Dawn Knapp spends her work days managing IT projects that keep the City of Houston moving forward. But when she wants to get away from it all, she steps back in time to trade computer screens for the saddle and the web for wagon wheels.
A native of Philadelphia, Knapp has worked for the city’s Houston Information Technology Services Department for eight years. For more than half of that time, she has found work-life balance on horseback.
Her profession demands a quick understanding of modern technology, but at least once a year, Knapp prefers to slow down and revisit a time when horse power was literal.
Every February, Knapp uses vacation time to join more than 3,000 trail riders who traverse the city to usher in rodeo season. This year, her travel companion was an 8-year-old leopard Appaloosa named Warrior.
It’s a tradition that represents a significant departure from her lifestyle working and living inside the 610 Loop. She’s a city girl with a country heart. Visiting stables, working with horses and riding the trail makes the Texas transplant feel more grounded and connected to nature, Houston heritage and Texas history.
“I sit in front of a computer in an office all day and I deal with people issues,” Knapp said. “As a project manager, my job requires me to find the right people and resources to get my task done. Sometimes I have to steer people to move in the right direction. It’s a lot easier to do that with horses, but both take patience and trust.
“Being with horses is like therapy for me, I lose myself because I focus completely on the animal and tune out the rest,” Knapp said. “I can honestly say, when I’m working with a horse, everything else fades into the background.
Knapp is a member of the Salt Grass Trail, one of 11 trail rides that converge downtown for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade. The Salt Grass is the “granddaddy of them all,” the oldest and largest trail ride with 1,200-1,500 riders and 25-30 wagons that travel 103 miles over seven days from Cat Spring, Texas, to downtown Houston.
“Think of the trail ride as your university and your wagon as your fraternity,” Knapp said. “Each trail ride has its own history and identity, and each wagon has a different feel and different traditions.”
Knapp rides with the Desperados Wagon 13 team.
“Everyone has their own reason to ride. For some people it’s to relive history, for others it’s a family tradition. You might see two or three generations riding together with the little kids in the wagon,” she said. “For me, the experience is so completely unique to Houston. People are riding horses through your town with a covered wagon. Where else in the country does this happen?”
Horses seeking riders
Knapp has always loved horses, even as a child back in Philadelphia. So she pursued riding opportunities throughout adolescence and into adulthood after moving to Houston. Knapp and her mother participated in an invitation-only trail ride in Arizona for several years. It was then that met fellow Houstonian Corita Dubose.
That chance meeting fulfilled a need for both women: Knapp was a rider without a horse. Dubose had horses (including Warrior) who needed riders. Back in Houston, Dubose introduced Knapp to her horses, and eventually convinced her to join the Desperados.
“When Corita first introduced me to the Desperados, I had no idea what I was getting into. After riding the first year, I found out I didn’t really know how to ride, I only knew how to stay on a horse,” Knapp said. “Every year I learn something new, whether it’s the logistics of moving large trailers, cooking for 40 people or improving horsemanship.”
“The trail ride is hard work; the weather and the horses can be unpredictable. Sometimes I question why I give up my vacation when I’m riding in the rain and cold, but I’m always ready to saddle up the next year,” she said. “It’s not all about the horses and the experience for me. You get to meet and build relationships with some really great people.”
Dress code is important to the Desperados. The Desperados elevate trail ride style by wearing distinctive duds coordinated by wagon member and boutique western wear designer Pat Dahnke. The Desperados attract quite a bit of media attention with multiple news reports , articles and accolades every year.
“Some of the other wagons poke fun at us for wearing matching outfits, but we consistently win awards,” Knapp said. “We all have denim jackets and rain slickers with the Desperado logo and signature gloves for the parade. You can see us coming, and we look sharp.”
Camping in style
Traveling by horseback and covered wagon may recall the spirit of the Old West, but at the end of the day, Salt Grass Trail riders’ campsites have all the modern luxuries. The Desperados sleep in RVs and campers, cook meals in a fully-outfitted “cook shack,” and dine al fresco with chairs and folding tables.
After a long day in the saddle, Knapp gets a brief respite and then heads into the cook shack. She’s in charge of making dinners for the Wagon. Menus are planned and prepared ahead of time. Many meals like casseroles are frozen in advance. Weather permitting, the team lights a camp fire in the evenings.
Mornings at camp are a rush to cook and clean up breakfast, prepare the horses, and pack up the campsite. Desperados begin the day by saying a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Knapp is quick to admit she is more concerned about Warrior’s needs than her own. Most days, she’ll grab a breakfast taco on the run so she can feed, water, rub down and saddle Warrior.
Dubose said Knapp is a valuable addition to the Desperados, and Warrior is lucky to have her as a rider.
“She’s like the Energizer bunny,” Dubose said of Knapp. “She really works her butt off on the ride and in camp.”
On the road again
Days in the saddle vary, depending on distance to the next campsite. The longest day in the saddle is the 17-mile stretch from Houston Farm and Ranch Club near Bear Creek Park just outside Beltway 8 in West Houston through town to Memorial Park. The trail ride moves at a leisurely pace — only 1 to 2 miles an hour, according to Knapp — but by the end riders have covered 103 miles.
“There are hundreds of us riding single-file. Sometimes we’re spread out, sometimes bunched together,” Knapp said. “It’s an unnaturally slow pace for horses to walk. You have to keep them busy, or they get bored and can get into trouble.
“It’s a lot more relaxed in the first half of the week when the horses are fresh and we are riding through the country, but the closer we get to town you never know what will happen,” she said. “We share the road with cars, which can be very dangerous, especially if you have an animal having a bad day.”
Warrior did well on the trail this year, Knapp said, until he and Dubose’s horse, Moose, wanted to pick up the pace during the parade downtown.
“They were sick of walking slow, so they gave us a real rodeo,” she said. “They broke formation, raced ahead of the wagon, and we had to smile, wave to the crowd, and hold the reins for dear life to keep the horses from hurting themselves or any other horse or rider. That kind of behavior is rare for these guys. Usually they do very well on parade day.”
For Knapp, the highlight of the trail is seeing kids and families lined up along the trail and parade route.
“I love the parade,” Knapp said. “By the end, my face hurts from smiling, my arms hurt from waving, I’m exhausted. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
The Salt Grass Trail riders arrive at the Houston Farm and Ranch Club near Highway 6 and Patterson Road.
Wagon 13, or the Desperados, pulls onto Patterson Road. The Salt Grass Trail has about 30 wagons.
Corita Dubose prepares to feed her horses and mule. Corita owns Moose, Warrior and Muley among several other horses.
“Muley” rolls in the dirt after a long ride.
Dawn Knapp prepares dinner in the Desperado’s state-of-the-art cook shack.
Warrior and Moose, both leopard Appaloosas, take a break to fill up before a the final day of riding on the Salt Grass Trail.
The Desperados brand all their equipment including their breakfast bar.
Knapp grabs a breakfast taco before preparing Warrior for the ride.