Ty Murray, Jordon Briggs, and James Pickens Jr. gush about the wonderful world of riding horses.
Riding horses is more than a sport. It is an artform, a science, and, according to these equestrian athletes, a joy. Legends Ty Murray, Jordon Briggs, and James Pickens Jr. chatted with C&I about the highlights of their illustrious careers and what keeps them in the saddle even when things get tough.
Photography: Courtesy of Paige Murray
In the early ’90s, and by happenstance, “King of the Cowboys” Ty Murray relocated two elderly bucking horses — Rusty, one of “the coolest bucking horses I had ever ridden,” and bareback champion Hermes Worm, “who I also had a lot of luck riding” — to his ranch in Stephenville, Texas, to live out their retirement in peaceful tranquility. That number eventually grew to 12, and over the next 25-plus years, Murray has laid to rest some of the most famous bucking horses in history on the banks of the Bosque River that runs through his ranch.
“I love horses and have always loved horses and believe that they are the sweetest, most magnificent and misunderstood creatures on the planet,” Murray says. “All the horses retired here are very decorated, top-tiered horses and ones that I have either ridden or been bucked off of. Stock contractors started sending me older horses, and this became a project that I have really enjoyed. These horses have been everywhere, with different personalities, and most have lived out here to be 30 years old or older.”
When most babies are just learning how to walk, Murray was riding calves in the Arizona desert where he grew up. At the age of 8, he helped his dad, Butch, then a rodeo hand, break wild horses. Murray rode his first bareback horse in a local rodeo four years later. In 1989, he competed in his first National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, where he qualified in bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, and at age 20 became the youngest all-around world champion in PRCA history. His meteoric rise landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as he would go on to win the World All-Around Champion Cowboy title seven times between 1989 and 1998, breaking earning records in bareback, saddle bronc, and bull riding. He cofounded the Professional Bull Riders in the early 1990s, serving as president of the organization in the early 2000s.
With a deep, lifelong love of horses that goes way beyond the competition arena, Murray’s passion is to make the world a better place for the horse. When he was just 20, he realized he lacked a true partnership with his horses and has since devoted his life to learning better horsemanship. He has donated his time and knowledge at horsemanship programs and clinics around the country, focusing on “learning how to communicate with a horse in a way that makes sense to the horse — from roping or cutting a cow to backing up or going through a gate,” Murray says.
“Bad horsemanship has been handed down through centuries and is based around force and containment. This makes a horse hate you more and trust you less. Horses do not learn well through force, fear, pain, or intimidation. Good horsemanship works with a horse’s instincts and their method of communication.” Along those lines, one of Murray’s top recommended books is Evidence-Based Horsemanship by Martin Black and Dr. Stephen Peters.
These days, you’ll find Murray passing along his horse knowledge to others, including the children he shares with his wife, cookbook author Paige Murray. Riding with 11-year-old Kase and 4-year-old Oakley, Murray believes that part of his job as a dad is to keep them safe in the saddle. “My son is just at an age where I can really start to help him become a good rider. Staying on a horse’s back is pretty simple, but being a great rider goes way, way deeper than that.”
Photography: Courtesy of Phil Doyle
When Jordon Briggs was a kid and her horse was a stick made of wood, she would play like she was Charmayne James, the most decorated barrel racer of all time and the winner of 11 WPRA barrel racing world championships, the most in history. “Charmayne was so amazing,” Briggs says. “When I was a little kid riding a stick horse at a rodeo, I was always Charmayne, and the stick horse was, of course, Scamper!”
Fast forward to last year’s National Finals Rodeo and an all-grown-up Briggs was sitting at No. 1 in the world going into the competition. Although perhaps gunning for that second barrel-racing world title, she finished the year very respectably as Reserve World Champion. Continuing the winning streak on Rollo, the beloved horse that Briggs and her husband, Justin, have trained and she has competed on, they won the second straight Nutrena Horse of the Year Award in 2022.
“My proudest moment was when I got a phone call in late 2021 that my fellow competitors and peers who I look up to voted Rollo the AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year,” Briggs says. Little did she know that he would win that title again a year later. Jordon and husband Justin had purchased Rollo in 2014 as a yearling from Busby Quarter Horses in Texas and several years later almost sold him when Jordon became pregnant. But then she thought, Why can’t I ride him with a toddler in tow? Their daughter, Bexley, is now five years old and a budding equestrian.
Before tying the knot with Justin and taking his last name, Jordon’s maiden name was Peterson. Yes, the daughter of four-time WPRA barrel-racing champion Kristie Peterson. Kristie’s famous mount was Bozo, another wonder horse and a five-time AQHA Horse of the Year winner. Both women are in the record books as the first mother-daughter duo to win a WPRA World Title. Jordon is also a Durango Boots ambassador and has been profiled on “What Winners Wear With Paul Evans,” narrated by mom Kristie.
Raised on a cattle ranch in Elbert, Colorado, Briggs spent much of her childhood on the road with her parents. Although Briggs was on a horse and riding by herself at the age of 3, unlike so many other young, soon-to-be competitive riders, she didn’t start competing at junior rodeos until she was 8. She’s always just loved to ride, growing up on the road with her mom, and traveling to rodeos across the West in a Capri camper. She would ride bareback on any horse that other competitors would let her borrow, learning the joy of just being around them. She was 12 when she first shared Bozo with her mom and competed in junior competitions.
“My mom just loved horses and she would purchase them at sales, ones she could afford to piddle with and try to make a buck with them,” Briggs says. “She bought Bozo as a year-old wild mustang for $400 and trained him to become a champion. He did great his futurity year, making more than she did as a bus driver. She took a leap of faith with my dad, who had managed a ranch in Elbert, Colorado.” They both quit their job and bought a ranch with Bozo’s winnings.
Jordon would go on to train horses herself and become half of her own famous horse-rider pairing. In her early 20s, Briggs competed in the 2009 NFR, but did so as a self-proclaimed “homebody with a 4-year-old daughter and husband.” She never had any intention of returning to rodeo life on the road — that is, until Rollo stole her heart. “He is the only reason I want to rodeo — we can count on him to make a living for our family.” Briggs says it’s a huge accomplishment to get into the winter rodeos. “Your goal is to capitalize on those rodeos, which pay so well. When you have a horse like Rollo, it is possible to be selective and not have to run his legs off. My goal in the wintertime is to give him a few weeks off after the NFR and get ready for the winter rodeos, so his summers are not so grueling.”
James Pickens Jr.
Photography: Courtesy of Sal Owen
You might know him as Dr. Richard Webber on Grey’s Anatomy, where hospital emergencies and intern intrigues have ruled the day for his nearly 20-year stint on the show, but in real life, James Pickens Jr. is cowboy to his core. Growing up watching classic westerns on TV with his father and brother, Pickens fantasized about being a cowboy and pretended the arm of his chair was a horse, with dreams of riding his steed off into the sunset. The fictional chief of surgery at Seattle Grace, Pickens is a member of the United States Team Roping Championships and competes in roping events across the country.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Pickens didn’t have much of a chance to ride until moving to New York. That’s when both his riding and acting career started to take off. “I lived down the street from an iconic Central Park riding stable that has since closed down,” Pickens says. “I would ride down 9th Avenue, wait for the light to turn green, and go into the park and connect with a small riding path.”
A move to Los Angeles allowed him to ride his buddy’s old Appendix Quarter Horse, Rhythm. “He was a really kind horse, and I got involved with team penning and had a really great time. Soon I bought a horse that was more suited to the adrenaline rush I found in team roping.”
As his career blossomed, he and his wife decided they wanted to get involved with inner-city youth, so they founded the James Pickens Jr. Foundation to help instill in others the same passion he had for the West as a child. “I wanted to do something more impactful on a person-to-person level than just sending a check,” he says. “I was able to use the relationships I’ve developed with a lot of successful cowboys, including PRCA competitors, and 16 years ago we filed for nonprofit status and started the foundation.” Through it, Pickens produces and hosts the James Pickens Team Roping Event and celebrity/professional charity cowboy roping events throughout California.
Photography: Courtesy of Sal Owen
The events raise money for Hands 4 Hope, a safe haven for kids after school, providing hot meals and mentoring their talents, and a cowboy camp for inner-city kids called Camp Gid D Up in Phelan, California, a 30-acre ranch where kids learn about the natural world and stay active with archery, horseshoes, fishing, and riding on wooded trails.
“The West, and in particular the cowboy, has always been seen as a person of independence and self-reliance — and ‘what you see is what you get,’” Pickens says. “Those values translate over to any sector of life, and I think kids more than anyone — especially those who are underprivileged and underserved — need to see, experience, recognize, and feel comfortable with these values.”
Balancing his Hollywood and horse worlds, Pickens boards his three quarter horses at a ranch just a 30-minute drive from where he lives. The property has a huge roping arena and acres of riding trails.
Grey’s Anatomy is currently in its 18th season on ABC, and being Dr. Webber is no small demand. “We’ve watched him evolve over the years as teacher and mentor, interacting with the interns and learning that he has faults that he has to navigate as well,” Pickens says. “I’d like to think that Webber is incredibly human — that is where the engagement comes from, exploring his ups and downs of both physical and personal challenges as a doctor and a man. But at the end of the day, the show is incredibly well-written with great character development.”
How does he burn off the stress of playing a lead on a hit show? Horses, of course — roping in particular. “[Roping has] been a lot of fun. It’s a great escape from the craziness that is Hollywood,” he told The Team Roping Journal. “It’s been a nice therapy for me, even if I’m not roping, to get out on the trail with your horse and get away from the madness. It’s had a real therapeutic effect on my life.”
This article appears in our January 2024 issue.