When I first meet him I hope that Murdock, who goes by the moniker “The Man with No First Name,” will be wearing a cowboy hat. But instead he’s just wearing a dark jean jacket over his police uniform (he’s a policeman in a town outside of Chicago). He walks smoothly, even slowly, with assurance.
He’s a tall, older man with graying hair who still looks strong. He sits down confidently and begins to explain his life’s mission to me. He talks about growing up in Stateway Gardens, the projects on 35th and Dan Ryan demolished in 2007 after years of physical disrepair, gang activity, and high homicide rates. Back then, he explains, the TV shows were all either comedic fluff along the lines of “The Three Stooges” and “Circus Boy,” or rough-and-tumble Westerns. So when picking his childhood heroes, it was an easy choice–the cowboys.
The influence extended well beyond his childhood daydreaming. Murdock rode a horse for the first time as a 10-year-old on a family trip to Waterloo, Iowa. From that first time in the saddle, he was “bit by the bug.”
He describes what it’s like for him to see a beautiful horse ridden by someone who can control it well–those “moments of beauty and excitement” when he says to himself, “Damn! I wish I could do that!” His face has a look of awe as he explains, “It gives me that feeling. It did it for me then, and it still does today.” For the past 23 years he has made it his mission to try to bring that feeling of excitement to other Chicagoans through his non-profit, the Broken Arrow Horseback Riding Club.
The name, he explains, comes from a long tradition–“For the Indians, breaking an arrow meant making peace with your adversaries.” When the club was founded in 1989 there were four or five similar riding groups within the state. But only Broken Arrow has stood the test of time–sort of. Murdock has certainly stayed strong, but other members seem to come and go. He says that there is a main band of 15 or so riders from around Chicagoland, and that associate membership is quite a bit larger. But it is Murdock who leads the charge.
But, his vision is not so easily realized. There are no facilities to house horses in the city. And while there are historic horse trails in city parks and it is perfectly legal to ride within Chicago, it’s not regularly done by many people. When they started out, Murdock and his crew were often stopped or even given citations by confused police officers that assumed horseback riding is not permitted.
While his peers doubted that they would ever be able to ride without being hassled, “I was not afraid to verbalize,” he says. He eventually convinced the police superintendent to come down to Washington Park to watch them ride. They aren’t bothered anymore.
Most of the group’s energy goes into planning a couple big events, like their crowning jewel–the annual Highnoon Horseback Ride and Picnic in Washington Park, which this year will bring over 200 horses and 500 people from all over the state together for activities, demonstrations, and overall merrymaking on July 28.
The long-term goal of the club is to create an equestrian center in Washington Park. There is a building on 59th and Cottage Grove that was once used for stables, which they propose to restore. If they had the stables, Murdock says, he and the club could start youth groups, therapeutic programs for the handicapped and disabled, and a handful of other horse related activities.
Unfortunately, the city’s bureaucracy continually sidesteps Murdock’s plans. He’s gone all the way up to the Mayor’s office with his idea and the plan even looked like a strong possibility a few years ago. But municipal attention was diverted with Chicago’s (failed) bid to host the Olympics, and hasn’t turned its gaze back to Broken Arrow. As he says, “people always seem intrigued, but they eventually lose interest.” With limited time (he works two jobs) and resources, the dream has become a continual struggle.
Every so often, though, a new group of people will catch the bug too. But they tend to run away with the mission. He told me about a millionaire, for instance, who wanted to put a stable up in the suburbs. Murdock gave a stern no–“It’s not in keeping with my vision.”
Now he’s looking for “people to open up their hearts and take in the vision that I’ve had for years. To reach back and help us.” To put it bluntly–he wants a “major sponsor” to finally put his years of planning into action. Yet at this point the specific plan seems a bit hazy, and it seems like Broken Arrow is suffering from an overall lack of resources–in terms of money, time, and dedication.
Learning of these setbacks, I hoped at the very least to see him on horseback. But when I ask to see Murdock ride he tells me that his last horse, a black stallion named American Just-Us, died in 2010 (December 13th, to be exact). He’s planning to buy another this Christmas, but somehow this tragic fact puts everything into place.
“I said I wanted to see the [equestrian] center before my hair went all white,” he says as he runs his big hands over his head, “its almost there now.” He looks forlorn for just a moment, but laughs and regains his strength.
He may be a horseless cowboy, but he’s still shooting.