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Getting into character with the James Island Cowboys

Saddle Up

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A pair of couches blocked the entrance to West Ashley's Pixel Studios like awkwardly stacked tiles in a game of Tetris. The space was ample enough, and the white backdrop where the actual photos would be taken blurred the physical proportions of the room. Still, two of the night's subjects were unusual ones for a furnished photography studio in the middle of a bustling suburb.

Our worries were allayed when Babygirl, 14, and Fancy, 9, walked through the entrance with near-regal confidence and settled into instinctively photogenic poses. The American Quarter Horses were guided out of their trailer by the preternaturally calm Dexter Flynn, 50, and Desmond Green, 40.

The James Island Cowboys were more than an hour late, but slipped into their roles within mere minutes.

"It was always the style," Green says of the pair's jeans, boots, and cowboy hats. "Always. You can't be a part-time cowboy."

Babygirl and Fancy shuddered at every flash, which made me a little sad. There were giggles, and a couple of breaks so the two men could wrangle their majestic mares into different positions. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Flynn steadied Fancy long enough to stand on her back, erupting into the air above her like the Hulk after he sheds his mortal T-shirt and multiplies the space he occupies by double digits.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

This was only surprising because, when you meet the cowboys, Flynn appears to be the quieter member of the uncle-nephew riding duo.

In fact, when the pair started riding beyond the confines of the barn about 10 years ago, it was Green's effervescence that convinced Flynn to venture into the swarming Folly Road.

"It was always me," Green laughs. "I'm the daredevil."

Most weekends, Green drives to James Island from Ravenel to ride with his uncle. The cowboys' excursions typically involve stopping at Garage 75 on Folly Road for a drink, giving children (and adults) rides, and being photographed by curious passengers.

Green grew up in Parker's Ferry in Colleton County, about 40 minutes southwest of Charleston.

"There wasn't no cars, we were just riding through the woods and fields and stuff," he recalls fondly. "I kinda grew up on a little farm. I grew up into it, doing chores and stuff, cleaning stalls, feeding the horses, but back then everybody had horses. If not horses, they had mules to prod the field."

It was there that two different uncles introduced Green to his lifelong hobby.

"When you're riding, you don't have time for nothing else," he offers.

That soothing pastime proved hard to replicate when his family relocated to North Charleston in the late '80s.

"I hated that," he says. "I hated the city. I left behind my horse, the animals, couldn't have a dog no more, my friends, everybody."

I ask if picking up riding later in life, in such a public fashion and in such an unusual place, is his way of reclaiming the lifestyle he lost after moving to the city.

"That's what it is, reliving my youthful days," he says.

It's also a considerable ego boost. Flynn and Desmond are undeniably humble, even shy, but they enjoy an amount of attention natural to two men riding horseback on a lively thoroughfare.

"The funniest thing that ever happened is we were riding, we were actually on the side of Folly Road, and me and my uncle were just messing around, and this car got on the side of me and started recording me," he recalls with an incredulous laugh. "And as I'm looking at her, I'm like, 'Are you really gonna record me?' So I sped up, thinking I could out-run the car, and as I'm moving she's actually recording me the whole way."

Green, a welder by trade who repairs military vehicles, can't escape his reputation at the office.

"Everybody knows," he says. "Even the owner of the company, he calls me cowboy. They love it."

Still, trotting around James Island as a vaquero comes with its own set of perils.

The duo enjoys a good relationship with the community, so much so that when they were stopped twice in one hour by two different officers due to a complaint, they were immediately recognized and left with a small warning. They always ride on the shoulder off the road, Green says, and they did their research on the laws before they began venturing outside Flynn's pasture.

"They always see us on the side of the road, so I don't know what that was about," Green says. "We've taken pictures with cops and talked to them, but we never got stopped, except for those two times."

At the photo shoot, Flynn shows us pictures of the stallions responsible for impregnating both Babygirl and Fancy, who are both due in the summer. He puts his phone away at the risk of rattling the already nervous horses. Outside, Flynn, who has been riding since he was eight years old, struggles to dismount Fancy.

"Ain't got the spring in my leg like I used to," he admits.

"Somebody's getting old," Green shoots back at his uncle.

They wave goodbye, with Babygirl and Fancy safely hitched to the back of Flynn's truck, and drive into the warm Friday evening, anxiously awaiting the next day's morning stroll.

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