First Church, then Rodeo: Church meets trail as Texas history trots through town

March 14, 2017

HOUSTON — Both Judy Fritsch and Father Benjamin Smaistrla were glad to see horses in the St. Ambrose Catholic Church parking lot.

While the principal and her staff rounded up the 300 St. Ambrose Catholic School students to the safety of the grass surrounding the blacktop, Father Smaistrla was the first to see them.

Led by flags and banners, the Sam Houston Trail Ride clopped down Mangum Road and made their annual stop at the northwest Houston parish, where Father Smaistrla is pastor.

Students, pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, welcomed the wagons, horses and riders with hoots, hollers and howdies. Many clad in their finest — and sometimes tiniest — Western wear to mark March 3 as Go Texan Day. A hat tip to Texas history, the annual city-wide designation rallies communities across the region to celebrate Texas heritage, and signals the beginning of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The trail riders, bound for the world’s largest livestock show and rodeo, always enjoy seeing the young people, according to Trail Boss Bruce Fraysur. The group is the second oldest trail ride to trek to the rodeo, having made the journey since 1955.

“We’ve been coming to St. Ambrose for years,” Fraysur said. Trail bosses like Fraysur ensure the safety of the riders, animals and equipment on the ride, as well as the public who watch and visit.

“What’s your horse’s name?” Fraysur asked a prekindergarten student holding a stick horse.

“Horsey!” the pre-kindergartener shouted back.

“That’s my horse’s name too!” Fraysur said, laughing as he watched other students gawk and pet a white horse a gallop away, some for the first time.

“This is what it’s all about. We love seeing the kids,” he said.”

Stopped for lunch, most riders dismounted their horses, heading to the chuck wagon, while others met with students. On the menu? Tuna and seafood lasagna for those observing the Lenten fast; a grill served up burgers for those who didn’t. Parents and parishioners sat on the nearby grass enjoying the parish’s fish fry.

It was the last full day of the 70-mile ceremonial ride from Montgomery to Houston. For Father Smaistrla, the day brought many good friends to his parish. Father Smaistrla previously was a pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church in Plantersville, where he rode horses with some of his parishioners. Several of his then-parishioners are part of the Sam Houston Trail Ride, making Father Smaistrla a friendly, faithful face on the journey to the rodeo.

Priests in the Archdiocese were saddled up to serve the faithful long before Father Smaistrla joined the clergy. Missionary priests traveled by horse to minister to rural towns throughout southeast Texas, according to Archdiocesan history.

Fritsch beamed as she watched the entire prekindergarten class straddle handmade stick horses when the real horses rode past, little hands waving to the women riders.
The trail ride gives students “a good sense of Texas history,” she said, with some learning about the events that led to Texas statehood. “It’s that touch with Old Texas that they like.”

Iris Garcia remembers watching the trail ride parade past the school when she attended St. Ambrose. Now the school’s junior high science teacher, she said she always looks forward to the riders and the rodeo every year.

Dozens of horses, several wagons and support vehicles take part in the annual trail ride. Local fire departments provide water for the horses and livestock along the way.

Reminiscent of the pioneer spirit that forged the Old West, more than 3,000 continue to join the rodeo’s signature tradition and honor the trails that linked Texas settlements
Today, trail ride groups are permanent social organizations with officers and leaders, and honor different aspects of Texas heritage. Some take historical trails, like the Sam Houston riders who take the trail forged by Texas hero Sam Houston.

According to the Sam Houston Trail Riders, they ride to honor generations of Western heritage and support the future through high school scholarships. Several wagons used on the ride are decades old, passed from rider to rider over the years. Others honor roles of Black trailblazers and riders of the Rio Grande Valley on Texas southern border, which takes the longest trail ride of 353 miles.

In the end, all 13 groups converged in downtown Houston for a major parade March 4 to open the rodeo season. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo continues through March 26.

And while trails taken are now more paved with Houston’s burgeoning development than they are with dirt, friends of the trail riders like Father Smaistrla, Judy Fritsch and the students of St. Ambrose Catholic School are always eager to welcome the wagons back and the Texas history they bring year after year.