Taryn Van Vliet was frustrated. The 13-year-old Montecito equestrian had countless wins under her belt with the help of her Quarter Horse, Barpassers Cody, while riding at the Whitney Ranch in Carpinteria. The horse was so well-trained that he could almost go into the arena without her and win. He and Taryn were among the top three at almost every show they entered. And still, Taryn was frustrated.

“While I was with the trainer, everyone knew me through my horse because my horse was great,” Taryn says. “I wasn’t a great rider.”

Like many of the young riders she competed against, Taryn had become accustomed to letting her trainers work out any problems with the horse while she simply got “on and look[ed] pretty.”

It took a trip to Keri, New Zealand last year for Taryn to realize what she was missing. The Van Vliets visited a horse ranch where she experienced connection “to the horse without force.”

She learned to use her body weight to communicate with the horse she rode, and within minutes, she was jumping four-foot fences.

It was this experience with natural horsemanship that inspired Taryn to take on a young and inexperienced horse as her next show prospect after Cody injured himself and couldn’t be ridden. The majority of young riders in the Quarter Horse show circuit choose older horses that are already trained for them to show and already know how to get the job done in the show ring. They are often referred to as “babysitters” because of their gentle nature and willingness to work.

The horse that Taryn chose was just the opposite. Sheza Charlie Too, better known as Maggie, was performing poorly for her owner and “came to us very tense” because she had been ridden with force, Taryn says, adding that she bought the horse because “I wanted to learn.”

Because the Whitney ranch was closing, the horses were eventually moved to a property the Van Vliets own near El Capitan Ranch. That’s when horse trainer Barbara Orr stepped in to help Taryn with Maggie. In this case, however, the trainer would really be Taryn.

Taryn “want[ed] to learn it all from the ground up,” says Orr, adding that she is a mentor, not a trainer to Taryn.

“She’s doing it all herself,” Orr says. “All I do is guide her in a direction that allows her to make discoveries on her own.”

Instead of the usual practice of getting on the horse and fixing problems for the owner, Orr instructs Taryn from the ground, a technique that she says “would not work with every rider.”

“Where it might take a trainer half an hour to (solve a problem), it takes Taryn longer because she’s doing it on her own,” Orr adds.

Still, Taryn learns the added values of self-reliance and overcoming adversity.

“I get much more out of showing now than I did when I just hopped on my horse; it means more to me,” Taryn says, adding that she is “thankful that I said I want to train, I want to try, I want to work, I want to learn.”

But to the people who know Taryn best, her decision to avoid taking the easy road isn’t all that surprising.

“Taryn has a passion for life and she goes after it,” says Kathryn Van Vliet, Taryn’s mother.

Academic and Artistic

Taryn is an eighth-grader at Crane School where she is a straight ‘A’ student who “approaches her studies with zeal, seriousness and organization,” says Peggy Smith, Crane’s head of Upper School.

She was recently accepted into Ojai’s prestigious Thatcher School, which offers an equestrian program. Admission into the school is based on grades and a personal interview. Kathryn says the panel of school officials who make admission decisions “unanimously accepted Taryn.”

This does not surprise Smith, who says that Taryn “has a much larger presence than her physical size would suggest” and she projects “a confidence that belies her young age.”

Taryn often stars and sings in school plays and will be one of the lead characters in Crane’s upcoming presentation of “Grease.”

“She feels a song as much as she sings it,” Smith says.

Taryn also sings in Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. Her singing coach is eager to help her cut a CD on which she will sing a mix of classic R&B, jazz and hip hop, as well as foreign language tracks.

Taryn’s musical talent extends to playing xylophone in Crane’s Vibes xylophone group. She plays contrabass, soprano, alto and base. During a recent vacation to Bali, Indonesia, Taryn noticed a local percussion group playing at her hotel. Kathryn recalls that her daughter “jumped right in with them” and played xylophone for the group.

She excels in creative writing and art, among other subjects. She won an honorable mention award in a literary contest at Crane and her art was featured on postcards at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Taryn has always enjoyed surfing and she competed this year on the Crane School surf team that won the Central California Division championship. She recently won two competitions in the Interscholastic Surfing Federation.

And for fun, Taryn has scuba-dived, gone paragliding, and she bungee-jumped in New Zealand.

Kathryn likes to say her daughter never “crawled, she started running” from the start.

Taryn and Maggie

As for Maggie, Taryn turned her from a horse unwilling to work to one that has won championships up and down the Gold Coast. She has also won shows in Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and in Oklahoma at the esteemed Quarter Horse World Show where she has been a finalist for the last two years.

Taryn is currently in seventh place in the world in the 18 years and under English riding competition. She has also trained Maggie and been successful in western riding, an entirely different style of competition, which the horse knew nothing of before she came under Taryn’s tutelage.

“I come from a different angle where I don’t [punish] the horse; I teach the horse and we work together as a team… [Maggie] is like one of my best friends,” Taryn says, adding that she participates in the often difficult practice of standing in the middle of a round pen and training Maggie with no equipment or lines attached to her.

Because horses communicate by body language, Taryn needs to know how to move her body correctly to ask Maggie to go in the right direction. She calls this “hooking up” with the horse, and does it before every show.

“Taryn understands where the horse’s energy zones are, which makes for a more symbiotic relationship,” says Barbara Orr.

By giving Maggie space and allowing her to be in energy zones that were comfortable for her, Taryn helped the once edgy horse relax and tune in better to what her rider was asking.

At a recent show in Arizona, Maggie became frightened in a large class of 20 horses and took off in what Orr remembers as “a dead-on run.”

“Taryn was able to feel what was going to happen,” says Orr, and instead of panicking, she quietly calmed Maggie before the horse got out of control.

“The ring steward came up and said ‘you are the best rider in this class,’” Taryn says.

Barbara recalls a chance meeting with Maggie’s previous owners at a horse show.

“[They were so impressed] at how improved Maggie is now that Taryn is [training] this way,” Orr says. “I never come away from a lesson with Taryn where I don’t have a new way to think.”

For Taryn, the joys of showing Maggie don’t necessarily come just from her notable wins.

“(Whenever) I ride, I always learn something, even if it is a bad day,” Taryn says. “So every day when I’m done riding, I always say ‘what a good day, I learned so much.’”