Local cowgirl Audrey Griffin, 80, has displayed toughness, courage her entire life
Ladies of the Valley
By Robbie Kaye
The day before I met with Audrey Griffin for her interview, the horse she was riding slipped and fell in the mud. She suffered a concussion, a fractured shoulder and 15 to 20 stitches in her leg as well as stitches in her lip and face.
Even so, she still permitted — no, warmly welcomed — me into her home to interview her for this column. I think that encapsulates the kind of woman Griffin is: kind, courageous, unstoppable and determined.
This ordeal also did not stop Griffin, at 80 years old, from going to a clinic that she was invited to by the Cowgirl Hall Of Fame, to demonstrate roping for a group of cowgirls the following week in Montana.
When I thanked her for being an incredible trouper she simply said, “You can’t be any other way.”
Griffin has lived in the valley for 26 years and was born and raised in Santa Monica. When she was 11 years old, her father took her riding at the Sunset ranch in Culver City. She met a friend there whose parents owned the stable, they hit it off, and from then on she spent most of her free time there until she was 19.
At age 13 she learned how to drive a team of horses. She learned how to harness the team and hitch them to the wagon and later would take kids out for rides in the wagon around Culver City, when the roads were still country roads around farm fields.
Once, in the seven years that Griffin drove hay wagons, she drove the horses to UCLA from Culver City. This was around 1949, so the traffic wasn’t that bad. She’d go to the frat houses and drop off people and pick people up. She did that for a few hours in the evening and then at midnight she’d get back to the ranch, which took an hour to an hour and a half.
Griffin’s mother told her that when she was a very young child she would get so excited when she passed the pony rides, they would have to stop and give her a ride. When she was older Griffin told her parents she wanted a fast horse.
What drew you to horses?
“I think you’re born with a passion, and I was born with a passion to ride horses. That’s all I could think about. I could sleep, eat and dream about horses. That’ s all I ever thought about and to this day. I’ve met a lot of good people in the horse world, and it’s been a real good ride.”
When did you get your first horse?
I didn’t get my first horse until I was 50 years old, but I rode everybody else’s up until then, which is good. I learned a lot of different mounts.
In 1956, I was asked to go out on the road with a Roman-riding jumping act called The Flying Valkyries. I traveled all around the U.S. and Canada, performing in all the rodeos and horse shows. It was a wonderful time for me.
Roman riding is when you stand on two horses and jump jumps. Our jumps were 4-foot, 2-inches and I’d hook a third horse up and I’d jump three horses and then one horse on each end, five horses abreast, and I’d jump that as well. That was like a three-foot jump.
I would go to sleep at night and would dream about making the perfect jump. I can’t tell you the euphoric feeling you get when you make the perfect jump. I got that feeling a lot when I would Roman ride, just standing on my horses. It felt so good.
What other jumps did you do?
We’d hook up a tandem, where there were six horses, like a stage coach, 2 in each row, and I’d stand on the back horses (the wheeler horses) and I’d drive them around figure eights and around barrels and jump them on each side of the arena.
Were you scared?
No, it wasn’t scary because when I was 12 years old my friend Sue, had a riding team and inviting me to jump logs and I said yes. After Sue completed her jump over the log she came back and said, “Now it’s your turn.”
I loped around and I jumped the log and I thought, “Uh oh, I really like this.”
Can you share a little more about “The Flying Valkyries?”
There were three girls and six white horses in the Roman riding act. One of the girls asked me to join after another performer hurt her foot. … My mother gave me her blessings and was elated for the experience I would have.
I was 19 when I went out on the road. I did that for two years and then I went to Brussels, Belgium, with a Wild West group of all my cowboy and cowgirl friends. I did barrel racing and square dancing on horseback and keyhole and poles. There would be eight horses in the arena and it was a lot of fun. I did that for two months and I’m still friends with my co-performers.
When Griffin came home from Brussels, she went to work for Campbell’s clothing store and married the family’s youngest son.
We had a beautiful life with five daughters and I rode off and on during that time. When the children came along, as soon as they could sit up, I’d take them riding. I’d put the children in front of me and ride. I did it with all five children. It kept my hand in the riding and then when I was 50 years old I bought my first thoroughbred horse, $400, off the racetrack and I had a partner in that horse, Gerald. He told me if I break the horse, we’ll sell it and we’ll do another one. My work with that horse was coming along and after about a year I told my partner, “I think it’s time to sell the horse” and he asked me if I really wanted to sell it and I say no, but we made a deal. And he said, “I’m gifting you the horse.” I rode that horse up in the hills and really, he was one of my best friends, the love of my life.
What does breaking or finishing a horse mean?
It just means that you are teaching the horse manners. Manners to stand still, to go forward, left right, back up. And you do that through dressage, the basic horsemanship skills. And you do that very gently and slowly so they don’t get excited or upset. The reason you have to teach (train) racehorses new skills is because they don’t learn those ‘manners’ as a racehorse.
Did you ever fall?
Oh yeah, I had lots of wrecks, a few bad wrecks. The last wreck Roman riding was the worst because I was in the Chicago amphitheater and I was riding the six-up and the first four horses jumped over the jump and the horses I was standing on didn’t. So they stopped abruptly and I went down and hit my nose and ended up upside down on my lines. I was hanging from the lines I was driving the horses with, and they carried me out of the arena. I chipped a bone in my neck, hurt my leg, and had to have water taken off my knee. They put me in a cast and eventually I got shipped home.
And that was the last time you did that?
No, I did it again with a dear friend, Christy. In fact, I went Roman riding last year and I’ll ride Roman again this year.
So you rode roman when you were 79?
That’s right, and I’ll ride Roman again this year.
Can you please tell us a little something about your roping career?
I rope at the Alisal Ranch in the summer time. They have a rodeo for the guests. I team rope there every Wednesday night in the summer and have done it for years.
Were you welcomed by men in the arena?
Very much so. I was taught by a lot of men. The cowboys are very understanding and welcoming to anyone who is learning how to rope. Every ranch you go to, they’re teaching you their way of doing things. I’ve been taught by a lot of good people.
There’s a risk in this kind of work and I ask how to do it correctly, so I don’t get hurt.
What do you do when you’re not riding?
I love being with my girlfriends. We’ll have dinner and lunch together and I spend a lot of time with my five daughters and being a grandma. I have 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They call me “Mother Goose,” Goose for short.
I had them all on a horse with me when there were about 6 months old. They’ve all ridden with me… it’s wonderful.
Robbie Kaye is a photographer and author of “Beauty and Wisdom” and “Ladies of the Valley” documentary. Her work can be seen at www.robbiekaye.com.