"I never saw Dennis before," de Nemethy says. "I never heard his name. For the last set of trials, in Gladstone, N.J., he just applied and arrived, and look, the man is like a cowboy. What he's doing is coming only from the natural instinct. Whatever you can tell him, he can only be better, but it is so obvious! The rider and the horse together, in a harmony with the center of gravity! This is what you can notice, and from nowhere! From Ollabonna! People from the West Coast and East Coast are being taught from little kids and they come to the trials at 18. Dennis is so much older. You don't want to realize that somebody without your knowledge is so good. But Dennis has the natural feeling, the feeling for the rhythm, and the balance. That you cannot teach!"
With de Nemethy pronouncing Murphy's home state Ollabonna and Murphy saying "aholt" but making it in the highest circles of fancy horsemanship, what are things coming to? Well, Frank Chapot observes that 15 or 20 years ago the horse show was stuffy, "but the social thing is a thing of the past," and Rodney Jenkins recalls, "I saw Murphy four years ago on the Florida circuit, when he came in with green horses and beat everybody. He wasn't as polished, but hell, he had the desire. That's the thing in any sport."
Murphy began life on his grandfather's farm in Blount County, Ala. "People were just naturally expected to take care of animals," he says, and he enjoyed helping his grandparents with the horses, mules and cows. But his father was not only uninterested in jumping horses, "he didn't even work good with horses on the farm. And my mother, with horses, she didn't even want to touch one. She likes 'em at a distance. She was an athlete, though. When she was 40 she hit .500 and was the MVP in her softball league."
When Murphy's grandfather died and an uncle inherited the farm, the family moved to a little patch of ground they rented outside Birmingham. "My father was definitely from the working group...he did so many things," says Dennis. "But we didn't have any horses, so I started hanging around a livery stable when I was eight. I'd curry horses, exercise 'em, be a trail guide. I just liked horses. I'd worked mules, too, on the farm, but they weren't an image to look up to. Horses were pretty agreeable. When I was 10 or 12, jumping seemed to be the thing everybody at the stable was doing, so I started, too. When they weren't watching. Sam owned a horse at the stable. We just sort of rode together. Didn't seem like anything serious was going to become of it when we were 10 or 12."
"Sam" is the name by which Murphy has always called Mary Ellen Adams, whom he married after they'd been riding together for 10 years ("She said she'd never marry anybody unless they knew more about horses than she did," says Mary Ellen's father).
"We had to take a written exam to get into the Pony Club,"' Murphy recalls, "and to tell you a little bit about my spelling, when I spelled ' Shetland' I put an 'i' in it. I was better in the jumping than I was in the textbook. In the jumping, I could've been handicapped, "cause I might not've had the best horses. Some of the kids that owned their own horses had better ones."
But Murphy was winning, and when he was 15 he went to a clinic held in Atlanta by de Nemethy. "I saw some of the horses there, and listened to him talk." says Murphy, "and I realized for the firs' time I couldn't make it. I didn't have anybody to help me, and I couldn't get the horses. I couldn't even say 'de Nemethy.' "
So Murphy resigned himself to whatever other kind of career he might be able to work out. He finished high school and "tried to go for a year to Birmingham Southern, worked for the government a little bit and then for the parts department of an aircraft company. But there weren't any horses connected with that, so from the time I was 20 till I was 25 I didn't ride at all. It just didn't look like the opportunity would ever come for me to do any good. I worked in a garage for a while, and we owned a garage one time, with a service station kind of combined. Five years ago I came to Tuscaloosa to lake a job with the Gulf States Paper Company, and I met Mr. Warner."
Anybody who has spent any time around Tuscaloosa knows of Jonathan Westervelt (Jack) Warner, the president of Gulf States. He publishes a vivid periodical for his several thousand employees, many of whom are pulpwood and sawmill folk, on top-quality slick paper, with plenty of color photos of himself in his riding togs or displaying his Japanese gardens. He has a good man in Dennis Murphy, but it took him a while to realize how good.
"I went to work for a division called Warlanco—Warrior Land and Timber," says Dennis. "I worked with the forestry people. The company stables were part of the forestry, and Jack Warner rode. I started going to shows with him and helping, but for me to tell him I could ride too kind of ruffled his feathers a bit. I'd say, 'Listen, you believe it or not, I can ride your horses.' It was like going up to a race car driver and saying, 'Let me drive your car.' But he had a lot of horses and couldn't work them all."