THE PBR TY MURRAY TOP HAND AWARD
Seeing Ty Murray’s name engraved on an award is not unusual. He has bushels of belt buckles, stacks of plaques, and rows of trophies all etched with his name, commemorating countless accomplishments.
THE LATEST HARDWARE TO carry Ty’s name, though, the Professional Bull Riders— PBR—Ty Murray Top Hand Award, is different. While it honors the rodeo legend with the use of his name, the award is bestowed on others. PBR created the award in recognition of the organization’s roots in rodeo; to honor outstanding rodeo athletes who were not bull riders.
“PBR wanted it to be comparable to their highest honor, the Ring of Honor, but for guys not eligible for that award because they’re not bull riders,” Murray says. “PBR’s roots and heritage trace back to rodeo, and the opportunities bull riders have had come from there. It’s a good, natural thing to do, to remember how deeply rooted we are in rodeo.”
Bestowed during the PBR Heroes & Legends celebration during the year-end world finals in Las Vegas, the Ty Murray Top Hand Award joins other PBR honors: Ring of Honor, Brand of Honor, Jim Shoulders Lifetime Achievement Award, and Sharon Shoulders Award, all of which recognize substantial contributions to the sport of bull riding. The Ty Murray Top Hand Award swings a wider loop, its purpose broader in scope, honoring the best of the best rodeo cowboys who were or are not bull riders.
Initial recipients, honored in 2018, are the late Lewis Feild, three-time All-Around Cowboy, two-time champion bareback rider, three-time winner of the Bill Linderman Award, and the first roughstock rider to surpass a million dollars in winnings; Tom Ferguson, roper and steer wrestler, winner of six consecutive All-Around Cowboy championships, and first rodeo cowboy to surpass a million dollars in winnings; and Trevor Brazile, world-record holder of 23 rodeo championship titles in timed events and as All-Around Cowboy, and still active on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit.
“I was flattered when PBR asked to name the award for me,” Murray says. “To honor cowboys who’ve succeeded in the arena and accomplished a lot outside of it is a good thing to do. It’s not just a ‘good guy’ award, but one that recognizes those who truly make a difference.”
This one will stand out. The guys that are going to be getting the Top Hand Award have won every award there is, so we wanted this to be unique, with something a little bit special poured into it.
To create an award that is different, even unique, PBR decided a pair of spurs should be the focal point. During the development process, Murray chose his favorite pair, crafted for him decades ago by legendary horse trainer and tack designer Les Vogt.
Beyond what it represents, the award itself—the hardware that would carry his name—is important to Murray. “Cowboys of the caliber that will win this have every kind of award you can imagine. It was hard to find something different. There are eight million belt buckles, guns, knives—you name it.”
PBR approached several accomplished Western artists and designers, seeking proposals for the form and design of the award. A committee of PBR officials, in consultation with Murray, evaluated the ideas in meticulous detail to choose the proposal that best captured the spirit of the award, both conceptually and artistically. The intensive process led to the selection of Utah sculptor and former rodeo cowboy Jeff Wolf.
“I didn’t know Jeff at all,” Murray says, “but his design for a bronze sculpture really stood out. You could tell he put a lot of work into it, and really cared.”
For his part, Wolf says the commission to create the award is the most significant of his career. “Over the years I have been fortunate to sculpt some very prestigious awards, but none has been a greater honor than creating the Ty Murray Top Hand Award. That my hands were selected to sculpt an award recognizing the greatest athletes in the world’s greatest sport is an honor that will not and cannot be surpassed. Being a part of an award named for Ty Murray, what this award represents, and being affiliated with the PBR are tremendous honors.”
Wolf’s winning design features spurs from a point of view not often seen. The spurs stand on the narrow ends of their bands, the shanks pointing skyward as if reaching for greater heights, topping out with the rowels flaring like twin suns. The straps, too, are integral to the design, providing horizontal balance for the upward reaching spurs as they fan out in opposite directions, reflecting the bands and building a strong, stable foundation for the sculpture.
“The design actually came to mind instantaneously,” Wolf says. “I wanted to create and present a design that was unique and that would show off the spurs with the best possible viewing potential; something elegant in a classical artistic manner.”
Wolf did not actually see the spurs at the heart of the sculpture until long after the completion of the award. Murray says, “Jeff had me send pictures of my spurs, and I sent about twenty photos from various angles. He did not see the spurs in person or hold them in his hands. But even though they’re bigger than normal on the trophy, Jeff made an exact replica of them.”
Turning those photographs into a three-dimensional sculpture involved multiple steps for the sculptor. “After scaling the measurements up to onequarter larger than life, I studied and drew the carvings and engravings on paper, then wood, then wax. I made individual blank molds of the bands, buckles, straps, shanks, rowels, and buttons. From those molds I made wax blanks, traced the patterns onto them and sculpted the patterns onto them,” Wolf says.
Murray says, “I had no idea how much work and time and effort goes into making a bronze from start to finish, but it was important to me and Jeff to do it right. We spent a lot of time going back and forth and became friends through the process.”
That “back and forth” collaboration resulted in an artistic detail Wolf did not anticipate in the design. During their conversations, Murray wondered if the rowels on the sculpted spurs would spin, as they do in real life. Wolf considered the complications in the casting and assembly that detail would involve, decided the realism worth the effort, and found a way to overcome the challenge in true “top hand” style.
While creating the Ty Murray Top Hand Award satisfied Wolf for purely artistic reasons, he found the very nature of the award and its recipients inspirational as well. “A piece of my work will grace the homes of the greatest western sport athletes who ever lived,” he says. “It is a true honor to be recognized in this realm. Sculpting this award has exposed my work to hundreds of western sports fans who may not have known who Jeff Wolf is or weren’t familiar with my work.”
Murray says, “We cared enough to want to make an award that will be special to the recipients.” His hope is that the award will become a valued tradition in Western sport. “An award design should never change. The Heisman Trophy has been the same since they first gave it more than 80 years ago, and my All-Around buckles are the same as the ones Jim Shoulders won. Awards carry that heritage with them, and it means a lot,” he says. “We want the Ty Murray Top Hand Award to build that kind of heritage, to become a timeless award, as good 100 years from now as it is today, and for cowboys to strive to win the same award their heroes won.”
Six-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy, twice World Champion Bull Rider, and all-time leading qualifier in rough-stock events for the National Finals Rodeo, Larry Mahan has been named a 2019 recipient of the PBR Ty Murray Top Hand Award.
Also honored is Phil Lyne, the epitome of the allaround cowboy. He competed in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, and steer wrestling. Lyne was twice All-Around and TieDown Roping Champion, Steer Roping Champion, and won the Bill Linderman Award four times.