Images courtesy of Taylor Singmaster
“Grief, I have learned, has a funny way of catching up with you,” writes Taylor Singmaster on her website, EqWellness.
An accomplished Western rider, competitor, trainer, coach, and therapeutic riding instructor, Taylor knows a thing or two about horses and their power to help their people transform grief into joy.
From dealing with a string of unbearable losses her Freshman year of college to helping combat veterans through riding mustangs, Taylor has seen firsthand how horses can heal wounds and change the way we look at ourselves and others in the process.
I was fortunate enough to talk with Taylor about her journey with horses and the ways her students have been able to overcome challenges and find healing through her Equine Facilitated Wellness program.
If you could use a dose of inspiration, this interview is for you.
Here’s our conversation.
TFR: You’ve been riding since you were five. How did you get into horses and then start competing?
Taylor: My dad took me on a ride and I literally got off this horse and I said, I want you to buy me a horse. And my dad was unlike most dads. He did not say no. All he said was, ‘Well, we’ll see, we’ll see.”
So I made him take me back every single day of that vacation. And at the end of the trip, I still wanted a horse. And he said, “Okay, let’s make a deal. If you can take a riding lesson consistently every single week for a whole year, then I’ll buy you a horse.”
That was when I was five and I’m now 31. I’ve had a lot of horses since then.
I started competing in our local area, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, et cetera, and then branching out until I was traveling the entire country. I was homeschooled so that I could show more. My parents ended up with a breeding stallion and a bunch of broodmares. I loved having the new babies every year, getting to bond with them, and help train them. I was the first person to ride most of those horses, which was a cool experience as a young teenager.
TFR: And then you won the Quarter Horse Congress?
Taylor: Yeah. I won a bunch of really big events. My last year competing I won the NSBA world. We were a finalist at the AQHA world. And then I won the Quarter Horse Congress, which was the highlight of my career.
TFR: That’s fantastic. Did you start your college riding career after that?
Taylor: That’s right. I went to the University of South Carolina. They have an NCA team, but when I was there, it was the NCAA. I got recruited after finishing up my youth career. I loved being on the team. But I did not love showing anymore. I was super burnt out.
That also coincided with a very rough year in my life. My freshman year started with my best friend from my horse showing days committing suicide, followed by my dog dying and then my horse at college dying.
And then, in the spring, my dad unexpectedly passed away. He was my biggest supporter. It was just a lot of things piled on top of each other. In the moment, I didn’t realize how hard it was. You sort of grit your teeth and bear it.
I was super lucky to have my team. Having that support system, 35 girls who were there for me. I don’t think I would have gotten through those couple of years without all of them.
TFR: Before we dive into your business, tell me about your involvement with Heroes and Horses. What drew you to that organization?
Taylor: I picked up work at some other local barns and at one of them there was a veterans program. Because I had my PATH certification, they asked me to handle it. I had been interested and involved with a lot of things around traumatic brain injury, depression, and anxiety because of my friend, Alex, who had committed suicide.
So it lined up perfectly with a lot of my interests. I had a great time teaching these veterans. But what bothered me about the program was that we really didn’t have the right horses or the right facilitators. These men and women were amazing people and they deserved more than just being led around on horses.
I pushed it to the back of my mind until I saw this short documentary called 500 miles. It’s this amazing story about a Navy seal. He’s created this whole program called Heroes and Horses that pairs former combat veterans with wild mustangs. It’s really cool because it’s getting mustangs out of the holding pens – giving them a purpose while doing the exact same thing for the veterans.
I’ve been there twice. I’ve spent more than two weeks with these guys and doing this program. My first experience there was life-changing.
It was the hardest work I’ve ever done. Riding a Western pleasure horse is not the same as riding a once wild horse in the mountains. Then doing it with the knowledge that these veterans with you have literally never ridden a horse before.
TFR: Your riding program seems to bring all these elements of your past experiences together. How are you combining them into something that’s different than other programs?
Taylor: So when I left Heros and Horses, I came home with this burning passion that I needed to finally start my own program. I really wanted a program that was going to be more than just a lesson program. For me, the part of riding that was so special and important was the grooming and tacking – getting to know my horses. And I wanted that for my riders too, because so many programs have you show up as the instructor, the kid jumps on the horse and it’s just about that fun and adrenaline. It’s not about the connection with the horse.
So I wanted to create that for my students.
I really want to focus on the wellness and wellbeing of both human and horse and that connection to your animal in nature.
And I’ve created an initiative called Cowgirls for Mustangs. That’s a spinoff from my riding program. It was inspired because of the work I saw happening at Heroes and Horses.
Last year they ran a program called the Mustang Legacy program where you could help them by raising money to sponsor a horse, so I decided to get all my little kids involved and I said, “You know what, guys, I want to teach you that you can make a difference. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are. You can always make a difference.”
I ran a little class on entrepreneurship and fundraising. They all had a job to raise as much money as they could to sponsor a horse. The goal was $5,000. When I tallied it all up at the end, we had raised $9,000. So I threw in another thousand. At the $10,000 level, you get to keep your horse.
So I have a Mustang named Phoenix who lives in Montana with Heroes and Horses. He is there in training and he’ll get to hopefully be in the program, this coming summer. It was super important for me to leave him there because the goal isn’t for me to have a horse, the goal is for him to do the work with the veterans. Then once he completes that job once or twice, he’ll get to come home and just be my super fun, hopefully, epic trail riding horse.
TFR: How has having had horses helped you get beyond your own grief? How has that changed how you train horses and riders?
Taylor: 100% it’s changed my approach. When I was a kid, the showing was all that mattered to me. Grief was a huge reality check. There’s a way bigger world out there. And that it’s really okay if you don’t win a blue ribbon. It’s really okay if your horse is kind of bad today. It’s really okay if you couldn’t nail your diagonals or get that lead change.
I used to get so upset and wrapped up in everything. I literally told this to a rider two days ago. She was struggling to get the correct lead on a horse that’s come back from an injury. She was upsetting him. They were fighting each other.
I told her that you’re your worst enemy here. He’s not going to sit in his stall and be sad because of this. I’m not going to go home as your trainer and be upset at you.
You’re the only one who’s upset here. It changes everyone’s mindset when you take that pressure off and you can still be competitive and still want to be amazing at what you do without that aggressive pressure.
That shift in perspective also completely changed who I wanted to teach. I still teach therapeutic riding, and I still totally love that. I’m still at BOK Ranch.
But for my program, the kids I teach are dealing with experiences similar to what I went through. Maybe they’ve experienced loss. Maybe they are having a harder time making friends. I want the horses to help them deal with these things and become stronger.
TFR: What are some of the most important skills that you see are missing from the riders you’re helping today?
Taylor: That’s a huge one. So the thing that’s really cool to see the change in the riders is their empathy and their understanding of not just the animal that they’re riding, but also the people around them. So we try to talk a lot about why someone is struggling with a specific skill or maneuver or why the animal is struggling with a specific skill or maneuver.
Through the horses, I can find ways to tie difficult experiences in their own lives to empathy for others.
For instance, we’ll talk about why the horse isn’t listening. The kids start to understand that maybe they’re speaking a different language. Getting people to look at how they communicate and see things is so important. We all get really stuck in our own heads, in our own perception of things. Getting people to step away and look at the bigger picture with the horses really helps in the rest of their lives.
I had a really interesting experience with this one horse at the barn. She’s very difficult. One of the volunteers decided to do a bit of an experiment with her. She went out in the pasture to see how the horse reacted when she approached her and then let the horse approach.
The volunteer cried because the horse wasn’t approaching her and she felt ignored. I said to her, “When’s the last time you’ve said anything nice about that horse? When’s the last time any of us have? We’re all guilty. So don’t you think she probably feels that?”
We took the time to break down their interactions. We’re so quick to make judgments. Oh, so-and-so texted me this and that. And they must be mad at me. But when you can stop and take a step back and look from a different perspective, things are usually better than we think.
Taylor Singmaster is a former AQHA, NSBA, and NCAA equestrian competitor and currently coaches for the Standford Equestrian Team. As a PATH Certified Therapeutic riding instructor she has worked with clients of varying mental, physical, and emotional abilities at prestigious centers like BOK Ranch in Woodside, CA. One of her great passions is helping combat veterans and wild mustangs through her work with Heroes and Horses. You can find out more about her riding program and business at EqWellness. Make sure to follow Taylor on Instagram.
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