselves outside Juan in a Million, and a crowd of hungry brunchers gawks in our direction. Grey Horse stops to let a few kids take a ride. A young woman starts taking a video.
“This is so fun,” Carly Starr says. “The interesting quirkiness. It's so crazy. And I love that they’re not horses, I realize up close. That is so cool.”
At our next stop, Cenote on Cesar Chavez, barista Cristina Vargas runs outside and gives Grey Horse a hug. He's been coming around here for years.
“He’s like the sweetest, most genuine, nicest person you could meet in your life,” Vargas says. “He’s more than just like a friend; he’s more of like a soul-companion.”
For Vargas, who is from West Texas, seeing people ride horses and mules isn’t anything exotic. It is a little stranger to see them walking around Austin, but when she sees them, she's pretty confident she’ll know the rider.
“If you see a horse in Austin, it’s 99.9 percent Sam," she says.
When this story was assigned to me, the first thing I asked myself was, “Is this even legal?”
The answer is yes.
“The reason people can ride horses on the street and it’s legal is because they fall under the definition of ‘vehicle’ in the transportation code,” says Cpl. Max Johnson of the Austin Police Department's Horse Mounted Unit.
He says the Texas Transportation Code defines a vehicle as “a device that can be used to transport or draw persons or property on a highway.”
“It doesn’t mention anything about a motor.”
The law was written so long ago that when it refers to vehicles, it likely means horses. Johnson says that means folks can ride a horse similar to the way they'd operate a vehicle: Signal when you need to signal. Stop when you need to stop. And, of course, no reckless riding.
Samuel Grey Horse has lived in Austin all his life. He went to Becker Elementary, Fulmore Junior High and Travis High School.
Right now, he lives on a small plot of land called Get Well Farms, off East Riverside in the Pleasant neighborhood. He takes me on a tour of the property, which he shares.
“We have animals and gardening,” he says. “People come here and get the energy of the nature, [which is] disappearing now in our city.”
There are geese, chickens, a pig. And, of course, there are horses and mules. Grey Horse owns two of each.
“She’s strong, heavy medicine, Mula,” Grey Horse says of one of his mules. “I got a song I wrote with Andrew Trube with her called, ‘Mula, Mula': Her ears are longer than the rest, sexiest mule in Austin, I confess, Mula, Mula."
Grey Horse says all his animals are like medicine, but Mula is special.
Grey Horse has been around horses all his life. His father used to have a ranch in what’s now the Travis Heights neighborhood. He knows these animals well, so it makes sense that he would end up working with them.
For years, he was a trainer at Los Dos Potrillos Training Center, a racetrack in Southeast Austin. But one day in 2010 changed everything. Grey Horse’s saddle came loose while he was riding, and he was dragged for about 100 yards underneath the horse.
“I broke my neck and my back, I broke 12 ribs, I collapsed two lungs and cracked my skull,” he says. “I was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Grey Horse was flown to Seton Medical Center where he was in a coma for a month and a half.
“I heard they were going to unplug me because I wouldn't respond to medicine,” he says. “Then my mom said I woke up, and I pulled two chest tubes out that day and said ‘Mom, I want to go home!’ And my life changed since then.”
Doctors told Grey Horse he would never be able to ride again. But he says Mula changed all that.
“She walked in my back door … and looked at me, and I said, ‘I’m going to ride you,’” he says.
When asked what that first ride was like, Grey Horse pauses.
“You know, most people say, ‘You probably were scared,’" he says. “I felt more safe on that horse than being off it.”
Ever since, Grey Horse rides his horses and mules everywhere.
He says his old self died in that accident. He even legally changed his name from Sam Olivo to Sam Grey Horse, not only to reflect his Native American roots but to pay tribute to the animal he says brought him back to life.
“Those are my family – the horses. I live for them,” he says. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn’t be here.”
Grey Horse lives off a monthly disability check of less than $500 and most of that money goes to his horses. It’s a humble life that moves at a slower pace. He spends much of his time outside, either taking care of the land or his animals. When he’s not doing that, he’s playing music, another source of healing for him. But nothing makes him happier than getting up on that horse – or mule – and riding around his city.
“My job is to heal that one person that’s going through some issues with these horses, and I do. They’re nothing but pure love,” Grey Horse says. “I don’t care what you're going through, you ride a horse through town … it’s going to give it to you. It's going to heal you. It knows your deepest secrets – it knows everything about you.”