Back When They Bucked with Audrey Griffin

by

Audrey Griffin grew up in the silver-screened atmosphere of Santa Monica, California, but she was destined for the dusty and daring show business of the arena. Her father, Ray O’Brien, was the head of the property department for MGM Studios, and her mother, Hazel O’Brien, was a hairdresser to the stars. Her older brother, Douglas O’Brien, became a firefighter and later worked for MGM Studios as well, and though their parents never encouraged Audrey to enter the movie industry, her head was already turned to the equine world. “When Mother would take my father to work in the car, I would go along with her as a youngster,” Audrey recalls. “There was a little pony ride on Venice Boulevard, and I’d jump up and down and say I wanted to ride the ponies. I think I was born with the passion of horses, and I still have that passion.”
When she was 11, Audrey went riding with her father at Sunset Ranch in nearby Culver City. A girl near her age, Sis Smith, guided them on the trail ride, then invited Audrey to come back and spend the following day with her. “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. She taught me how to Roman ride and drive wagons and tie a bolen. We’re still best friends.” Her first time to ever ride Roman — standing with one foot on the back of each horse — Audrey loped and jumped the team with ease. “It was not hard at all. Either you’re a natural and you can do it and you have the will to do it, or you can’t do it at all. You have to be gutsy to jump those big jumps.”

Audrey jumping four abreast performing at in Phoenix, Arizona with the Flying Valkyries. She drove the horses back into a standing ovation. - courtesy of the family
Audrey’s book club girls (they read and ride) left to right: Lisa Thompson, Kristin Reynolds, Sheila Varian, and Audrey Griffin at Sheila’s Ranch in Arroyo Grande - Kathryn Burke

Sunset Ranch became her second home, and Audrey and Sis provided the specialty act for the Sunday rodeos the ranch put on. “I Roman rode the team I drove hay wagons with — they were big and slow — and Sis had two quarter horses, so she always won the race.” Audrey also started working at the stables, giving riding lessons and driving hay wagons for birthday parties. “I think I got paid 25 cents an hour, and I got a dollar for harnessing the team and a dollar for driving the hay wagons, so some days I could make seven dollars.” She even drove a route from Culver City to UCLA when she was 16. “I would stop at the frat houses, and the guys and girls would get off and new kids would get on. I drove right down the thick of Wilshire Boulevard and up Veteran, right to UCLA. It was 1952, and I would get home at about midnight, but everything was so safe then.”
Audrey’s world rapidly expanded beyond California when she was invited to perform with The Flying Valkyries, a troupe of three girls and six white horses who traveled throughout the United States and Canada performing in rodeos and horse shows. “One of the girls broke her ankle, and I was the only other young lady at 19 that knew how to Roman ride and jump, so they invited me to go with them. We were chaperoned by Sidney Hall’s mom, Lois. After talking about integrity and morals and church on Sunday, and the things you talk to parents about, my mother finally let me go. My parents were the most fabulous parents ever.”
Their first rodeo just two weeks away in Lake Charles, Louisiana, The Flying Valkyries practiced twice a day. “When I traveled with the Valkyries and we jumped two horses, the jumps were four feet two inches, and the other jumps with three or five horses abreast were about three feet. I would sleep, eat, and dream the perfect jump, and when you get that perfect jump, it’s totally euphoric. We were very unique,” Audrey adds. “Cotton Rosser said we were the best act going down the road at the time. We worked a lot for him, Harry Knight, the Steiners, and many other stock contractors.”
Seven horses, a dog, and the girls’ suitcases traveled in a red semi announcing The Flying Valkyries in white lettering across its trailer. They traveled nearly nine months out of the year, and the girls were responsible for all of the horse care. “It was something we all loved to do,” says Audrey, whose Roman team consisted of Lady, a white Arabian, and Sunbeam, a white quarter horse. After jumping Lady and Sunbeam, another horse was added to Audrey’s team, then two more, until she was jumping five abreast. During the second act, she came out driving six horses, standing on the two at the back, called wheeler horses, and jumping obstacles on both sides of the arena. “I had six lines, three in each hand. The reins for the horses I was standing on were like roping reins, and the other four were lines I would just take a tight hold of, and I could pretty much guide them wherever I wanted to go. They told me what to do if I had a runaway, but that’s something you never practice, so I had to remember. In Billings, Montana, they put up sawhorses for the arena, and after the first jump, my team saw a space that two horses could go through and they took off. I was thinking, ‘My parents are spending their 25th wedding anniversary here, and they’re seeing their daughter running off into the sunset!’ I’d been told to drop the four lines and pull up my wheeler horses so they’d sit back on their heels, never knowing if that would happen, but it works. I stopped the horses and gathered the reins up, and I drove back into a standing ovation.”

LAX cowgirls leaving for Brussels, 1958 - Courtesy of the family
Audrey in Brussels writing a letter home in 1958 - Courtesy of the family
Audrey team roping - photo by John Kendall

Audrey performed with The Flying Valkyries for two years, 1956–1957, then went to work at Campbell’s Clothing Store briefly. The following year, she and the other Flying Valkyries were invited to perform in the Wild West Show and Rodeo starring Casey Tibbs in Brussels, Belgium. “I was there for two months performing, and it was a wonderful time. All the horses and cattle they flew over in stock planes, and then the cowboys and cowgirls flew from LAX to Denver to Brussels.” The Wild West Show and Rodeo featured today’s standard professional rodeo events, along with pole bending, square dancing on horseback, and performances by the trick riders and a number of Native Americans. In addition to performing daily at their arena, formerly a bombed-out gas shelter, Audrey and the other trick riders helped in a variety of ways, from caring for the horses, to entertaining visitors, including American actor, dancer, and politician, George Murphy, and his family. “You had to be really cordial, and it was important that you got along with everybody, because we were kind of a close-knit family,” Audrey recalls. “We stayed in little boarding houses for a while, and then moved closer to the rodeo grounds in a big apartment building. We had drivers to drive us to the rodeo grounds, and we did a lot of sightseeing too.”
Audrey returned to work at Campbell’s Clothing Stores once she was back in Santa Monica, and married Dick Campbell in 1960. They had six children, though sadly, their young son passed away. “I was a full-time mom, and I would take my kids riding. I didn’t have my own horse until I was 50. I would take my youngest with me, and I would put a pillow in front of me and they’d sit on the pillow. When they got older, they’d sit behind me. I rode one or two days a week, and I had friends that wanted me to exercise their horses for them, which worked out really nice.”
Audrey remarried, and she and her second husband, Gary Griffin, who had seven children of his own, moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1991 and were married for 12 years. In 1986, Audrey bought her very first horse, a Thoroughbred off the track, and she was given a quarter horse that she started team penning, roping, and sorting on. “I kept my first horse out at Glen Randall’s place in Newhall, and he and his wife, Lynn, were fabulous people. They trained all the Triggers and Black Beauties — any horse that sat in a car was trained by Glen. He taught me how to do a chest letdown with my horse, which is like a bow. I eventually bought a reining cow horse, and I did that for 10 to 12 years. It was really fun, and reining cow horse really puts the icing on the cake as far as your riding goes. Now I do a lot of team roping, and I go to a lot of brandings in the spring and rope at those.”
At 81, Audrey has three horses and loves riding on her friends’ ranches and working with cattle. She heels in the team roping, and enters the Fiesta Rodeo in Santa Barbara every year. Come summertime, she ropes once a week for the guests at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort in Santa Barbara. All 12 of her grandchildren and her two great-grandchildren have learned to ride with Audrey, just like her five daughters did growing up. “My life is really fun,” says Audrey. “I know a lot of knowledgeable cowboys and cowgirls, and I’m still learning from each and every one of them. Glen Randall told me, ‘Audrey, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you will learn a lot out of this ranch.’” And with a smile on her face, she did just that.

© Rodeo Life Media Corporation | All Rights Reserved • Laramie, Wyoming • 307.761.9053

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