No, that’s not Santa Claus you’ve seen trotting on horseback down Congress Avenue. It’s lifelong Austinite Sam Grey Horse on his mule, Mula.
You may have seen Sam before — he’s been taking to the streets dressed up as St. Nick for years and watching the city change for even longer. Since 1961, to be exact. He’s been called the “Sixth Street Cowboy” in honor of his affinity for riding his horses downtown — a title he renounces due to his indigenous heritage.
If you haven’t seen his holiday antics, perhaps you’ve heard of Sam from his music career, touring with the local band Greyhounds, as a model for Patagonia, filming with Richard Linklater, or when he made national news in 2011 for receiving a DUI while riding his mule on Sixth Street — the charges were later dropped.
When winter rolls around, Sam dons his big red suit and mounts one of his steeds — Big Tex, Big Red, or Mula — who were rescued from slaughterhouses. He’ll often sing from a cordless microphone, wishing good cheer to passersby, and claims his horses dance alongside him when they’re happy. Sometimes, he’ll stop his “Ho! Ho! Ho!s” to give a lucky child a ride.
After a fateful 2010 accident on a racing horse left him with 12 broken ribs, collapsed lungs, a broken neck, broken clavicle, cracked skull, broken wrist, and in a coma, Sam said doctors told him he would never be able to walk or ride a horse again — something he had been doing with his father since he was a young child. Sam said just like he saved his ponies, they also nursed him back to health, because “that’s how the universe teaches you.”
You can still spot Sam spreading cheer outside of the holiday season. You’ll have the most luck if you frequent the Continental Club, where the Greyhounds regularly play, C-Boys Heart & Soul, and The Saxon Pub.
If you see him, don’t be shy, as he’d love to take a picture and tell you about his horses. Until then, tok sha, or “I will see you again,” in the Apache words of Sam Grey Horse.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years — there’s just some energy that makes me get up and do it,” Sam said. “If I can heal people with a smile, their healing hits me 10-fold. And I know it heals me.