Sweetheart of the Rodeo

At 29, Ty Murray is the king of the cowboys — a matinee idol of the mythic west. But he’d trade it all for the perfect ride.

May 1999By Comments

“GET YOUR ASS ON,” TY MURRAY SAYS, pointing to the mechanical bull in his large work shed.

“Absolutely no way,” I reply.

“Come on, city boy. You said you wanted to understand what I do.”

The finest rodeo cowboy in America—perhaps the greatest rider of bulls and bucking horses of all time—gives me a sly little grin, and the corners of his lips twitch upward. Although he is 29 years old, he could still pass for a teenager. He is only five foot eight and 160 pounds. His face is so baby-smooth that you’d think he never has to shave. When he pulls the brim of his hat over his forehead, he looks like James Dean in Giant. He talks like him too: in a clipped monotone, his voice as flat as a fence post.

“I want to see you bear down on that sumbitch,” he says, his grin getting wider. “I want to see you ride.

It’s a spring afternoon in north-central Texas, a few miles south of the town of Stephenville, where Murray owns a breathtakingly beautiful 1,861-acre ranch. More than two hundred head of brindle cattle graze on perfect pastures that slope down toward the Bosque River. Except for the occasional visit from his girlfriend, Julie Adair, a former barrel racer who lives in California, Murray spends his days here alone, on the highest hill overlooking the spread, in a three-bedroom house filled with the memorabilia of one of the most astonishing yet least acknowledged careers in all of sports. Spread throughout his pine-paneled living room are dozens of belt buckles awarded to him for his rodeo victories. In a corner of the dining room are the hand-stitched saddles he received for winning a record seven all-around cowboy championships at the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s National Finals. In rodeo circles his seven titles are the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Byron Nelson’s eleven consecutive PGA tour wins. He has lost the all-around title only three times since 1989, and those years he was injured. No less an authority than Larry Mahan—the renowned rodeo cowboy who held the previous record with six all-around titles—believes Murray’s record will not be broken. “And, barring injury, he could win many more,” Mahan says. “He’s just unbeatable.” This is why I’ve come to the ranch: to try to understand, in the words of one observer, Murray’s “mystical ability” to stay on crazed, whirling beasts.

“Go on. Get up there,” he says to me. “You need to know what this feels like.”

“But there are no pads to cushion my fall,” I point out.

He shrugs. In the time-honored tradition of rodeo, Murray has laid down a challenge, and he wants to see what I’m going to do. Or, to put it in the vernacular of his world, it’s time for me to “cowboy up,” to “show my sack” (“sack” being a rodeo term for, um, a certain component of male genitalia).

I climb onto the back of what looks like a converted metal oil drum, and Murray starts pushing and pulling on a lever behind me to get the thing bucking. Immediately I am being tossed into the air and thrown back down on the bull, over and over. Each jolt nearly shreds my spine. Three seconds later—a literal eternity on the machine—I jump off, wild-eyed. It feels like someone has hit me between the legs with a baseball bat.

“There’s nothing like it, is there?” Murray says, completely deadpan. He then climbs onto the mechanical bull while his ranch foreman, Heraclio, steps forward to grab the lever. Murray fixes his unblinking, light green eyes on the back of the bull. Like a conductor at the start of a symphony, he slowly lifts his left hand in the air: the classic rodeo pose.

Heraclio tugs on the lever, and the machine goes into spasms, but Murray . . . how do I explain this? He looks as if he’s taking a ride in a limousine. He is in such perfect synchronicity with the bucking of the bull, his frame rising and swooping with every explosive thrust, that his upper body hardly moves. His back remains ramrod straight, his chin stays tucked against his chest, and his left hand remains perfectly poised in the air. Eight seconds later, he lightly hops off and looks at me, still a little bent over, my hands grasping my inner thighs to ease the pain.

“And I bet you thought all you had to do was hang on,” he says.

HE MIGHT NOT EVEN BE RECOGNIZED BACK EAST, but in much of the American West he’s revered. He’s always introduced at rodeos as the King of the Cowboys. Kids surround him and plead for autographs. “Buckle bunnies” (the pretty young women who follow rodeo, also known as “shiny brights” because of the colorful Western shirts they wear) throw themselves at him. “Whenever he walks into a rodeo arena, the atmosphere changes, even for the other cowboys,” says Lane Barber, a well-regarded saddle bronc rider. “You’ll be taping up in the locker room, getting ready for the night’s performance, and suddenly there’s Ty. You’ll see the young riders suddenly get real nervous and start whispering, ‘My God, Ty’s here.’”

While almost all cowboys have just one specialty, Murray has mastered rodeo’s three glamour events: bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding. He earns more than a million dollars a year at competitions and through endorsements, the most of any rodeo cowboy in history. Besides dominating the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) circuit, he’s a star on the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour, which brings together the world’s 45 best bull riders for a 29-event season. He’ll hit as many as three rodeos a week scattered thousands of miles apart. During last year’s “Cowboy Christmas”—the lucrative July 4 weekend in which more than thirty rodeos are held across North America—he flew in a private jet so that he could compete in Arizona, Texas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and Alberta, Canada. “It is hard to exaggerate the way rodeo consumes Ty,” says Pam Minick, a former Miss Rodeo America who has worked as a television commentator at rodeos for more than two decades. “He is at the very top of this world, and he is still as driven as a rookie to get out there and prove himself every night. It’s like he’s always looking for the perfect ride.”

In many ways, rodeo is the most anachronistic of sports. Although public address announcers always make a point of draping rodeo with the American flag, calling it a celebration of our glorious frontier traditions, the simple fact is that no one alive can remember what the frontier was, and thus be truly nostalgic for it. There are no more cattle drives or cow towns. There is no open range. Only a tiny fraction of Americans know what it’s like to live in an area where you cannot see a fence. What’s more, the skills shown off at rodeos are largely irrelevant to the operation of a modern-day ranch. Ranchers don’t have the time or the inclination to break wild horses in their pens when they can drive to an auction barn and buy perfectly tame ones, and many ranch hands are not proficient horsemen: They use everything from helicopters to six-wheel all-terrain vehicles to round up cattle—if they have roundups at all. Only occasionally do they need to rope a calf.

Yet rodeo continues to thrive. The PRCA sanctions more than seven hundred rodeos a year around the country, and they’re attended by an estimated 23 million fans. The PBR tour has become so popular that it is now selling out arenas from Florida to Massachusetts to California, and about 1.5 million households tune in each week to the PBR Bud Light Cup on The Nashville Network. While it’s rare to find a rodeo cowboy today who grew up on a ranch—“It’s sort of hard for that to happen anymore, since there are fewer ranches than ever for kids to grow up on,” says eight-time world bull-riding champion Don Gay—there is no shortage of young men wanting to get into the sport. The sons of oil-field workers, electricians, homebuilders, and even fighter pilots, they come mostly from small towns or the edges of cities west of the Mississippi, and they are really no different than other schoolboy athletes. They cut their teeth at the kind of youth rodeo clinics that are held at small, dusty out-of-the-way arenas. They then join their high school rodeo teams, attend colleges with rodeo programs, receive their PRCA cards, and start “goin’ down the road” (the rodeo phrase for competing professionally).

Despite their ranchless backgrounds and college educations, the new generation of rodeo cowboys act pretty much the same as the generations who rode before them. They appear in public in their standard outfit: Western shirt (usually Wrangler), jeans (always Wrangler), scuffed boots (new boots at a rodeo evoke snickers), and cowboy hat (brushed felt in the winter, straw after Easter). They rely on colorful nineteenth-century cowboy language to describe what they do. (After a good ride, they say, “I scraped ’im up good”; after a bad ride, they say, “I rode like a fat lady.”) Around the chutes, they act masculine and unrestrained, bullheaded and dauntless, performing without complaint despite cracked ribs, bruised organs, and torn knees. At most, their rides last eight seconds, as fast as a gunfight, which for them is the whole point. Their rides are an elemental confrontation with wildness: a dangerous dance between man and beast. And when it’s over, the cowboys retrieve their hats that have fallen to the ground, disappear behind the chutes, and head off to another rodeo.

No one exemplifies this persona better than Ty Murray. “This boy is all cowboy, right down to the little toes in his boots,” says Gay. He seems to be straight from central casting: a fearless, fiercely independent throwback to the Old West. In typical cowboy fashion he doesn’t make small talk with strangers, and he’s often laconic in interviews, revealing little about himself because, as he once put it, “I let my riding talk for me.” At a bull-riding event in Odessa one night, when I tried to elicit his opinions on the symbolic meaning of rodeo, Murray fished out a can of Copenhagen, dipped two fingers into its dark, moist contents, packed a rich wad behind his bottom lip, and said, “What in the shit are you talking about?”

In truth, his friends on the rodeo circuit say, Murray possesses a wicked sense of humor and has a cowboy’s love for practical jokes: He once spent an entire PBR rodeo banquet leaning over in his seat at the head table so that he could flick a cigarette lighter under the emcee’s rear end. Like Will Rogers, he takes great pleasure in razzing pretentious characters, especially big-city types. After I asked a series of naive questions about his riding skills, he started calling me Stuart Smalley, after the pathetic, emotionally needy character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live. When he worked as a consultant on the recent western film The Hi-Lo Country, he watched the film’s star, Woody Harrelson, scream in pain after ripping off part of his fingernail on a bucking chute. As several worried assistants gathered around the actor, Murray sauntered up and said in a mock-anxious voice, “Is your little fingernail going to be okay? Do you think you’re going to be okay? By the way, did you notice that three of my buddies over there got dragged around and stomped on by a bunch of bulls? Are you gonna be okay?” Harrelson quickly got the point and stopped complaining.

When other cowboys talk about Murray, they pay him the ultimate cowboy compliment by saying that he is full of “try,” a combination of skill, concentration, and courage. “He’s got so much try in him that he honestly believes he can ride anything with hair on it,” Gay says. In fact, in 1994 Murray was arrested in Colorado for “unlawfully harassing wildlife.” He had been seen chasing down an elk in a snowmobile, jumping on its back, and then riding it through a snowy pasture. He paid a small fine, he says, “but I got about $50,000 worth of fun out of the deal, so I guess I came out all right.”

“Ty is just one of those people who loves a challenge—any challenge,” says his close friend Charles Soileau, a saddle bronc rider who also lives in Stephenville. (Known as the Cowboy Capital of the World, Stephenville is home to at least a dozen top rodeo cowboys who like its pastoral setting and the fact that the Dallas–Fort Worth airport is only a two-hour drive away.) “He’s always wanting to flip a coin to see who will buy dinner. If you’re working out with him and you do fifty push-ups, he’ll keep going until he does ten more. And he’s so competitive with himself that whenever he gets bucked off, he’ll never say it was because the animal was too good. He’ll always tell you that he pussed out.”

TY MURRAY WAS BORN JUST OUTSIDE PHOENIX, and the day he came home from the hospital his parents put a tiny pair of cowboy boots on him. “If there was someone born to ride, I imagine it was me,” he says. Butch and Joy Murray had no qualms about their son learning the ropes, as it were, of rodeo. As teenagers, they had participated in rodeos themselves. Joy, a feisty redhead, had even won bull-riding trophies. “As a family, we didn’t ski or bowl or play golf,” says Butch, who broke colts and trained horses for a living. “We went to participate in rodeos on weekends.”

Butch taught Ty and his two older sisters to rope and ride. The Murray girls became competent barrel racers, but Butch quickly realized that Ty was a rodeo prodigy. Joy swears that the first words he ever said were “boo wider” (baby talk for “bull rider”) and that as soon as he could walk, he would try to ride anything he could get his legs over, including her sewing machine cover. When he was two, he was riding calves while his father ran beside him, holding on to his belt loops to keep him from falling. By three, he was telling his father he didn’t need any more help.

Butch, who now works the starting gate at the Downs racetrack in Albuquerque, still marvels over his son’s early drive to become a rodeo champion. To improve his balance, young Ty walked on the top of fences. He got a unicycle and rode it while holding weights in his hands. Using the money he earned doing chores, he bought a bucking machine and rode it so often that he had to put cardboard inside his chaps to keep his thighs from bleeding. At night he went to sleep lying on his back with his toes turned out and his heels pushed inward—the spurring position used in the bareback and saddle bronc events. Joy still has a paper Ty wrote in the third grade in response to the question, “If you could accomplish anything in the world, what would it be?” He said he wanted to beat Mahan’s record of six all-around titles. “How would a boy that age already have that kind of a goal established in his mind?” Butch asks. “Back then, no one thought Mahan’s record would ever be broken.”

By the age of nine, Murray was riding small bulls. The second bull he rode bucked him off, stepped on his jaw, and broke it. But his parents never tried to slow down his progress. “He knew that hard knocks were part of the sport,” Butch says. When I mention that nine seems an extraordinarily young age to be riding an 1,800-pound animal, he chuckles. Clearly, I am not of his world. “Listen,” he says, “if your nine-year-old son broke his leg skiing, would you tell him that he could never ski again?”

Murray was thirteen when Mahan saw him compete in the Little Britches National Finals in Colorado. “I thought, ‘My God, he’s riding bulls better than I did when I was a world champion,’” Mahan recalls. “He was already a master of his mind and body, almost Zen-like in his control.” Murray’s riding style, paradoxically, belied the image of the rough-and-tumble cowboy: He was cool, clean, and precise, his free arm sweeping up and down as smoothly as the second hand of a clock. Still, he always came up with innovative ways to hone his skills. He even joined his high school’s gymnastics team to improve his balance and coordination. “He really took physical fitness to a new level in rodeo,” Gay says. “You’d touch his arm and it would be so hard you’d think you were touching a hood ornament on a Studebaker.”

In 1987, entering the bareback, saddle bronc, and bull-riding competitions, Murray easily won the national high school rodeo all-around title. It was at that point that he came to Texas, where he enrolled at tiny Odessa College, a two-year school that had a top-notch rodeo program and was near a number of PRCA rodeos. In 1989 he surprised no one by winning the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s all-around title, but he also did well enough on the professional circuit (college rodeo rules allow students to compete in both amateur and pro competitions) to qualify for the all-around championship at the PRCA’s National Finals in Las Vegas. During those ten nights, Murray lasted the full eight seconds on some of rodeo’s most famous horses. He became only the second cowboy in history to stay on a crazed snorting bronc named Mr. T., and he became the only right-handed rider ever to beat a writhing, twisting horse called Wolfman. That year he won his first all-around title, which is given to the cowboy who performs best in at least two events. At twenty, he was the youngest all-around winner in history.

In some ways, that unfathomable victory was the equivalent of Tiger Woods’ acing the Masters in his rookie year—except that unlike Woods, Murray has lived up to the outsized expectations he created. In each of the next five years, he returned to the finals and won the all-around title. For the next three years he was injured, but he came back to win for the seventh time in 1998.

What has made his success even more incredible is that he competes in the three grueling “roughstock” events: bareback, saddle bronc, and bull riding. (His closest competitors for the all-around title have always been cowboys who enter the timed events—team roping, calf roping, and steer wrestling—which are much safer and have far less popularity and commercial appeal.) Although at first glance he looks like someone who couldn’t handle such rigor, he is quite a physical specimen. Like a gymnast, he has no measurable body fat. Muscles bulge in his arms, back, and shoulders, and his fingers are unusually thick, which is why he is able to put viselike grips on the braided rawhide ropes he holds while riding. “It’s not just his strength that is so surprising,” says Tandy Freeman, a Dallas sports doctor who specializes in treating rodeo cowboys. “He has this uncanny ability to control his body. He possesses a kind of equilibrium on an animal that you don’t often see.”

THIS SPRING I TRAILED AFTER MURRAY, trying to get insight into his fierce obsession with making the perfect ride. To the untrained eye, he appears to be doing the same thing every time he rides: He looks like he’s hanging on to a rope for dear life, his body a blur of motion. But it’s much more complicated than that. “It’s like he’s doing three different sports three times a night,” says Tuff Hedeman, another Texas rodeo great. “Each one requires a very specific set of skills. You don’t know how hard it is.”

In February, at the prestigious Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show and Rodeo in Fort Worth, I watched him do his three events in the space of two hours. First up was bareback, in which a rider can use only one thin leather rigging, with a small handle similar to that of a suitcase, to keep himself on the horse. During a ride, the horse will jerk forward so hard that a weak cowboy will feel as if his arm is being ripped out of its socket. With high back-leg kicks, the horse will then whip the cowboy back and forth so that his head and upper back slam viciously against its rump. J. Pat Evans, a former Dallas Cowboys team physician who founded the Justin Sports Medicine rodeo program, once told me that a bareback rider “can take as many hard hits in eight seconds as a professional football player does in an entire game.”

That day Murray had drawn Bold Eagle, a 1,300-pound horse who got irritated as he lowered himself on its back. Bold Eagle banged against the cage and snorted angrily, twisting its frame to get a look at him. Rodeo audiences never get a sense of an animal’s pent-up tension before a ride, but as Murray later told me, “the best horses know when it’s show time. They come out of that chute wanting to rear up and rip you off their back.”

“Watch ’em, Ty, watch ’em,” said a few of the cowboys standing around the chute. But Murray didn’t seem to be listening. He cinched his leather rigging tight around the horse, shoved his hand into the handhold, turned his toes out, and pushed his spurs into its skin just above the shoulders. If he wasn’t in that position when he came out of the chute, he’d be disqualified.

Murray fixed his eyes on the back of the horse. When he was ready, he simply nodded. The gate opened and the horse jumped out, bucking quickly to the right, as if it was trying to slam him against the railing. Above the music of the arena band and the excited play-by-play of the announcer (“Ride ’em, Ty, ride ’em! Show ’em your try, Ty!”), I could hear the back hooves of the horse as they slammed to the ground. Yet Murray was staying right in position, never leaning too far to the left or right, spurring Bold Eagle’s neck with each buck. It was as if he was thinking with his spinal cord, instantly reacting to every move the horse made. In cowboy lingo Murray had “tapped off.” He and the horse were in perfect rhythm, caught up in a flamboyant, furious ballet. When the buzzer hit, Murray leaped off, landing on his feet like a cat, and walked off to rousing cheers.

Forty-five minutes later, he was back at the chutes for his saddle bronc ride, a surprisingly difficult event that rewards timing and finesse. In saddle bronc a cowboy uses a modified Western saddle and stirrups and is allowed to hold a rein with only one hand. To avoid a spill, the cowboy must distribute his weight perfectly between his backside and his feet (which, according to the rules, must stay in the stirrups). If he grips the rein too tightly, the horse is liable to pull him right over its head. If the grip is too loose, he’ll likely be thrown off the horse’s back end. Meanwhile, he must maintain a complicated spurring motion in time with the horse’s bucking, moving his spurs from front to back (rather than up and down, as is required in bareback).

Murray had drawn a bronc called Black Jack, and to borrow a phrase from J. Frank Dobie, he had a belly full of bedsprings. But by the horse’s second jump, it was obvious that Murray was in complete control, holding the rein directly in front of his chest and showing so much “lick” (spurring motion) that he almost jabbed himself in the butt. Eight seconds later, the buzzer rang, and he again landed on his feet.

The last event of the night, of course, was bull riding (all rodeos schedule bull riding last to keep the audience around), and Ty had drawn bull number 74. Bareback might be the toughest event physically and saddle bronc the most demanding technically, but bull riding remains the most thrilling and terrifying confrontation between man and animal. Ten times a contestant’s weight, a bull can rise four feet in the air, drop almost straight down, and then—with shocking nimbleness—spin right and then left. The best riders are not the strongest cowboys but those who, like Murray, are quick enough to react. “If you make one small shift the wrong way on a good bull, you do not stay on,” Murray told me before his Fort Worth ride. “And it’s when you’re down that you become the most vulnerable, because that’s when a bull will try to trample you or hook you with his horns.”

Indeed, he has had friends killed or paralyzed by bulls; he has seen them get “hung up,” get their hand stuck in the rigging, and dragged around the arena until all the ligaments in their arm were torn. Most of his own injuries have come from run-ins with “rank” (difficult to ride) bulls, but so far, none has been particularly frightening or career threatening. When I asked him the inevitable question about fear, whether he sees his friends get hurt and thinks it could happen to him, he showed himself to be his father’s son. “Hey,” he said, “do you stop driving your own car when you hear about someone else having a car wreck?”

Murray took a quick drink of water—a sign above the fountain warned, “No Spitting”—and headed for the chutes. Everything was still, like the calm before a tornado, but when the gate opened number 74 bellowed, shot into the air, paused for a moment, and then crashed down again, a literal ton of muscle and bone hitting the earth hard enough to rupture his rider’s spleen. Once again, however, Murray had anticipated all the moves, thrusting his chest forward when the bull leaped forward, then flinging his left arm over his head to keep himself centered when the bull went into a tight spin.

For the third time that night, he rode to the eight-second buzzer and landed on his feet. His scores for the three rides were among the best of the night. Afterward, a couple of cowboys dropped by the locker room to congratulate him, but he barely said thank you. “The most important ride is always the next one,” he mumbled, and then he was gone into the night.

MOST COWBOYS IN THE ROUGHSTOCK events retire in their early thirties. Their body cannot withstand the beatings. But Murray is in such peak physical condition that he could keep riding into his late thirties or early forties, especially if he cuts back to one event. He admits he is tempted to give up his quest for another PRCA all-around title to concentrate on the more lucrative PBR tour, which has a $1.5 million purse at its national finals, but he has no plans to do so as of now. He could probably be far more famous if he wanted—as it is, he appears in ads for Wrangler, and a Ty Murray video game will soon be released—but he’s not interested in self-promotion. “To me, the joy is in the riding,” he says. “When I retire, I’ll return to my ranch at Stephenville, and I’ll need nothing more.”

Murray is indeed a throwback to the Old West, a final tether to a purer age. On the day that he gives me a tour of his ranch, we drive over a low spot in the Bosque River where the water gurgles over the stones, and then we head up a hill, where I see three grave markers. “Those are the graves of bucking horses who were famous in their day,” Murray tells me. “But they had no place to go after they were retired. I brought those horses here so that they would have a nice place to live before they died.”

I look at him, startled at his apparent sentimental streak. “Those horses gave me some great rides,” he says. “I’ll never forget what it felt like to be on them. It’s a feeling that’s impossible to describe.”

In a while he drops me off back at his house. He is busy: It’s calving season, and he needs to check on his cattle. But all the talk about rodeo and riding has stirred him. Just before I leave, he points to his metal shed, where the mechanical bull sits silently.

“Why don’t we give it another go?” Ty Murray asks, and his lips start twitching upward.

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