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March 20, 2013

Taylor Flury Sets An Example With Role Model

Nancy Whitehead (left) bred Role Model and put her together with Taylor Flury.

She and her U.S.-bred mare keep going through brain surgeries, broken shoulders, and more to earn national championships.

The rangy chestnut filly cantered away with an insouciant flick of her tail. Taylor Flury stood, silent, not quite believing what she’d seen.

She sent Role Model through the free-jump chute again, just to make sure.        

And there it was again, an explosive, airy leap. “Her hind end literally went two feet higher than her front end. She just wouldn’t come near a rail, and we were like ‘Holy cow! It just shocked the heck out of all of us. We were not expecting that,” Flury said. It was time to break the then-3-year-old and see what she could do.

At first, when Flury couldn’t get Role Model in foal that year, she was frustrated, as any breeder aspiring to produce talented young prospects might be. Flury and her mother, Janet, and sister, Alison, were in the process of establishing a breeding program at their Aliboo Farm in Minooka, Ill.

Little did Taylor know that the seeming failure was a blessing in disguise. Two years later in 2011, Role Model earned the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Horse of the Year title in the 5-year-old Young Jumper division. They followed that up with the USEF Horse of the Year title in the 6-year-old Young Jumper division in 2012.

Taylor Flury and Role Model have both 
overcome challenges to take two USEF
Horse of the Year titles.
Photo by Parker/Russell-The Book LLC

The results are all the more impressive knowing that Role Model suffered a broken shoulder as a 2-year-old, and six years ago Taylor was recovering from two serious brain surgeries to correct a defect in her brain stem, a condition called chiari malformation II.

While they’ve just started to make a splash in the show ring together, Taylor and Role Model’s stories became intertwined years ago.

In 2005 and the spring of 2006, Taylor was in and out of the hospital as a result of her surgeries and subsequent complications. Breeder and trainer Nancy Whitehead became a good friend to the then-15-year-old.

When Whitehead’s Thoroughbred mare Darling Devil foaled a chestnut filly by her Dutch Warmblood stallion Roc USA on April 11, 2006, Whitehead sent Taylor a card letting her know that she was naming the filly after her, with “Taylor” as a barn name and “Role Model” for a show name. “Little did I know that this mare and I would have a very bright future together and she would be the one to make all my dreams come true,” said Taylor.

Dreams Crashing Down

Flury’s mother, Janet, has been horse lover her whole life even though she couldn’t afford to own her own horse until she was an adult. She passed the passion on to Taylor and her older sister, Alison.

When Taylor was an infant, the family moved to 5 acres so Janet could have a pony in the back yard for the girls. “I had my first pony before I could walk. He was my best friend growing up; I’d ride him and groom him and lay on him. We were just backyard riders. We’d play around at home and jump and go trail riding,” Taylor recalled.

When Taylor was 9, she and Allison began riding with various local trainers and showing. But as Taylor’s riding progressed, her behavior became puzzling. “I had big mood swings and headaches and just attitude in general,” Taylor said. “I was really hard for my family to live with.”

“When Taylor was younger, she fit that [Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem] of ‘when she was good she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was horrid,” Janet recalled. Taylor was diagnosed with bi-polar manic depression and put on medication. But the drugs weren’t effective, and Taylor’s headaches persisted. Despite the problems, she became a consistent contender in the children’s and junior jumper divisions.

A consultation with a neurologist in 2005 resulted in the chiari malformation II diagnosis—there was a physical reason for Taylor’s symptoms. In chiari malformation, a structural defect of the cerebellum, portions of the cerebellum and brain stem sink down into the spinal column, causing pressure. Taylor now had an explanation for both her crippling headaches and her mood swings.

“When she was first correctly diagnosed, it was scary,” Janet said. “There was a possibility, from the doctor’s perspective, that this condition could possibly prevent Taylor from being able to ride in the future. He was concerned about that because he’d come to know Taylor well and he was concerned she’d be upset because he knew how much the horses mean to her.”

“Dr. Ruge explained that I would not be able to ride for a year but that the surgery would take away most of my symptoms and I could lead a safer, less painful existence. Hearing this made all of my dreams come crashing down on me. I was a spoiled 15-year-old who didn’t want to miss a year of riding and showing,” Taylor recalled.

So began a year of surgeries and recoveries. An initial decompression surgery to repair the defect was complicated by a staph infection in Taylor’s central nervous system and a leak of spinal fluid that required a second surgery to repair. 

A New Passion Blooms

Through it all, Taylor never stopped dreaming of horses. Just before she’d been diagnosed, her old children’s jumper, La Vie En Rose, had delivered a foal by Popeye K. La Vie En Rose has suffered a career-ending injury, and the Flurys had decided to dip a toe into breeding. “At the time, we really didn’t know anything, so we got lucky,” Janet said. The resulting mare, Circus Circus ABF, remains with the Flurys as a broodmare.

But as she lay in her hospital bed, Taylor began researching bloodlines and breeding in earnest. She wanted to know more, and breed more beautiful babies. Whitehead and fellow breeder Nancy Maloney were among many who indulged Taylor’s new passion, spending hours discussing bloodlines and breeding with her. “At that point, it really gave her some direction in her life. She decided what she wanted to focus on within the equine industry, and it became to breed a top sporthorse,” Janet said.

The horses got put on hold during Taylor’s recovery, but once she was on the mend, Alison started showing again, and Taylor eventually got back in the saddle. She made her way back to the show ring, competing in the junior jumpers and entering some smaller grand prix classes.

The Flurys established Aliboo Farm and started breeding a few horses. In 2008, Whitehead called again.

Role Model had suffered a pasture accident at the end of her yearling year, breaking her shoulder. The mare, now 2, had recovered fully and was sound, and Whitehead offered her to Taylor as a broodmare for her fledgling breeding operation. “They came to my farm, and saw her and loved her, and I sent her home with them,” Whitehead said. Whitehead has placed many of her horses in the hands of young riders in need of a talented horse.

The Flurys tried breeding Role Model multiple times in her 3-year-old year, but couldn’t get her in foal. One day they decided to free-jump her just to see what she might do, and she wowed them with her talent. Taylor broke her that summer.

“When I first started riding her, she didn’t really know how to canter and she didn’t know where her legs or her parts were. As a 3-year-old, it was like ‘Oh boy, we have a lot to work on.’ I gave her a couple of months off and I started her again as a 4-year-old and she was like a completely different horse. She could hold her canter, she was balanced, and she was great,” Taylor said.

They had a veterinarian examine Role Model and take radiographs to make sure her old injury was healed properly. He gave the go-ahead for full work. “The right shoulder doesn’t have as much muscle as the other one, and she’s a little bit weaker on that side, but I think she’s made up for that. You can’t even tell now,” Taylor said.

Taylor showed Role Model in the training jumpers at four shows in 2010 as a 4-year-old, and the mare just kept impressing her with her talent. Taylor joined forces with trainer Joe Fargis to help with Role Model’s development. “We hoped we had a good horse, but he’s always said ‘This is a really nice horse, you should try to not sell her if you can.’ He’s been super supportive of her. We don’t get to see him much, but I always call him and tell him how she does,” Taylor said. Whenever Taylor shows Role Model without Fargis in attendance, her sister Alison trains her.

Taylor planned to take Role Model to WEF in early 2011 to debut in the 5-year-old young jumper division, but health problems intervened again. A rash on her legs turned out to be skin lupus, an autoimmune disease probably the result of the powerful antibiotics Taylor had been on at the time of her surgeries. She and Role Model stayed home instead of shipping to Florida, and put showing on hold for five months. Ironically, they tried to breed Role Model one more time, and she took, resulting in an embryo by the Oldenburg stallion Bliss MF.

Taking The Proper Steps

Taylor and Role Model had shown in three classes in January of 2011 at Lake St. Louis II (Mo.), but it wasn’t until May that they got back into the ring. Role Model promptly won all her 5-year-old Young Jumper classes at the Showplace Spring Classic and Ledges Spring Classic (Ill.). They then shipped to the prestigious Devon Horse Show (Pa.), and Role Model won there too, taking the blue in two 5-year-old Young Jumper classes.

The Flurys now own Role Model in partnership with Whitehead. “Nancy’s always  been so supportive. If I have a question, I call her and ask her, but she lets me do my own thing and figure it out,” Taylor said. “We had someone want to buy [Role Model] last year, when she was winning everything, and it was a hard decision. Nancy said ‘Keep her, you don’t have to sell her.’ She could have been like ‘Let’s sell,’ because that’s why we’re all in this, to sell horses. And they were offering a good deal of money. But she left it up to us and was supportive of us keeping her.”

In fact, Role Model jumped in 35 5-year-old YJC classes in 2011, and won 29 of them. In just five months of showing, she earned enough points to claim the national title.

“It’s a good horse and a good rider, and when talent gets together, it usually goes forward,” said Fargis of Taylor and the mare. “Taylor’s a good horsewoman and the horse is above average in ability. They’ve been successful so far because the proper steps have been taken—baby steps, one thing after another.”

Taylor broke Role Model, jumped her first jump on her, and has trained her every step of the way. “She is so willing and she always wants to do her best, so in that regard, she was really easy to bring her along,” Taylor said. “The hard part was getting her balanced. She naturally likes to be downhill and she would naturally rather not collect, so it’s a matter of getting her more and more underneath herself for the combinations so she doesn’t jump over her front end.

“But she was easy to bring along because she has that Thoroughbred sensitivity; you never have to wait for a response. My warmbloods, sometimes they’re a bit slower. But she notices everything. She’s super smart and really willing. Even as a 4-year-old, I’ll trail ride her and she’d be perfect. Then I’d go in the ring and she’d be perfect. She’s my trail horse and my really nice jumper.”

Since the Flurys don’t have unlimited funds, and their herd of breeding stock was growing at the home farm, Janet asked Taylor to narrow her focus. They sold Taylor’s grand prix horse, who had been consistent at the $25,000 level, and Taylor made a conscious decision to focus on young horses.

“Now I’m kind of starting over, and I don’t mind, because even though I’ve always said that I want to be a famous grand prix rider, I really love to bring along the young ones and see how they progress. Its not too hard for me to not do the prixs. I have a bunch of 3-year-olds I’m starting, and Taylor, who’s 6. We’ll just see where that goes,” Taylor said.