EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a story I wrote for the January issue of Women’s Pro Rodeo News, the official magazine of the WPRA.
For 10 nights, it seemed, Fallon Taylor exited the Thomas & Mack Center arena with a smile on her face as she and Babyflo sprinted past the famous yellow chutes.
Even more vibrant on Dec. 13, the smile revealed so much as Taylor held tightly to the Montana Silversmiths gold buckle:
– It was a dream come true
– It was a validation
– It was a showcase for Babyflo
Most importantly, the 2014 WPRA world championship was a triumphant comeback from what could have been the most devastating time of Taylor’s life.
Broken but not shattered
One question stopped the smiles for a few moments. It was meant as a reflection, a chance to remember that time five and a half years ago when Fallon Taylor was unsure of everything that was going on in her life.
While training a horse, things got wild. The horse reared and slammed into her, then she was thrown. In all, she suffered broken bones on the right side of her face, including her eye socket, as well a fractured skull in four places and a broken C-2 vertebra.
Because of that spinal injury, doctors said she had just a 2 percent chance to walk or talk again. Just thinking about that time is emotional for all involved. To do it while staring firmly at the gold buckle allowed the tears to flow, just as she needed.
“It’s amazing,” she said, tears dripping off her cheeks as she continued to speak. “I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk. To be paralyzed, then to come from that to here …
“It’s not about me. There (are) people at home that just want to lose 20 pounds or people that are clocking in the 5D or 4D in barrel racing that just want to be better. Hopefully I offer them some encouragement.”
She did, through every autograph, every appearance and every sprint toward the alley inside the Thomas & Mack Center before nearly 18,000 screaming fans. That’s a feeling she always will cherish.
“I feel like I’m going to climb over my horse’s head and outrun her to get out,” she said, laughing again.
A horse of course
Fallon Taylor left the hospital a few days after arriving, defying the odds and walking out. She went back to the ranch in Whitesboro, Texas, where she wore a halo brace for another year.
For those unfamiliar with the halo, it’s a virtual barbaric device to help maintain the neck’s stability. Bolts were screwed into Taylor’s skull, and long arms connect the head brace to a stabilizer on her shoulders and around her torso.
She wore that for a year. She also started connecting with a filly, Flos Heiress, a horse she calls Babyflo that was sired by Dr Nick Bar out of Flowers and Money, two horses that carried Taylor to her first four Wrangler NFR qualifications from 1995-98. When she could start riding again, she broke, trained and rode Babyflo to the 2014 world title.
“Every one of us has a different routine how we take care of our horses,” Taylor said. “I have a whole team with me, and it takes a village.
“Babyflo is really quirky; she’s particular. We try to make a home everywhere we go. We try to rebuild our barn atmosphere at every single place we go.”
That meant even at the Wrangler NFR. Now 8 years old, the sorrel mare is a racehorse for the ages.
“We just try to keep our routine,” she said. “I have a horse you can’t give any medication to and can’t have a chiropractor adjust her, and you can’t really do a lot of things to her. We have to preserve her at the best level we possibly can to get 10 runs.
“She’s like the Terminator. She’s just rugged. She had a lot of slips here and gets up and keeps going. She’s made for this.”
Through 10 December nights in the City of Lights, Babyflo was stronger than most. Taylor began the first round of the 2014 Wrangler NFR No. 2 in the world standings, nearly $24,000 behind leader Kaley Bass.
She passed Bass by placing in eight go-rounds and edged reserve world champion Lisa Lockhart by about $11,000 … all on Babyflo.
“We are the staff of Babyflo; we work for Babyflo,” Taylor said. “I love that we get all this attention, but we work for her.”
Now the star and her understudy get a little rest before they embark on the serious side of the 2015 season. As of Dec. 18, Taylor had earned more than $7,000 toward the 2015 WPRA World Standings, so a break was in order.
“We’re going to probably pull some shoes off and let her be barefoot and graze a little bit,” she said. “We’re a lot alike. We don’t like idle hands. We don’t sit still for very long.
“Babyflo thinks she’s done something wrong if she’s not in the limelight.”
That’s a good thing. They don’t spend much time in the practice pen. In fact, Taylor said, the tandem made it around the barrel pattern just three times prior to running in Las Vegas.
“Babyflo is one of the most intelligent animals I’ve ever been around,” she said. “She doesn’t need any schooling. She doesn’t need a refresher course.”
No. She’s a champion, and she knows it. So does Taylor.
A true horserace
Fallon Taylor and Babyflo knew it was going to be a horserace. They won the first go-round in what seemed like a skid-fest at 14.09 seconds. The next night was even slower, when Babyflo slipped and tipped a barrel; the winning time was 14.29 … an eternity in the Thomas and Mack.
But the needed ground-change happened, and times reflected it.
“Everybody that tried really hard – the president of the WPRA and all the WPRA women who stepped in – tried to make this the very best National Finals they could,” Taylor said. “The ground changed a lot from last year, and they did everything they possibly could to have our equine athletes’ best interests in mind, and it showed.
“It got progressively better to make this actually a horserace.”
It was. Lockhart, of Oelrichs, S.D., claimed to the average title, rounding the cloverleaf pattern in a 10-round cumulative time of 144.93 seconds, bettering Taylor by less than two-tenths. Lockhart’s only slip came in the sixth round, when she and An Okie With Cash tipped a barrel.
That average title was the only honor Lockhart held over Taylor and Babyflo.
“We’ve made 10 amazing runs,” Taylor said. “My mare’s run sub 14-second runs every single time she’s made a decent runs and didn’t trip. The horses are tired. We’re tired. I just gave it everything I had. I wasn’t overly concerned with the statistics. I figured it would all come out in the wash.”
Before the final go-round on Dec. 13, Taylor posted on her Facebook page that by the time the evening ended, she would know if she was “pretty good, really good or damn good.”
“I’m damn good; I’ve got the buckle, and it says ‘damn good’ across it,” she said, smiling that brilliant grin. “I’m so excited. To be penned against Lisa Lockhart, who is the queen of consistency, and Louie, who is amazing, and to have a mare that had probably one of the worst finals in history for a barrel racer last year … to come back and win the world title against Lisa Lockhart when I had to beat her against her game … ”
It must’ve been awesome. Of course, it was primarily a two-horse race through much of the Wrangler NFR. Taylor won just shy of $145,000 in Las Vegas, while Lockhart was about $1,000 behind in Sin City earnings. Behind them were the top barrel racers from the 2014 season, all those that earned the right to be there.
“There’s no easy horserace,” Taylor said. “I’ve never been to an easy rodeo in my life, and this was no exception. The fact that it came down to pennies and dollars was great TV for the fans, made for edge-of-your-seat entertainment. I’m all about that. I think it’s a fantastic thing for rodeo to push it into the limelight.
“It was exciting to do, so it had to be exciting to watch. I’m excited that this caliber of women came in, and they gave us hell. We had to fight for this one. There is no easy world title, no easy average win and no easy rodeo.”
A quick look back
Doctors once told Fallon Taylor the chances were slim she’d ever walk again, maybe talk again.
She beat the odds. That’s what Las Vegas is all about, isn’t it?
The 2014 Wrangler NFR marked the sixth time in her storied career that Taylor has qualified for ProRodeo’s grand championship. She was just 13 when she first played in the Nevada desert in 1995. She followed with more trips in 1996-98, then stepped away from the barrel racing scene for a decade.
It was 15 years between Wrangler NFR qualifications. When she returned to Las Vegas in 2013, she and Babyflo struggled. They made up for it this past December.
“The fans … that’s the coolest part of that,” Taylor said. “I had an appearance at noon (Saturday), and I got a call from my assistant at 10:30 that showed a picture of people lined up around the corner.
“This is a cool responsibility. This is cool that the next generation of barrel racers can connect to me. Hopefully I can inspire them to be right here holding the buckle. In the next phase of my life, I want to be in the front row of the South Point cheering them on.”
That attitude has become infectious in barrel racing. It has reached thousands of fans and cycled through the bloodstreams of hundreds of rising stars. If Fallon Taylor can overcome paralysis to win a world championship, anything can happen.
Anything will happen.