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Happy trails Audrey O’Brien Griffin: Locals remember late cowgirl legend

Happy trails Audrey O’Brien Griffin: Locals remember late cowgirl legend

From the 2019's Best: Collection of the top stories of the year on SYVNews.com series
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Local horsewoman Audrey O’Brien Griffin — a 2008 National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee and renowned 1950s Flying Valkyries stunt woman — died on July 12 at the age of 82 — in the saddle, on a ranch, while herding cattle.

To honor her legacy, I will share my 2014 Horsemanship Radio podcast interview with Audrey, as well as a few parting words from her loving friends and members of the horse community.

When Audrey O’Brien Griffin was 19 years old, she left home to perform with the Roman Riding Group as part of a Wild West show. The troupe headed to Brussels, Belgium with Casey Tibbs, an actor and Hall of Fame saddle bronc rider, Vern Elliot, June and Buster Ivory and about 110 hand-picked cowgirls, cowboys, and American Indians.

They square danced on horseback, performed pole bending, barrel racing, and Casey Tibbs rode saddle broncs.

Audrey's amazing life story would have been interesting enough with that chapter, but it was to get a lot richer by what she imparted onto the Santa Ynez Valley.

I asked her a question recently: "How did a city girl end up in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame?" She simply described herself as a "city girl born with a country heart."

Her mother told her that when she was no more than six months old and sitting on her lap in the car, little Audrey would go ballistic when they drove by a pony ride. As soon as Audrey could sit up, her mother would let her ride the ponies.

Years later, Audrey said she still felt that wonderful excitement she experienced as a kid when she saw horses.

At age 11, Audrey begged her father to take her riding, and they ended up at Sunset Ranch in Culver City on 13 acres. They rented the horses that day and met Sis Smith, 10, with whom she became fast friends.

Audrey credited Sis with launching her career in horses. She introduced Audrey to Roman Riding, how to tie a bowline and the cowgirl way of life.

Sis is now Zee Varian, married to Jack Varian, and they have the Varian Ranch outside of Paso Robles in Parkfield.

It might surprise some that Audrey didn’t own her first horse until she was 50 years old, although friends would always ask for her help riding their horses, different breeds and a variety of disciplines.

Eventually she bought a Thoroughbred for $400, right off the track and rode him through the Santa Monica mountains.

It goes to show that a Hall of Fame Cowgirl can find her way to greatness without a huge investment in horses.

‘Freckles’ was Audrey’s first experience raising up a baby. Audrey and her horse Freckles became well-versed in all the skills needed to maintain Audrey’s cowgirl lifestyle. She had also owned and bred Freckles’ mother.

Audrey loved to team rope off of Freckles, ride her on brandings and team pennings, barrel race and pole bending. She was the all-around mare.

Audrey was quoted as saying, “She’ll go anywhere I ask her to go and sometimes to places I shouldn’t be asking her!”

Roy Rogers was Audrey’s hero growing up, donning the t-shirts, the guns and the hat.

As fans do, she wrote to Roy and hung the 8x10 glossy photo they sent to her by her bed and kissed Roy every night until his lips were gone on that photo.

Later when she got to meet Roy through friend, Glen Randall who trained all three Triggers, Roy was most kind and cordial but she did not tell him the story of the photo. She was 15 or 16 at the time and they trusted her with a 3 year old Trigger, much to her delight.

Audrey gave advice for the young person who wants to run off to Europe or ride in the rodeo or take a year to ride across country on a horse, “Do it! If you have an opportunity like that, it’s life changing. It makes you feel good about yourself but keep your morals and your virtues and remember the Lord is out there watching you and protecting you. If you love Him, He will keep you safe.”

Friend Barbra Schulte who had recently visited with Audrey gave some special advice to cherish. Barbra asked Audrey if she grieves a little bit that she can no longer straddle two horses while directing six horses to go over jumps, as in her Roman Riding days.

Audrey answered, “Oh well, you know, when you feel as though your life isn’t going the way you want it to, the way I treat it is to do something positive for somebody else.

So, I’m fortunate enough to be invited on a lot of different cattle ranches to help out with their brandings, and the gatherings, and the sorting, and the roping and it’s so much fun for me. And the ranchers enjoy it so very much. But the more I give, the better I feel. It’s that’s joyful. For me to give is for me to live in a very correct way.”

The day I interviewed Audrey for our podcast, she generously took part of her lunch hour to share her story. By the time we interviewed, she had already completed a line of tasks: at 4:30 a.m. she fed her horses; then headed to the Bar M Ranch where she helped gather and sort Jerry Williams’ cattle, cows and calves until mid-morning. Then before lunch, she went by the Weister Ranch, gathered two sets of pairs and sorted.

We had a great conversation and finished in time for her to make her 1 p.m. branding. Her last words in our interview were that she felt blessed.

Audrey loved what Roy Rogers was famous for sending us off with, “May the good Lord take a liking to you!”

He sure took a liking to Audrey.

The podcast interview where Audrey tells fun stories about Roman Riding and Casey Tibbs, is available at www.horsemanshipradio.com at the 24-minute mark. 

Debbie Roberts Loucks is the daughter of Monty and Pat Roberts. You can follow her on her popular podcast Horsemanship Radio at www.horsemanshipradio.com.

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Horses are big and fast and maybe just a little bit intimidating to you. Maybe it’s your daughter who is not even 100 pounds yet and the thought of her controlling a 1,000-pound animal is terrifying.

You might even admit to it, your sweaty palms and rapid breathing around the horse tends to back this up.

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