A minibiography on the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum’s website indicated a number of the female rodeo star’s accomplishments as a renowned barrel racer and as an individual passing the western heritage on to her kids and others.
But in her own words, her story is one where she chased down a dream, took what flew in her direction and struck when opportunity came her way. It all began while living next to a horse slaughter house.
“As a little girl,” Agua Dulce rodeo champion DeBoraha Akin-Townson said, “I lived near the Quaker Oats pet food division. And there was a — I don’t know how many acres — but it was full of horses. And I didn’t know, when I was younger, that those horses were unfortunately going to be slaughtered. But I just became fascinated with watching them in that field every day, until I was about 12 or 13, when I found out why some of them wouldn’t be there anymore when I’d go back to look at them.”
In a recent interview with The Signal, Akin-Townson spoke about her life with horses and her induction into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame over the summer in Fort Worth, Texas, during the 18th annual ceremony and banquet.
“Every year,” the Agua Dulce resident said, “they offer to different people in the western community the ability to nominate someone that they think should be inducted into the museum, someone who’s had some impact on the western heritage or western way of life. And they’re specifically interested in — this museum is multicultural, so — Native Americans, African Americans, Anglo Americans.”
Akin-Townson is African American with Native American roots as well. A Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racer with plenty of awards and accolades, a volunteer horse leader for the Canyon Coyotes 4-H Club of Acton and Agua Dulce, and an all-around cowgirl, Akin-Townson was nominated by actor and cowboy Glynn Turman, who was inducted into the museum’s hall of fame in 2011.
According to the museum’s website, Akin-Townson was inducted alongside actors Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Sir Sidney Poitier, singer Sammy Davis Jr., and western art sculptor Chris Navarro, among others.
And while her credentials as a rodeo barrel racer might’ve sealed her fate in the western hall of fame, it’s her love for horses that seems to be what pushed her to go so far.
Akin-Townson grew up in Rockford, Illinois, in the early 1960s. She may have fallen in love with horses as a little girl while living in the Midwest, but she didn’t actually get to ride a horse until she was 14 years old upon moving to Southern California.
“I went out on a trail ride at Griffith Park,” Akin-Townson said. “I was hooked. I wanted to learn about horses, I wanted to read about horses, I wanted to see pictures of horses.”
That love only grew as she got older. In 1975, she joined the U.S. Army as a means to ride horses professionally.
“I found out that there was an equine unit that I could get attached to,” she said. “But I went in at a special time when they just dissolved the Women’s Army Corps., and to (join the equine unit), I was going to have to make a bigger commitment to my enlistment. I didn’t want to do that at the time. But even then, I was thinking about how I could get on horses, and they said, ‘Most people that get attached to that unit have some kind of a background with horses.’ I had none.”
She served in the Army for three years, and in 1979, she became a flight attendant for United Airlines.
“Here’s how I acquired my first horse right out of the military,” she continued. “On a flight, my roommate (a fellow flight attendant) and I had been talking about purchasing a horse together, and I was thinking, ‘OK, on your days off, you could ride, and on my days off, I can ride,’ and we were trying to decide where we were going to keep it. And I kept saying, ‘California,’ even though we were based out of Chicago, but I was thinking that in the wintertime we wouldn’t be able to ride.”
During the conversation with her roommate — all while working aboard a flight — one of the passengers sitting in first class overheard and interjected.
“He said to me, ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Would you own a dog with your next-door neighbor?’ And I said, ‘No, but it’s not the same.’”
Before finishing her story, Akin-Townson added that she’d go on to marry this passenger. And then she continued, saying that this guy told her a relationship with a horse was like a relationship with a dog. You create a bond, he told her. And then he gave her his business card and said that if she was serious about owning a horse, she should give him a call because he had ties with at least one horse ranch in California.
“I took the card and I threw it in the trash,” Akin-Townson said. “But get this — this is how I knew I was meant to deal with horses: Several months later, working for United Airlines, flight attendants who had come before me had to quit their jobs because you couldn’t be married and you couldn’t have children. That got a class action lawsuit against the airlines — several airlines, including United, who I worked for. And so, these people were going to get their jobs back. But in order for them to do that, they had to furlough a lot of us new people. I’d only been working for the airlines not even a year, so I was getting furloughed. And I thought, ‘OK, I’m going back to California.’”
That prompted her to enroll in classes at Cal State Long Beach.
“Then I went to a party with a girlfriend,” she continued, “and that guy was there (the guy she met on the plane with ties to a horse ranch). So, we meet at this party and he goes — and I remember him because he’s from Texas and had a real heavy Texas drawl — he goes, ‘I know you. Did you ever get a horse with your friend?’”
Akin-Townson and this guy — William Akin was his name — got to talking, and Akin told her that he knew a guy at a ranch in San Juan Capistrano who could help her get a horse.
He knew a guy? It seemed crazy, Akin-Townson said, but it was through that connection that she’d finally get a horse of her own. Looking back, she said it was the wrong horse for her, but it led to her relationship with Akin, who came from a rodeo family, and that led to her involvement in the rodeo. As it turned out, a niece of Akin’s dad was a barrel racer.
“I went with her to my first rodeo,” Akin-Townson continued, “and I thought, ‘OK, now I know what I want to do with horses.’”
Akin-Townson would learn the ropes, so to speak, under the mentorship of a world-champion barrel racer, one of the conveniences she received, she said, from knowing Mr. William Akin. She trained hard, she added, and she got the opportunity to ride many horses that she said made her look good. She quickly built up quite the reputation.
In 1984, according to the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum’s website, her rodeo career began. Within her first four years on the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo circuit, she was crowned barrel racing champion for three consecutive years, as well as the all-around champion for 1989 and 1990.
Five years later, the website indicated, Akin-Townson would join the International Professional Rodeo Association, where she “immediately won the Western Region Barrel Racing Championship and finished second for Rookie of the Year honors.” She also finished the year ranked in the Top 20 in the world championship standings.
Today, at 64 years old, Akin-Townson still maintains her “professional card” in the rodeo.
“But I took several years off because I had some issues with my knees,” she said, “and I really just couldn’t ride anymore. I’ve since had both my knees replaced.”
Akin-Townson would teach her three children how to ride horses. And, as a horse trainer on her ranch and a volunteer for the Canyon Coyotes 4-H Club of Acton and Agua Dulce, she continues to teach many others how to ride.
The recent hall of fame honor is another feather in the rodeo star’s, well, cowgirl hat, one that makes her extremely proud.
“I was honored, as I still am,” she said. “It’s one way of leaving a little bit of your legacy.”
As Akin-Townson wrapped up the phone interview with The Signal on her cell, getting out of the car and heading into the Paseo Club in Valencia to play tennis, she came back to her knee injuries, which she said were not, surprisingly, the result of riding horses in rodeos. She did that on the tennis court, ironically.
Before hanging up, she asked someone at the club where to go for her upcoming match. It seemed then that perhaps Akin-Townson was living her life the way she might play tennis. She chases the slices and sometimes gets the convenient volley, and even with two knee replacements, damn near nothing will stop her from playing the game. It’s her passion for horses that she developed as a little girl that keeps her going. To keep going is exactly what she said she’ll continue to do.