Taylor Flury is a trainer and breeder at AliBoo Farm in Minooka, Illinois. At age 15, she was diagnosed with a condition that put her at risk for irreversible paralysis. We caught up with Flury to talk about how horses saved her and why the five months she spent in and out of the hospital after brain surgery were some of the best of her life. As told to Carley Sparks and written by Anne Helmstadter. 

Horses have always been my saving grace. That’s probably what saved my life, to be honest.

When I was 11, I started riding with Alex Jayne at Our Day Farm in Elgin, Illinois. A few months in, he told my Mom and Dad, “I think you need to take her to get her evaluated. I think maybe she has ADD.”

I was a difficult kid to live with back then. I never slept well. I had severe mood swings. I would get headaches so bad I couldn’t see. Almost to the point where I would black out. My arms and my legs, I could feel them going numb and wouldn’t be able to use them properly.

To me, it was normal. I thought that was just what headaches felt like. That arms sometimes went numb.

A psychiatrist diagnosed me as bipolar manic depressive and put me on medications. For four years, she changed the prescription every six months trying to find a combination that worked. The meds made me gain 50 pounds and then I was even more depressed and still the symptoms weren’t gone.

When I turned 15, we went to see a world renowned pediatric neurologist. My little brother had been referred to him for ADHD, so my parents scheduled an appointment for me as well.

He did a whole battery of tests—my hearing, my eyesight. We did an MRI, fully expecting it was something to do with my sinuses.

Turned out, I had a condition called Chiari Malformation. My brain went down into the hole at the back of my skull to the second vertebrae. Basically, my cerebellum, the part that control all your motor functions, was being pinched and I needed emergency surgery to correct it.

When I first got the news I was like, okay, this isn’t real. I can walk, talk, I can ride my horse. There’s nothing wrong with me.

To top it off, I’d just gotten my first Junior Jumper and we’d leased an equitation horse that had been there and done that to take to Equitation Finals. I had a young hunter that was just stepping up to Junior Hunters. I was like, I’m not having surgery. I’m just hitting my groove!

The next day we went to see the neurosurgeon, Dr. John Ruge at Lutheran General, and it started to sink in.

He said if I hit my head in the wrong place one time I could be irreversibly paralyzed for life. Dr. Ruge was shocked I was even able to ride horses. I should barely have been able to walk. But I think that it was the only thing that saved me. I’ve been riding since I was two. It taught me balance and coordination.

We agreed I had to get the surgery.

I trusted Dr. Ruge implicitly, so I never had fears with him. I was never scared going into surgery. I think that was maybe because I was younger. I maybe didn’t realize, oh my gosh, you could die. It was just like, okay, we’ll get through this. I was actually relieved that it wasn’t the bipolar depression and that it was something that could be fixed.

I had the decompression surgery in 2006. They cut out a part of my skull and removed my first vertebrae.

Everything that could go wrong after the procedure did go wrong. I couldn’t tolerate any pain meds, so I kept getting sick to my stomach. In the process of getting sick, I tore the stitches inside of my brain, which led to a spinal leak. There was a softball sized pocket of fluid on the back of my head. I got MRSA, a central nervous system staph infection, so I had to have to an IV line threaded up to my heart. The meds they gave me to treat that caused a drug fever of 104 degrees. It just went on and on.

It probably didn’t help that I’m a bad patient. I’m not one to sit around. If I’d been a little less active, I might have recovered more quickly.

All told, I was in and out of the hospital for five months with complications. I ended up going back in for emergency surgery in May before I started to recover.

Even with all the setbacks, those five months were some of the best of my life. I grew up on the horse show circuit and that world is not always 100% reality. That sounds horrible but I grew up doing it, I still do it. I love it to pieces. But those five months in the hospital gave me a reality check.

When you see a kid who is three years old and has leukemia and is quarantined to her room but comes out in a mask and full gear on and is the happiest kid in the world, it really puts things into perspective. There was another kid on my floor who was 18 and going to die in the next six months. But she was just living life. She wasn’t wallowing in self-despair.

Being there taught me what’s important—family, friends, focusing on the things that drive you. I went back to the hospital and volunteered for my surgeon’s charity.

I was off riding for nine months, which was hard. That’s when I really got into breeding and young horses. I realized our family would never be able to afford a 1.60m horse. The only way I’d get one was if we bred it ourselves, so I started studying bloodlines. A lot of people really helped me with that. Alex Korompis who ran Zangersheide. Nancy Whitehead, who is a big breeder in Chicago. She actually named a filly after me during my surgeries.

I’d be cost prohibitive to go out and buy a good stallion, so we bought a group of three young mares and three young stallions in 2010. That was a little bit after my surgeries but it took that long for me to learn and to get a little bit better. Now we stand them as stallions and mares.

In the beginning, I was totally for the bloodlines and loved the breeding. As my young horses have gotten older, I’d say the training and development is what I love the most these days. That could change again.

I think when you go through a daunting process like brain surgery, it makes you grow up really fast. For me, it made me realize what’s important in the world and I think it made me a little bit tougher. If there are challenges now, I’m not going to give up. Nothing’s scarier than brain surgery.

It’s also made me more grateful, for sure.