Taylor Gillespie From Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots
From Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots
By Jennifer Bishop
When Taylor Gillespie was 14, he wanted to be a horse trainer. When he was 18, he wanted to be an attorney. At 21, he wanted to be a soldier. But by age 25, after fighting America’s war on terror in Afghanistan, he was ready to come home and reclaim his childhood dream.
Taylor says there was no “Aha!” moment while shooting at terrorists or dodging improvised devices on Route Blue outside the village of Nangalam that made him decide to trade his combat boots for cowboy boots. It was a conscious choice the U.S. Army helped him make because of its rule of military ascension.
“I was getting promoted to captain, which would require me to sit at a computer and talk on a radio,” he explains. “If I could have stayed on the ground with my guys, it would have been a tough decision.”
Taylor enjoyed leading and teaching infantrymen, and valued the camaraderie.
“We lived together, fought together, laughed and cried together,” he recalls.
And as he pondered his options for the future, he recognized the qualities he’d acquired in the Army – patience, mental strength, the ability to trust and act upon instinct – would serve him well in a career training horses.
Taylor Gillespie wears a different uniform today than the one he was wearing in 2008, one much better suited to the requirements of days spent riding cow horses, such as Micks Rey.
Riding colts and working with clients requires an similar arsenal of skills. A college education and his military training developed his leadership abilities, and his friends in the horse business would soon help him achieve a higher level of horsemanship so he’d have the skills and confidence to hang out his own trainer’s shingle.
Today, Taylor specializes in reined cow horses, but he admits the route back to the horse show world has been challenging. No longer an idealistic teen, but rather a combat-seasoned veteran, he’s still trying to find his footing as a professional. He has been down that road before in other types of boots.
After high school, Taylor spent four years at the University of Saint Mary studying political science. Then, to honor his Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, he went into the Army, where he trained as a heavy-weapons infantry platoon leader.
In 2007, while working his way through Basic Officer Leadership courses, Taylor experienced a series of mysterious seizures. The first was while he was at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He ignored it, chalking it up to stress and overexertion. Always healthy, he found it difficult to perceive that suddenly, in the prime of life, something major could be wrong. Looking back, he now recognizes the episode for what it was.
Later, at Fort Knox, he was riding with a buddy on four-day leave. While texting a friend, Taylor suddenly asked, “How do you spell ‘work’?”
Amused by this question, his buddy needled him.
Angered, Taylor blurted “Just tell me how to spell it!” When he woke up in a hospital bed, that exchange was the last thing he remembered.
Taylor had experienced a grand mal seizure. Once back at base, he told his commanding officer what had happened.
“I was driving tanks and other heavy equipment. It was too big of a risk,” he explains.
The Army sent him to neurologists at the University of Kentucky. His doctors couldn’t make a diagnosis, but they were able to control the seizures with medication, so Taylor was released. Then, just prior to returning to duty, he was taken off the medications – and suffered another grand mal seizure.
The Army started paperwork for Taylor’s medical discharge and disability retirement. He was 23.
Because the condition was manageable with medication, Taylor lobbied Army officials to keep him employed. For a year, he competed in every test and competition offered – land-based navigation, marksmanship, physical fitness. He finished in the top percentile each time. All the while, he was meeting with administrators and seeking guidance. His hope was to convince Army commanders that he was healthy enough to continue training.
In 2008, the powers-that-be re-enrolled Taylor in military school. When he graduated, he was assigned to Fort Carson and then deployed to Afghanistan. His platoon’s mission was to enhance relations with villagers, train the Afghan police and army, build schools, provide materials for irrigation systems, and better the lives of those who lived there.
Lessons of Engagement
In Afghanistan, Taylor frequently sat with village elders, drinking chai and breaking bread. Fostering relationships was beneficial to the growth and prosperity of the village. However, the U.S. Army was also there to disrupt terrorist activity in Kunar Province for the safety of the families and soldiers stationed there.
Diplomacy was more important than weaponry when Taylor met with village elders in Afghanistan to discuss building projects and safety measures. (Credit: courtesy of Taylor Gillespie)
Taylor’s right-hand man was Sgt. 1st Class Platt, who had been deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan and, although technically ranked below Taylor, he was more savvy in the ways of war. Taylor leaned on him heavily.
“At the end of the day, the results were on me, but I needed the mentorship and guidance of a guy with more experience to make good decisions that benefitted everyone,” he says.
In turn, Taylor taught his men to step up, balance tense situations and differentiate between circumstances that called for humanitarianism and those that required aggression.
“It’s hard to teach when to shake hands with village elders and when to blow stuff up. We had to do both,” he acknowledges.
In that ever-changing environment, communication was key.
“There was always a challenge. I would meet one day with village elders at a shura (meeting), discussing projects and progress. Then that night, someone would blow up one of my trucks. There was definitely a love-hate relationship,” Taylor recalls.
Back to Civilian Life
He returned to U.S. soil in May 2010. It took time for Taylor to decompress, recover and prepare for a training career. But horses are far easier to communicate with than human beings who have been complicated by politics, government, war and religion.
Interestingly, people have pointed Taylor toward – and away from – a career training horses. Earlier in life, those who sent him away did so because they wanted Taylor to get an education, which he did.
Looking back, he recognizes that everyone encouraged him to ride horses – just maybe not professionally. But after being in Afghanistan, working with horses held even greater appeal.
Taylor says his infantry buddies are the reason he made it back from the war alive. Like other men in his unit, Taylor sustained injuries and still suffers from PTSD. (Credit: courtesy of Taylor Gillespie)
AQHA exhibitor Magie Wolfe was the first to introduce Taylor to basic horsemanship as a youngster, and she was the first to send him a colt to ride once he hung out his shingle.
“It was a western pleasure horse, but we all have to start somewhere,” he says with a laugh.
Reined cow horse trainers Tim Unzicker and Dan Roeser were also early influencers. They taught Taylor how to start colts and the fundamentals of riding reining and reined cow horses.
Once out of the Army, Taylor traveled to Roundup, Montana, and spent a year with Tim.
“It was one of the best things I could have done, mentally,” he says. “I had no cell phone service and a pretty relaxed boss. It was just ride and don’t worry in a laid-back atmosphere. It took me away from all that happened in Afghanistan.”
Doctors a the veterans' administration had let Taylor know upon discharge that he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. He had incurred a traumatic brain injury, dramatic hearing loss and a broken back. Those long days in Montana riding horses and gathering cattle on big ranches was therapeutic.
From Montana, Taylor moved to Arizona and spent two years riding with AQHA Professional Horseman Brad Barkemeyer. At Brad’s, Taylor ventured out of his comfort zone and learned to rope. He continued to refine his colt-starting skills and showed cow horses. It also gave him the opportunity to spend time with AQHA world champion Corey Cushing, who influenced him greatly.
After Taylor married his wife, Jen, they moved home to Colorado so they could start building a future. In 2015, the Gillespies settled near Canon City in south central Colorado and reconnected with the reined cow horse community there.
Taylor, son Kaden and wife Jen. (Credit: courtesy of Taylor Gillespie)
Today, Taylor and Jen balance the responsibilities of raising their son, paying bills and managing Gillespie Performance Horses in Rosston, Texas. Taylor understands the financial gravity of having horses in training and takes his commitment to his clients seriously. Discussing projects and progress in an Americanized “shura-type” setting has brought him closer to his customers, as it did to the village elders in Afghanistan.
“What I can control is how hard I work on my horses and my business, and how I treat people. It’s 30 percent riding horses and 70 percent people and business,” he says.
Still young in horse experience, Taylor is developing his skills and working toward a five-year goal of being a finalist at major cow horse events. He also has his eye on an AQHA world championship.
He stays involved in regional reined cow horse associations and volunteers his time to help the sport grow. He recognizes how important it is to be of service. As a teen, he was a member of the Rocky Mountain Quarter Horse Youth Association and vice president for a year.
With the war in Afghanistan behind him, Taylor finds working with horses and cattle both challenging and therapeutic.
In college, Taylor’s goal was to follow in his attorney dad’s footsteps and to study constitutional law.
“I interned for the state legislature and saw enough to understand that it wasn’t my passion,” he says.
Family is. Taylor left the training hub of Scottsdale, Arizona, so he and Jen could raise their son, Kaden, in a small town closer to family.
“If I look back 60 years from now and have a good relationship with my kids, but very few world titles, it’s OK. Family is most important,” he says.
He lets “faith direct his path,” and says the more he surrenders to that concept, the clearer his path becomes. For example, even though he was worried about the loss of income, he decided to end a contentious business relationship because he knew it was the right thing to do. The next day, a new client provided two nice horses purchased at the Four Sixes Ranch Best of the Remuda Sale.
It has been a decade since Taylor came home from active military duty. He is careful about the stories he tells. The men he served with were like brothers to him, and he is still in contact with many. Some struggle with PTSD. A few have turned to drugs or alcohol. The suicide of another left a heavy mark on Taylor’s heart.
“If it wasn’t for those 21 infantrymen, I wouldn’t have made it home alive,” he says.
He talks about what he went through, mostly with the guys who were in the Middle East with him. He withholds disturbing details from his wife and other family members, maintaining that they don’t need those visions in their head. Sometimes, Taylor has a bad day and all of that weighs on him.
“On those days, I clean tack,” he says.
He is grateful for the lifestyle he has chosen, and for the animals. Whenever a colt tries to scoot out from under him, Taylor acts on instinct and draws on the instruction of the horse-trainer gurus who have been helping him since he was 14. He tries to practice patience. He endeavors to help horses and owners understand what is being asked of them and why.
Every day, Taylor uses the skills he practiced while stationed in a small Afghan village to build his horse business, strengthening the framework through leadership, communication, camaraderie, hard work and perseverance.