Opinion: A Legend Worth Knowing

Published 9:25 am Monday, October 23, 2023

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By BARTON PERKINS | Staff Writer

I first met Dennis Murphy when I was 14 years old, back when I started riding horses.

Dennis is basically what you see when you imagine an old man from a small town like Vandiver. He hates crows and drives a red Polaris everywhere.

Murphy is a former Olympian who set a world record in an event called the Puissance back in 1980. For those not accustomed to the equestrian world, it is an event where you and your horse go over a jump that’s made increasingly higher each round. Murphy wound up jumping a horse over a 2.34-meter high jump. He took a horse over a jump more than seven feet high. Seven feet. That’s taller than some minivans.

When I was a kid, and first heard this story, I was surprised that no one seemed to know about it or seemed to care more about it. My friends at school would roll their eyes when I tried to tell them about how I knew a guy who’d set a world record for jumping a horse, and I never really understood why. 

Granted, I never cared much when those same friends would try to give me play-by-play recaps of an Auburn game that they’d seen over the weekend, but it still frustrated me. Dennis’ stories were enthralling to me, and no one seemed to care.

I was mesmerized by the story of how his first horse was rescued off a kill truck and was named Cornbread.

I was captivated by his recounting of the time when he fell off a horse in front of Queen Elizabeth II.

I couldn’t understand how no one else found the fact that he helped coordinate the stunts for “Something to Talk About” as interesting as I did.

I couldn’t fathom that his story about traveling with the Olympic team to Australia wasn’t turned into a bestseller, the story is complete and even includes an escaped bear from a Russian circus that was with them in customs

I think part of this might be that horseback riding isn’t really a mainstream sport​​, here in America. It gets a lot less attention than the more commonly covered sports like football, soccer, baseball or even tennis.. People don’t grow up with it. You don’t hear about many parents that grew up around it, or who take their kids to horse shows or races.

The media one might find out in the world about equestrians also hasn’t helped us much. Most of it is cartoon nonsense that caters to a very specific demographic of tiny girls who love pastel colored unicorns and/or the idea of incredibly dramatic moments at a barn where the handsome, yet troubled, stableboy falls in love with the privileged, yet sympathetic, rich girl.

For someone who has been involved in the sport for nearly half of their life, it really saddens me that it does not get the admiration and attention that I truly believe it deserves.

It makes me sad because Dennis Murphy isn’t an outlier; there are so many fantastic people in the equestrian community, just here in Shelby County. So many beautiful stories and significant communities of people coming together and being part of one of the few sports where you can genuinely compete and bond with an animal as a partner. 

More people should take advantage of that. We live in an area of Alabama that is amazing horse country, and has equestrian events happening throughout the year. You should go out for a few hours, take your kids, and see what this sport is all about. Maybe you’ll even run into Dennis Murphy.

If you do, you should ask him about the Russian circus bear. 

It really is a great story.