At age 30, rodeo legend Ty Murray achieved his life’s ambition: winning a record-setting seventh all-around world championship. Five years into his retirement, the King of the Cowboys still has plenty of unfinished business.
Just a short walk from Ty Murray's back door sits a weight room in desperate need of use. The collected dust is proof that Ty hasn’t so much as lifted a duster in the room—much less a weight—since the day he retired.
It’s been five years since Ty walked away from Professional Bull Riders competition and eight years since he stepped away from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. With nine PRCA world titles to his credit—seven all-around and two bull-riding championships—he’s at least the greatest rough-stock cowboy of the modern era, and possibly the best of all time. Rodeo fans can only wonder how many more titles he might’ve won if three injury-filled seasons hadn’t stalled his quest for that record-breaking seventh all-around title (finally won in 1998).
Rest assured, however, Ty isn’t sitting around his 2,200-acre ranch just outside Stephenville, Texas, worrying about missed opportunities. And he isn’t wasting any time with those weights these days, either. Enjoying life and the rewards of being a cowboy who seemingly made all the right financial decisions since the day he turned 18, Ty’s resting comfortably in retirement at age 37.
But as a ranch owner and still the most recognizable face of his rodeo generation, there’s plenty of work left to be done.
“I haven’t done an exercise since the day I retired—haven’t lifted a single weight,” Murray says without an ounce of shame.
This is surprising because of the dedication he showed to working out and training during his career. Intense workouts were also the norm as he rehabbed from various injuries.
“I really liked training when I was riding because it felt like an extension of trying to win,” he says. “It was never something I dreaded or that I had to make myself do. Because of that, I haven’t had any desire to train since I retired. But I do a lot of work around the ranch, so I’m in pretty decent shape even now.”
The weight-training program he followed is a prime example of Murray’s dedication to the business of winning. He purchased most of the equipment with earnings from his first professional season and used them regularly for a dozen years. Just 19 at the time, he could have joined many of his peers in blowing through every dollar earned, but instead invested in himself and his future with one simple purchase.
Of course, Ty had a vision for life from an early age. Breaking the PRCA all-around record (held first by his idol Larry Mahan, and later shared by Tom Ferguson) was a goal since his grade-school days. By age 16, however, the Arizona cowboy had started saving for his own ranch. Ten years later, he purchased his Texas outfit, at the time just 1,800 acres. He’s since added on bits and pieces of land as they’ve become available.
“Everything I did in the arena and sponsorship-wise was geared toward achieving my goals,” Ty explains. “I’m a fourthgeneration cowboy, so I knew even as a little kid that rodeo wasn’t something I could do until I was 65, and then retire. I’ve always known that most cowboys had to go find a real job when they retired.
“Everything I have is because I knew early on that I had to treat my winnings and my business wisely. I couldn’t just act like there was never going to be another poor day.”
The guidance of rodeo veterans such as Mahan influenced Ty’s business decisions. Mahan convinced him that sponsorship deals should include more than free clothing. Thus, Ty set what he believed was a “fair value” for his name and services, and stuck to it, even when it meant turning down sponsorship proposals.
“I’ve seen guys start to focus on the sponsorship dollars more than riding or roping,” Ty says. “As a cowboy, you can’t forget that performance in the arena is what matters. That’s the whole reason companies are interested in you. Winning equals television time and television time equals interested sponsors.
“Cowboys need to understand the business side of the sport and be ready to deal with it, but winning has to come first. If you don’t win, there’ll be a lot less of that other stuff to deal with.”
Talking business with Ty these days naturally leads to conversations about PBR. The organization got its start in 1992 when 20 bull riders chipped in $1,000 each in start-up money.
“Obviously, the PBR has seen tremendous growth,” Murray says. “It’s been such a magical thing because the right guys came together at the right time and were hard-headed enough and driven enough to see their vision come true. All the expertise and money in the world couldn’t re-create that scenario.”
A 2007 merger with Spire Capital made each of PBR’s original investors “ultra-rich.” But the fact that the PBR world champion now earns a $1 million bonus leaves Ty smiling. Add in that PBR has helped millions of fans across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Australia develop a better understanding of bull riding, and Ty beams like a proud father watching his son hit a home run.
“These days, a PBR rider can win nearly as much in one year as I won in my whole PRCA career [$1.9 million],” he says. “This is a dangerous sport and I think it’s about time guys earned the money they deserve for being successful. I’m as proud of what PBR has accomplished as anything I did in my riding career.”
Plenty to Do
With that riding career long behind him, Ty has invested much of his time in two things: his ranch and the horses who call it home.
He’s just the third owner in the ranch’s 160-year history and has taken his role as historical caretaker seriously. Dilapidated old ranch buildings have been meticulously rebuilt to preserve the founding family’s influence. Numbers on the cow-calf operation are kept intentionally low, at about 200 mother cows. Hunting is strictly prohibited, although the various lakes and ponds on the place are great for fishing.
“The Bosque River runs through the ranch, and then we have four creeks, two lakes and seven ponds. That’s a lot of water for a kid who grew up in Arizona,” Ty says. “Having all this grass, trees and water is just incredible. The best part is the diversity. Parts of the ranch have big, scattered oaks and a lot of water; then, down by the river, we have big hay meadows and pecan trees. The other side is wide open, with just a few mesquite trees.
“I’m lucky in that I don’t have to work the ranch for all it’s worth. I don’t have to overgraze it just to try and get by from one year to the next. The cattle I do have are pretty easy for me to handle with the travel that I have to do.”
Traveling to a dozen or so PBR events a year, mostly to do television work as a color commentator, makes up the majority of Ty’s business travel. But there’s always a handful of sponsorrelated appearances and “celebrity” events he attends with his girlfriend, musician and songwriter Jewel.
“Rodeo will break most cowboys of craving travel,” he says. “I’m really happy just to be home at the ranch. I enjoy the life I have here. I’ve seen other athletes struggle with retirement. They spend the rest of their lives wishing they were still in the limelight.
“But even as much as I loved riding and competing, that’s a feeling I can’t relate to now.”
A part of Ty’s past, however, is never far from his ranch home. Several retired bucking horses roam the ranch. Ty started this retirement home program even before his rodeo career ended. A handful of the program’s first horses have been buried on the ranch, headstones marking their career accomplishments.
“It started with Rusty, an old bronc Harry Vold owned,” Ty recalls. “He’d gotten old and was bucking in the B-string with college kids pounding out 63s on him every weekend. I told Harry to send me the horse and I’d retire him at my ranch. One thing led to another and several guys started sending me retired horses.”
Cowboy Turned Horseman
In recent years, Ty has devoted plenty of time to working with the 17 head of horses on his ranch. Most were gifts from friends, such as former rodeo cowboys Dave Appleton and Sid Steiner.
“I don’t really need 17 horses, because I don’t breed or sell horses,” Ty says. “I don’t ride horses for the public or go to cuttings, futurities or team ropings. But riding horses on the ranch is something that really brings me peace.”
As his rodeo career wound down, Ty developed friendships with horsemen Dennis Reis and Craig Cameron in his attempt to become a better horseman. He made his name as a rough-stock rider, but Ty grew up competing in every event offered at junior rodeos, so he’s no stranger to roping and other events that require a good horse.
Having trained his share of horses in those early days, Ty bemoans the invention of what he calls the “trick horse.”
“I’ve seen a lot of great heading, heeling and bulldogging horses,” he says, “and the reason they’re great at it is because [their handlers] have run four million steers on them. The horse doesn’t even have to respond to the rider anymore because he knows his job so well.
“When you see great riders or great horsemen, their horses are great at everything they ask the horses to do. That’s because the horses never have to guess what the riders want. Great horses with great riders can do things right the first time because the horses are following communication from their riders. It’s not about teaching the horses to do tricks.”
Ty credits Cameron and Reis, among others, as horsemen who’ve helped him develop in recent years.
“They were friends who saw that I really wanted to learn,” Ty recalls. “Horsemanship is something you can always get better at.”
Ty competed in Cameron’s first Extreme Cowboy Race on a 2-year-old. According to Cameron, Ty might’ve won the event had he been willing to push his horse harder.
“But the horse was more important to him than winning,” he says. “That’s a sign of a good horseman.”
The two first hooked up after Ty’s mom, Joy, attended a Cameron clinic in 2000. The men live just 20 minutes apart and, since meeting, have shared countless conversations and lessons on horsemanship. Cameron says the two have covered everything from groundwork to colt starting to collection.
“Typical Ty, if he’s going to ride, he wants to be the best at it,” Cameron says. “He’s full of enthusiasm and questions and a desire to get better. So he’s pretty easy to teach.”
Reis echoes Cameron’s comments, pointing out that Ty joined him for a three-month clinic at the Reis Ranch in 2003, and joined a class with several first-time horse owners.
“We started at the beginning, but Ty was very humble,” Reis recalls. “There’s a reason he’s the world’s greatest cowboy, and that’s because he’s very teachable.”
“Rodeo is too dangerous to be a hobby,” Ty says. “It has to be something you think about every day. You have to eat, sleep and drink it. I felt that way my whole career until right at the end. When I lost that feeling, I knew it was time to walk away.”
With all the money involved these days, Ty sees a new generation of contestants who aren’t always in it for the right reasons. Like wannabe-rock stars, many of today’s bull riders are most interested in the wealth and fame that accompany the sport.
“There are some young guys who’ve grown up watching PBR and have stars in their eyes,” he says. “They need to know that whenever you do something for the wrong reasons, it’s going to show. It’s like being a musician. If you want to be successful, it’s got to be about the music. To be a cowboy, you have to love being around horses, bulls and livestock. The difference is, if you’re a musician and you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, you’re just going to suck. If you’re a bull rider for the wrong reasons, you might get killed.
“I didn’t become a cowboy to be rich and famous. When I started, those two things weren’t usually associated with cowboys. I did it because I loved the challenge of riding bulls and bucking horses.”
Walking away from competition was easier than Ty figured it would be. When he retired, he’d made roughly 8,000 rough-stock rides and was ready for the next stage of his life.
“I see young guys now who are just ate up with bull riding and crave it like nothing else,” he says. “I had so much in common with them at one point in my life, but I can’t even identify with them anymore. I haven’t felt a need to compete since I retired. Some guys can’t walk away from that competitive urge, but I was able to move on.”
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. For more on Ty Murray, visit tymurray.com