Downtown Austin looks different from atop a horse.
You gaze down at crosswalks, for one. People at bus stops snap pictures of you. Guardrails over bridges seem low and flimsy. And everybody smiles back.
I spent a morning recently riding a lanky gray steed named Tex from an urban farm in East Austin to Congress Avenue with Samuel Grey Horse, aka the Sixth Street Cowboy. (No, riding a horse or mule within city limits does not violate any city ordinance.)
Tex, who is as mellow as vanilla ice cream and steady as a freightliner, seemed to enjoy the jaunt. He never flinched or hopped, or so much as cast the stink-eye at a passing car. Grey Horse’s mount, a sturdy brown mule named Mula, showed off a similarly chill disposition.
“Sweetheart, I don’t lie,” Grey Horse tells me, noting the horse’s calmness. “These are my Indian ponies.”
The four of us clattered along a sidewalk on Riverside Drive for a few blocks (Tex wears shoes to protect his hooves), made our way to the Roy G. Guerrero Disc Golf Course and crossed the river via Pleasant Valley Drive. From there, we wound our way along East Cesar Chavez Street, passed Plaza Saltillo and cut beneath Interstate 35 at Sixth Street, where we ambled in front of stone and brick buildings constructed in the days of the horse and buggy.
You may remember Grey Horse. He and a friend were arrested on drunken driving charges in 2011, after police pulled them over on Sixth Street. Mules and horses don’t count as motor vehicles, though, so the DWI charges were dropped; police instead cited the men for public intoxication.
At the time, Grey Horse said he was celebrating a second chance at life. He’d been seriously injured six months earlier, while riding at a horse track in southeastern Travis County. He broke bones in his neck and back, cracked an array of ribs, and collapsed both lungs when the horse’s saddle slid off and he caught a spur in the cinch.
“I was dead,” Grey Horse says, sitting inside the wooden cabin where he lives at Get Well Farms, strumming a guitar for a few minutes before we head out on our ride into town.
That won Grey Horse an extended stay in the hospital, and then more time recuperating at his mother’s home in Mustang Ridge. One day a mule stepped into the house and ate a pear, he tells me. Grey Horse knew then the sturdy brown mule could help him recover, both physically and emotionally. As he got his strength back, he began riding.
“I live for my horses,” Grey Horse says. “Horses keep me grounded. I need them and they need me.”
Today Grey Horse, who was born Samuel Olivo Jr., lives at an urban farm off of Riverside Drive. He says he is descended from Apaches but prays with the Sioux. He leads weekly purification ceremonies at a small sweat lodge tucked in the trees at the farm and tells me he has given up booze. He’s called Grey Horse, he says, because he’s “the Native who rides around Austin on a gray horse.”
He also plays music, a blend he describes as “Native Country.” His songs reflect his life, and that of his ancestors. The lyrics of one describe his life as the Sixth Street Cowboy. The words to another are tacked to the wall of his cabin, alongside an old photo of Geronimo. Guitars are propped in one corner, and a thick red horse blanket, worn saddle, drum and horse skull are arranged nearby.
“Music is very special to me,” he says.
Several times a week, Grey Horse rides Mula or Tex around the city. Today he is wearing a chunky turquoise necklace around his neck and a cowboy hat over shoulder-length, wavy hair.
“I’m the last one keeping Austin Austin,” he says as we plod off.
During his ramblings, he sometimes wades into the Colorado River at Secret Beach. He’s ridden through drive-thrus, and across the Ann Richards Congress Avenue and Pfluger Pedestrian bridges. You may have seen his horses tied in front of a restaurant on South Congress Avenue or East Cesar Chavez Street.
He survives mostly on disability checks and odd jobs, playing the occasional music gig from atop his mule. He’s recorded one album, “Grey Horse,” and is working with David Grissom on another, which he plans to record at Bud’s Recording Services, which explains our pit stop at the sound studio on East Cesar Chavez Street.
We park the horses in a corner of the back parking lot, where they stretch their necks out and stay put while we dash inside and said hi to a bunch of Grey Horse’s friends, including Andrew Trube, who plays in the Greyhounds and sometimes joins Grey Horse for a ride around town.
Those rides are therapeutic, Trube says.
“It slows you down, because everyone’s going faster than you,” he says. “You always see something different, every time you go. And it brings joy to people. You can see it.”
And when the tourists spot you, they’re taken back only momentarily.
“Then they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s right. We’re in Texas.’”