(first appeared in the April 2013 issue of The Equiery)
For the past 17 years, The Equiery has featured a stellar event rider in its annual eventing issue. Past winners have run the gamut from working dads and college grads to high school students. Some winners have gone on to compete at the upper levels of eventing or become professionals within the sport. Others have stuck to Training and below, bringing along young horses. One thing they all have in common is their dedication and love of the sport of eventing and their equine partners.
This year’s winner, Tayler Stewart, is no exception. She finds joy in the hard work and perseverance that eventing demands. She puts the needs of her horse above her own ambitions. She understands that this sport can be humbling, thrilling and rewarding all at the same time. She takes the time to perfect each phase instead of just blasting around the cross-country course. And all of this she has already come to understand at the ripe old age of 12, making Tayler one of our youngest winners of this award.
A Foundation is Key
Although Tayler is now 13 and an eighth grade student at John T. Baker Middle School in Damascus, she was still 12 through much of her winning season. And at only 12, she was no stranger to the saddle, though eventing was still relatively new for her.
Tayler was on her first horse when she was only nine months old but did not start formal riding lessons until she was three. Her mother Laurie had ridden a little when she was younger but did not stick with it. “Horses are just good for kids. They keep them out of trouble,” Laurie said, adding, “They also teach them responsibility and compassion.”
Her father Tyler has no riding background. Fortunately, Tayler’s aunt, Kim Stewart (Glenwillow Farm, Jefferson), is a successful show rider and trainer and took young Tayler under her wing. “She was a little timid when she was small but she really liked it,” Kim reminisced. Kim said that it took a while to convince Tayler that cantering was okay but once she got over that fear she was unstoppable. “She’d be trotting for only a minute or two and then would be like ‘can I canter now?’” Kim said, laughing.
Tayler got her competitive start in the show ring with Kim as her coach. She was successful on both the A and AA circuits. “I got a lot of my foundation from the hunters,” Tayler said adding that she has great respect for the “nitty-gritty” part of showing, from getting her pony spotlessly clean to perfecting her own position. “I learned so much from Kim, like how you can never get mad at the horses. They are the reason I’m here doing this sport,” she said.
Through Kim, Tayler also developed her base through riding a variety of horses and ponies. “You have to ride a lot of horses for the overall experience and to make it look effortless so that you can give the horse the best ride you can,” she said. “She really got strong in her fundamentals early on and now can focus on the details and technical stuff,” said Kim.
As a show hunter, Tayler traveled up and down the East Coast and in 2009, she competed at the Pony Finals in Lexington, Kentucky in both the USEF Pony Medal and Small Pony divisions. “Tayler is a very focused rider and thinks through everything first. She has always had such a nice natural feel and tends to help her ponies stay relaxed,” Kim added.
An Exciting Challenge
Tayler first got a taste of eventing through rallies and clinics with the Seneca Valley Pony Club where she is currently a C2 member. “I switched to eventing mainly because it was completely different from what I had been doing. I fell in love with the excitement and challenge of each phase,” she commented.
Both of Tayler’s parents were very supportive of the change. “I much prefer the eventing,” Laurie said. Tayler added, “I guess I worry about the potential dangers of cross-country, especially at the upper levels. But I think you have to let kids follow their own path to some extent.” Laurie agrees completely adding that as parents, their job is to “be super supportive but stay out of their way.”
In 2010, Tayler took a clinic with U.S. 1987 Pan American Games medalist (individual Bronze, team Gold) Packy McGaughan (Banbury Cross, Clarksburg) and decided he was the person to help her make the switch from hunters to eventing. “Packy is probably my biggest inspiration and mentor,” she said. “He pushed me to be more of a horse person than just a rider and until he knows I’m at my max. I have a lot of respect for him,” she added.
“I think the best advice I could give other parents is to find the best professional trainer you can and listen to them! Cross-country can be very dangerous and, certainly, safety gear is important, but there is no substitute for good, safe riding skills as well as an appropriate mount to ride at the correct level,” Tyler commented.
“Tayler made the switch to eventing all on her own and it wasn’t hard for her. Especially when you come from such a great foundation that Kim Stewart gave her,” Packy said about Tayler. Oddly enough, Packy mentioned that Tayler is most nervous about the show jumping phase, which she says is because the jumps come up so quickly. Packy said, “She’ll get over that with time and experience. She can see a distance and is able to place her horse at the fence correctly, giving him the best opportunity to jump well. That is a skill that will carry with her through the levels.”
In 2010, her parents bought her a large pony named Tayhill Glass Slippers, aka Cinderella. Just a month later, Tayler and Cinderella entered their first horse trials, Seneca Valley Pony Club Horse Trials in September, where they jumped clean at Beginner Novice and finished in fifth place. “We want Tayler to always have the safest possible ponies or horses to ride and thankfully we have been able to provide her with safe mounts,” Laurie stated.
Tayler had two successful seasons with Cinderella but an injury sidelined the pony. In 2011, Tayler’s family bought Strictly Business and the pair’s partnership quickly turned into a very successful one. “My parents have been very supportive. They have taught me all about responsibilities and to be a good person overall,” Tayler said.
“Biz” as Tayler’s 15.1-hand Appaloosa cross in called around the barn, is now 14 years old. When Tayler first started riding him, she knew right away he was the right horse for her. “I can trust him with everything. He is the most honest horse on the planet,” she said. “Biz is just such a great and safe horse for any kid to have,” Laurie added. Biz had come with some eventing experience but Packy pointed out how much he has improved under Tayler’s riding. “He just blossomed right away under Tayler’s confident touch. He’s been good at Training with her. They just trust each other,” he explained.
At their first event together, Seneca Valley’s June 2011 event, Tayler and Biz put in a great dressage score but were a bit too quick on cross-country and had to settle for sixth place. That sixth place was their worst placing of the season and by the end of 2011, the pair had moved up to Novice and racked up seven wins. Tayler says her favorite event was Fair Hill where they won their first time out at Novice. “Novice is the level where I’ve had the most fun with Biz. It was easy for him but still a challenge to perform better in dressage,” she said.
Dressage is the phase that Tayler feels is the most challenging the pair. “He has a huge trot and it is incredibly hard to sit and be accurate with in the ring,” Tayler said.
Although Tayler says that Fair Hill was her favorite event of 2011, the American Eventing Championships that year is certainly a memorable moment. Tayler and Biz put in a great dressage test and jumped around double clean on cross-country day. On the final day, show jumping, the pair found themselves sitting in third place in the Beginner Novice Junior Rider division. And then the unthinkable happened, they crashed into another horse and rider in warm-up. “It was really hard to get over that and put everything back together,” Tayler explained.
Both her parents commented about how worried Tayler was about Biz’s well-being and that of the other horse. After checking that Biz was sound and able to compete, Tayler pulled herself together and entered the ring, jumping clean and putting pressure on the riders in first and second. The second place rider dropped the rail at the last fence, which moved Tayler and Biz into the Reserve Champion spot. “She handled the whole situation very well,” Laurie commented.
The Big Move Up
For Tayler and Biz’s award winning season, they started at Novice with a fourth place at Morven Park in March. Just a week later they moved up to Training at CDCTA in April. Only one dropped rail put the pair in sixth place. Tayler and Biz followed that up with a second place at Redland, which was the start of their Equiery Award journey. “I had heard about The Equiery award and it was definitely a goal of mine. I knew it was something I wanted to work towards,” she said.
The next events included MCTA, Fair Hill, Waredaca and Seneca. Four events: two wins, one third and a sixth. Not too shabby. Her first win at Training came at Tayler’s favorite event, Fair Hill. “I had an error in my dressage test but the judge gave me great scores. The show jumping course was challenging but we jumped clean and he was great on cross-country. It was great to pull all three phases together for a win,” Tayler remarked.
Over the summer, Tayler and Biz traveled to Lexington, Virginia with the Capital Region Pony Club for the 2011 USPC National Championships. “Dressage is always a work in progress but we were pretty good there,” Tayler said. She had a few time problems with her watch on cross-country but jumped clean. Then on show jumping day, Tayler proved that she really has become a horseman and not just a rider when she retired on course. “He just wasn’t 100% and I felt him falter after the first jump,” she explained. “It was disappointing to retire and let my team down but his health and soundness is more important than winning,” she added.
After a little time off, Biz was ready to get back in the game and placed fifth at the 2012 Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships, this time in Junior Novice. Back in Maryland, Tayler and Biz placed fourth at Marlborough in September. They finished out the season at CDCTA in November, never adding any jump faults to their scores.
Accolades and Moving Forward
Their stellar season not only earned them this award but several other recognitions as well. Through the Maryland Combined Training Association, Tayler was the Training and Above Junior Rider of the Year and Biz was the Training and Above Junior Horse of the Year. On the Area II USEA standings, Tayler was the Reserve Champion Junior Training Rider.
Tayler is especially proud of her Equiery win because she feels like all her and Biz’s hard work has paid off. “It feels like we’ve been together for an eternity. He has jump-started my competitive career. He has always been more important to me than ribbons but this year we were able to do both. Keep him sound and win,” she explained. Laurie added, “I am completely amazed by how goal-oriented Tayler is. She has always wanted to be in The Equiery and is thrilled to have won.”
Sights on New Goals
And now as the 2013 season is already underway, Tayler has her sights set on grander goals. “I want to move up to Preliminary and represent Area II on a Young Rider team,” she said. And one day, “I’d love to represent the U.S. on an Olympic team,” she added. Finding that right partner to achieve these goals is what Tayler is working on now.
She recognizes that Biz has given her as much as he can and needs to be a Training and below horse. Although she was looking for a schoolmaster type to move up to Preliminary with this season, Tayler recently purchased Fugitive, a young off-the-track Thoroughbred, through Tiffany Cattledge, who had competed him in a few Training events. “His jump is effortless and flawless. He’s a fantastic prospect,” Tayler said. Together they have already started their competitive career with a bang making a trip south to Southern Pines in March where they jumped double clean and won the Novice Rider A division. “He is the perfect first ‘big’ horse for her. He’s a very light mover and very scopey,” Packy said of Fuji, adding that her goal of being on a Young Rider team is very doable, especially with such supportive parents.
Through all of this, Tayler has somehow managed to remind herself that she is still just a kid. “It is so important to me to have my best friend Molly [Sherman] with me through all of this. I’m still a kid and still need friends and Molly understands all the horse stuff and is great to bounce ideas off of,” she said. Laurie also commented on the importance of this friendship stating, “They are very good friends and are so supportive of each other.”
And one has to remember that Tayler is still a kid, thus making being so successful at this level even more of a big deal. “I don’t think there are many 12-year-olds competing at Training and doing it so well. For a 13-year-old, she works super hard and I expect that will continue as she matures,” Packy commented.
So what advice does the newest Equiery winner have for other up-and-coming event riders? “Try not to sweat the small stuff. Learn from mistakes but move forward and don’t move up until you know you are actually ready.”