BY RENNIE DYBALL
Katie Taylor had just found one of those grooves in her riding where everything clicked.
It was October of 2017 and the 30-year-old trainer from Durango Farms in Orange County, California, was riding a jumper who’d become her project. He didn’t get along with everyone, but they were winning together in the meter-thirty classes. Fresh off a clinic with Susie Hutchinson, Taylor was looking forward to showing him at the end of the month.
And then everything changed.
“Being told that I had cancer, I just couldn’t believe it,” Taylor tells The Plaid Horse. She’d found a lump in her underarm area two months prior, but her mom had benign lumps at age 30 herself, so Taylor “wasn’t too worried.” But when she did get it checked out, the bad news piled up fast. She was sent for an immediate biopsy, followed by a diagnosis within the month: late stage 2 triple negative breast cancer. Which has no known cause.
Taylor began chemotherapy right away, undergoing 6 sessions every three weeks until Valentine’s Day, 2018: “The first couple days I’d be tired but normal, and then it would hit me. My mom would call those my ‘dark days.’ I’d go into chemo Wednesday and by the weekend I literally didn’t want to do anything.”
Taylor began taking lessons in Orange County, California, when she was 7 years old and went on to spend her junior years at Far West Farms, earning catch rides on junior hunters as well as showing in the Big Eq. She continued to show as an amateur before being asked to ride professionally for Liz Reilly and Chris Iwasaki of Makato Farms. After a two-year semi-break (she still kept a foot in the door of the horse world) to pursue teaching in Tucson, Arizona, Taylor returned to California to work for David Bustillos at Durango.
She’d only worked there for four months when she learned she had cancer. “You definitely have to fight to stay out of a dark hole,” says Taylor. “I always used positive thinking during chemo and told myself I’d be just fine. By Monday each week I’d want to go to the barn and at least to sit and watch. The horses were my escape—they’re so healing to me. Some days I’d feel strong and hack for 10 minutes, jump a few poles. I couldn’t be out for too long, but the times I could were my happy times.”
After Taylor finished chemo, she went in for a lumpectomy in March, followed by 34 radiation treatments. She also took a chemotherapy pill in the hopes that it would eradicate any trace of cancer left in her body, completing that treatment on August 5. Taylor’s doctors say she is now completely cancer-free, though she will continue to be monitored for signs of a recurrence (her type of cancer has a higher risk of coming back).
Throughout the months of radiation, Taylor began riding more and even showed one horse early in the summer, “just because I had to.” But it wasn’t easy. “My head was ready to do it, but my legs were nonexistent. My boss said, ‘We don’t have to do this now.’ There were certainly frustrating times coming back.”
But week by week, Taylor regained her strength, as well as a new appreciation for her overall well-being as a professional rider and trainer.
“Last October, I thought I was strong. Now I recognize there’s more for me to do to be better. Yes, I rode every day, but I didn’t push myself to do yoga, lift weights, make sure I’m eating as healthy as I can. This whole experience has made me stronger than I’ve ever been.”
Taylor says she also learned the value in spending time with her family and doing things for herself, adding, “It’s not healthy to be a workaholic.” She’s celebrating her one-year anniversary of dating her boyfriend Ryan, a police officer whom she met just a month before her diagnosis. While Taylor says Ryan is afraid of horses, “he got on one for me when I finished all treatment!”
Her outlook on the sport has also been changed by her illness and recovery. “I was always very hard on myself. We all want to do well, but I see it differently now,” she says. “I don’t get so upset and mad at myself about mistakes. I try to enjoy everything about riding.”
Taylor still keeps a busy schedule even with her new outlook. She recently competed in Young Hunter Finals, showing four horses including her “go-to, Holland,” a 6-year-old sales horse whom she rode throughout her recovery. Then she’ll be in Virginia for the Middleburg Classic, and she ultimately hopes to qualify for next year’s International Hunter Derby finals.
While the bulk of her time is spent riding, Taylor also teaches, finding great satisfaction in helping her students find “that ‘ah ha’ moment.” Even when those moments come from life outside the ring.
One of her students “is the type of kid who’s so hard on herself and so negative,” says Taylor. “It was messing with her because, going into the ring, she was thinking of all the bad things that could happen. But she sent me a message going into medal finals about how my positivity through treatment has really been an inspiration to her, and has helped her to start seeing the positive.”
“She walked right into the ring and got a big score in the medal finals last week. Her message made me tear up a little bit. I didn’t have to do or say anything to help her. I just had to be me.”