Saddle on coffin helps mourners remember trainer’s love of horses

It was the only fitting way to remember Darnell “Homeboy” Stewart, a horse trainer who died March 11 at age 43 and was memorialized Saturday.

His body lay dressed in a gold-trimmed black cowboy hat with a lemon-yellow handkerchief around his neck, the regalia of his beloved Buffalo Soldiers riding club. Some mourners shared anecdotes about him as a caring brother, nephew or friend. Others talked about his extraordinary talent as a horseman.

Then, after the eulogy, Stewart’s coffin departed Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home in the Treme neighborhood on a horse-drawn carriage. About 20 uniformed members of the Buffalo Soldiers led the procession to Holt Cemetery on horseback, the animals’ hooves clomping noisily along the pavement as dozens of mourners walked behind.

Stewart’s black saddle glimmered under the midday sunlight from its resting spot on top of his coffin, a reminder of the life of a man who spent most of his days with his hands on the reins.

“There wasn’t a horse alive he couldn’t ride,” said Cedric Davillier, 32, a New Orleans police officer who was Stewart’s close friend.

Others echoed a similar sentiment about “Homeboy.”

Stewart was a New Orleans native and graduate of Alfred Lawless Senior High School in the Lower 9th Ward. But according to friends, he received his most formative education at a stable on St. Ferdinand Street, where an old-timer named Willie showed him the ropes of training horses.

Davillier said Stewart was a freelancer. He worked for Mid-City Carriages and the Louisiana Racing Commission, among a number of other jobs.

But regardless of his employer, his passion for animals was what made him memorable.

“In this game, lots of people are in it for the money,” said Marshall Hebert, a fellow horse trainer who said he was a friend of Stewart’s for more than eight years. “He did it for the love of animals.”

That love was most visible in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Stewart stayed in the city and assisted in feeding and eventually rescuing dozens of horses.

Louis Charbonnet, president of Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home and Charbonnet Mid-City Carriages, said he often hired Stewart to help train and manage his horses and mules.

After the storm, it was Stewart who stayed behind feeding and caring for about 25 animals owned by the funeral home.

“He called me one day and said, ‘Louis, there are whitecaps coming down Lafitte Street,’ ” Charbonnet said.

Davillier said Stewart was responsible for spearheading a plan to rescue more than a dozen horses at Brittany Stables in New Orleans East. Stewart worked with the state to bring down trailers to evacuate the horses, which had been stranded since after the storm.

Hebert remembered Stewart’s capacity to calm even the most jittery horses. According to Davillier, the animals had a similar effect on him.

“He could have a bad day, but if he took a horse out of a stall and put a saddle on it, that took care of all his worries,” he said.

According to his obituary, Stewart was one of the founders of the Mid-City Posses and the Buffalo Soldiers riding club.

Hebert said that in addition to being a stellar horseman, Stewart was an extremely positive person.

“He was one of the truest friends I’ve ever had. He never had a bad word to say about anybody,” he said.

Stewart, who is survived by eight sisters and two brothers, was well-known and well-liked by everybody he crossed paths with, according to the Rev. John Cooks, who gave the eulogy at his funeral.

“You may call him ‘Homeboy,’ but I called him ‘Governor,’ ” Cooks said. “Governor knew everybody. He did not meet a stranger.”

About 200 people attended Stewart’s funeral.

A 4-foot fleur-de-lis and an equally large bottle of Heineken — Stewart’s favorite beverage — were stationed prominently at the front of the church.

Friends said Stewart had been sick for about a year but were unsure of his illness and the cause of his death.

According to Cooks, Stewart’s most pressing inquiry in his later days centered around his favorite animal.

“Darnell had a question on his mind,” Cooks said. “Would there be horses in heaven?”