Photography: Corey Grenier
Wardrobe stylist: Elizabeth Daniels
Hair and makeup: Jan Tinkley
Location: East Wind
Taje Warrick has always preferred the horses you have to work for. Sometimes in the world of competitive equestrian, you go out and find a horse that’s ready to take orders and win ribbons. Often though, you find yourself on a horse that needs to get to know you, to come around to your way of thinking. And that’s just fine with Taje.
“The horses that I’ve gone through have all been sort of difficult,” the 15-year-old high school freshman says. “The horses I’ve had I’ve had to work for; they haven’t been perfect. But you create that bond working through it. You get that bond in the end.”
Her current horse is named Notorious, and the name itself might be a clue. Taje’s entry in the yearbook for the Taylor Harris Insurance National Children’s Medal Finals refers to Notorious as “Fun, a little on the strong side, lots of scope.” She started riding him not long ago and in the beginning, the “little on the strong side” was coming through a lot more than the “fun.” He was a stopper; he’d run up to a jump and then … nope. Brakes. No jumping today, thank you. He wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t want to be near Taje. He wouldn’t respond to her instructions – the subtle, non-verbal commands riders issue to horses with hands, legs and feet. He just wasn’t into it.
But Taje stuck with him. While she was sticking with him, she was also changing riding disciplines, moving from jumping into equitation. The former’s about sheer athleticism – how high can you get that horse to go – while in the latter, horses and riders are judged on the horse’s look, response and other, more subtle traits. “It felt more natural than doing the jumpers,” Taje says of the change. In equitation, she says, there’s a connection you make with the horse. “When I go into the ring,” she says, “everything else blocks out except for me and the horse.”
So here’s Taje Warrick, new entrant in the discipline of equitation, riding a horse that isn’t particularly thrilled about the whole thing. Not a recipe for success. Oh, and she started the equitation season late.
And how’d it go? Well, that yearbook she was in was for an event that accepts only 40 of the best young riders in the country. Taje went, just a few months after she’d started riding Notorious, and she finished eighth. That’s eighth in the country in an event she started late on a horse she’d had to convince to do any of it.
It sounds difficult. It sounds remarkable. But it’s not the most difficult or remarkable thing Taje Warrick has gone through. It’s not even close.
Taje started training at East Wind Farm, just west of Fort Lauderdale, when she was 9. By that point she’d already been riding and competing for several years, and she and her parents wanted to find her a barn that could help her compete at the highest levels. After grilling a number of trainers, they decided that trainer Tiffany Morrissey’s East Wind was where they wanted to go.
Then, not long after starting at East Wind, Taje went to the optometrist. It was supposed to be a routine visit, but the doctor noticed something. Follow-ups with other doctors were scheduled. Days later, doctors would be showing her parents brain scans and explaining what arachnoid cysts are – you can also use the word “tumor” – and how one came to be taking up the entire right frontal lobe of their daughter’s brain. So no, an uncooperative horse is not the most difficult problem Taje Warrick has ever faced.
“Am I Going to be the Same?”
In 2014, Taje was a 10-year-old child who was already showing great promise in the competitive world of elite equestrian. With her previous barn, she’d been competing in B-rated shows. (Equestrian shows are rated on a scale of AA to C.) At East Wind, she had the ability to compete in A-rated shows. In her first several months there, she showed Morrissey she was ready to contend at that level.
“She’s a real competitor,” Morrissey says. “Her focus and her drive for winning has always been remarkable. When she walks into a ring for competition, she is giving 110 percent for winning, that’s for sure.”
Taje’s riding progressed as her parents, Wally and Kim Warrick, had hoped. They were pleased with the choice the family had made to come to East Wind. Taje was competing, and she was happy. “We had just got to Tiffany’s and she was winning, she was having a good time,” Kim Warrick says. “And it was just a routine eye exam.”
What happened next, happened fast. The ophthalmologist noticed an inconsistency and ordered an MRI. Taje got the MRI soon after and that night, her parents received a call telling them to go to her pediatrician’s office the following day. It was there that they got the news. Arachnoid cyst, or tumor. Eight centimeters by six centimeters by four centimeters. Dangerous amounts of pressure on the brain. Surgery required immediately.
Doctors also revealed that Taje had suffered a stroke because of the tumor. Her parents thought back to a time not long before, when she had started screaming in the shower. She couldn’t see. Her sight returned after just a couple seconds, and subsequent doctor appointments – this was before the ophthalmologist – didn’t turn up any conclusion other than dehydration. When the tumor diagnosis came, Wally and Kim were still having their daughter drink lots of water, thinking that was the problem.
Now Wally and Kim were told that a piece of Taje’s skull would need to be removed to get at the cyst. They were told of the potential for permanent damage, and of the possibility that Taje’s brain might not grow back to its original shape. They were told she might never ride horses again.
It all happened at such speed that even the adults had a hard time processing it. For 10-year-old Taje, not every part of the life-or-death situation came into clear view. But she remembers having several specific worries. “Am I going to be the same?” she wondered. “Am I going to be able to ride as well?”
Days after the meeting with the pediatrician, Taje was taken into surgery at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. Her parents had been doing their best to put on reassuring faces in front of her but now, as their daughter was rolled away and into brain surgery, Kim broke down. Taje told her mom to relax, that she’d be fine.
The surgery took almost three hours. Taje suffered another stroke because of all the pressure being released, but she came through that. Surgeons removed the cyst, inserted plates and screws and, when they checked in after the surgery, were amazed. There was no swelling or bruising. A doctor described it to the Warricks as miraculous. She was allowed to go home.
Then came a month of bed rest – tough for a kid as active as Taje. Then a follow-up MRI. This time, MRI results turned up something startling in a good way: Taje’s brain was reforming into its previous shape. That hadn’t been expected. Kim had another question: When can she ride?
Let her now, said the doctor.
Back in the Ring
Colleges offer equestrian scholarships, and this is a subject Taje can tell you all about. Now a 15-year-old freshman at American Heritage-Delray, she gets out of school every day at 1 so she can head back to Broward and ride. The early dismissal isn’t uncommon; the school has an equestrian program, and a number of riders tweak their schedules to allow for their sport’s hectic timetable. She says it gives her a chance to do some homework before she rides, although there’s often more work to be done in the evening as well.
Her move from jumping to equitation had a lot to do with the fact that it’s the discipline college teams compete in. It’s an NCAA-sanctioned sport, which means there are scholarships. Schools around the country have teams, but the sport’s powerhouses tend to congregate in the Southeast and Texas. College equitation is largely dominated by schools such as Auburn, Baylor, South Carolina and the one Taje has her eye on, Texas A&M.
“I think the focus moving forward is the focus for her to potentially get a scholarship,” Tiffany Morrissey says. “It is a serious commitment. She would definitely be a candidate, for sure.”
The prospect of competing in college is exciting for Taje, but that’s not all she considers when she thinks about college.
“I’m thinking towards the medical field and being some sort of doctor,” she says. “I see how the doctors helped me. They helped me so much, and I just want to help others.”
For an adult, six years isn’t a massive amount of time. For a teenager, it’s a universe. Today, Taje is one of her sport’s elite teenage competitors, chasing the next goal in a sport where she’s conquered everything she’s tried so far. But it wasn’t too long ago when she was a kid trying to conquer something entirely different.
When she got the post-surgery all-clear, her parents and coaches were careful. She built up strength in the family swimming pool. When she first got back on a horse, it was just to ride – no jumping or serious training. But as her strength returned and the doctors found that yes, her recovery really was going this well, she began competitive training again. Today she has clear memories of her first post-surgery competition.
At that time she still rode ponies and she had one, Happy Feet, whom she trusted. But she still felt a new kind of jitters before she went into the ring that first time after surgery. “I was very nervous before I walked in,” she says. “But then I walked in and I wasn’t nervous anymore. I just knew I had to ride.”