Ride ’em cowgirl

MEEKER I The Fourth of July has been called the cowboy’s Christmas because of all the rodeos competitors can enter over the course of the holiday. It falls in the middle of the traditional rodeo series that finales in Las Vegas, Nev., in December. The finals used to be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, in a historic union of cowboys and the Big Apple.
Rodeo as an event has been around for more than 100 years and as its appeal has grown, so have the amazing acts that accompany the rodeo. Perhaps none are more famous than the days of Roy Rogers and the unbelievable trick riders that performed during the brief intermissions between events. One of those amazing trick riders comes to Meeker every summer to visit family and enjoy the beautiful White River Valley.
Mother of local teacher Teresa Anderson, Kay Murray and her husband Don have been coming to Meeker during the summer months for 13 years. Kay and Don have been married for 55 years and have seven children, two of whom live in Meeker. They have 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Although Kay’s children and grandchildren are one of her favorite subjects to discuss, she can also tell a story about a career thousands paid to watch and very few could perform.
Kay Ritmire grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., just a city girl with a love of horses. However, her dream was not just to ride horses but to perform incredible horseback riding tricks. She and a high school friend went in together to get their first horse and saddle and traveled across town to their riding practices in a street car.
“After working with the horse and cleaning stalls, we got the back of the street car to ourselves,” Kay said. They practiced stunts along a railroad track that forced the horse to run in a straight line.
“The horse would usually stop at the end.”
The two friends performed at local rodeos but had to take turns since they only had one horse. According to Kay, they “flipped” for the horse and saddle and Kay lost, so she had to start over saving money for her own horse.
She met the right people and after trading letters with stock contractors, landed herself a spot performing in rodeos across the country. She performed in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Colorado and more before making it to the World Championship Rodeo in Madison Square Garden and then on to Boston Garden. In New York, she performed 50 shows over the course of six weeks in 1955, doing ground work stunts on her horse at full speed. Vaulting, swinging and sometimes coming up backwards in her saddle just to jump from side to side in four unbelievable passes in front of thousands of spectators.
The trick riders’ performance was as gutsy as any of the rodeo events and through the years she had some injuries. During one show, a box of popcorn thrown in front of her horse caused him to stumble. She fell, and ended up with a serious concussion. Being strong and fearless, however, she continued to ride and eventually traveled overseas for a European tour that showcased the talent of these trick riders.
The horses traveled to France via a freighter that took 20 days to make the journey. Kay and the other performers traveled on a cruise liner. They had shows in Paris, France, and then traveled to the south of France to perform in the bullrings.
“The ground was not good, it was dirt on concrete and the horses would fall quite a bit,” Kay said of the bullrings.
It was 1956, and the world was in the midst of the Cold War. The scheduled six-month tour was to end in Spain but poor publicity shut it down it three months early. The journey home for the horses was an exhausting 40-day affair. The performers got to fly home after being away three months.
Bobby Estas was the man in charge of coordinating the trip and the work he did was unbelievable for that time. To simply accommodate the people and animals was a feat in and of itself. Kay enjoyed the time so much because of the people she met and the places she saw. She made friends who later worked as movie stunt riders for movies.
“I entertained the idea,” she said. But a career in stunt riding doesn’t lend itself to longevity. She vividly recalls the horses she rode, a bay mare she called J. and a gelding named Fritz that was the better looking of the two but didn’t have the gait the mare had. A trick riding horse’s gait is imperative to create the lift and consistency needed to perform the gravity-defying stunts.
Along the way, Kay met people like Roy Rogers, worked with Gene Autry and hit the rodeo circuit with world champions whose names are now in the Rodeo Hall of Fame. Her picture the contestants of the World Championship Rodeo is in the Women’s Rodeo Hall of Fame.
The life of a rodeo performer was exciting and the physical conditioning and mental strength necessary for the countless performances would be unheard of in today’s business. Back then, it was just the way it was. The risks riders took could end their careers on any given night. Talking to Kay, however, you wouldn’t know it was so amazing. She tells the stories as though it were just a job she did before she started a family.
She began riding when she was 14 and ended her career when she was nearly 21, when she fell in love and married Don Murray. The pictures of her performing are absolutely priceless and valued possessions for her children. When she tells the stories, her eyes light up, just as her grandchildren’s do when they talk about her. Wearing a homemade necklace that reads “Nana,” made by her granddaughter, Ellie Anderson, it seems she is more proud of her kids than of her amazing stint as a trick rider. Kay Murray is a remarkable woman, yet so humble people who meet her in passing would never know she had such an incredible career. Her story is testimony to the importance of taking time to listen. There is a great story behind every face.