Like every other bareback bronc rider at this week's International Finals Youth Rodeo, Taylor Howell occasionally gets bucked, bashed and kicked off a horse who doesn't want anything to do with him in the first place.
Unlike every other bareback rider however, Howell never sees it coming.

Like every other bareback bronc rider at this week’s International Finals Youth Rodeo, Taylor Howell occasionally gets bucked, bashed and kicked off a horse who doesn’t want anything to do with him in the first place.
Unlike every other bareback rider however, Howell never sees it coming.
Howell, 18, of Adon, California, less than an hour outside of Los Angeles, has been completely blind since age 2 due to a rare form of cancer known as retinoblastoma. He has less than two years of bronc riding experience.
He said bareback can be scary, not only for him, but for anyone who dares mount the horse.
“The element of fear is in any bronc rider or bareback rider,” Howell said. “I think if you don’t have fear in this sport, there’s something wrong with you.”
Howell can only explain his ability to ride the horse by the feel he has on it and his determination to keep a tight grip and good posture.
“You ride the rigging,” he said. “You don’t ride the horse, even. That horse can do whatever it wants underneath that rigging, but your hand’s in that rigging, you’ve got to go where that rigging takes you.”
Some wonder whether Howell’s blindness is fair for the rider, but Howell himself doesn’t see any way it keeps him from performing at a top level.
“In my opinion, it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage because you get some of them dirty horses, they’ll throw their head one way and their body will go another way,” he said. “A lot of these guys, they watch the head of the horse or the head of the bull and think that the shoulders will follow the head and that’s not always true. You get faked out.”
Howell said he loves keeping active. Aside from rodeo and bareback riding, he played both football and baseball in high school and said he always loved his physical education classes.
It would likely be a safe bet to say Howell is one of the first completely blind bareback riders to come out of the Los Angeles area, but he has more of a background with horses than one might think.
His uncles were involved in rodeo in the 80s and he has cousins who competed in the 2000s. Howell grew up riding horses and started his rodeo journey wanting to become a horse trainer and later a saddle bronc rider. He’s also done some roping in the past.
After doing some research, Howell found out that a new saddle would cost him around $2,000 while a new bareback rig only cost around $60. He made the best fiscal decision.
Howell recalls the first bareback he ever rode was a large, stout horse. It took a clean break and Howell soon knew it wasn’t going to end well.
“He came out about three or four seconds and blew my hold through the rigging and I went about 14 feet upside down up in the air,” he said.
Out in California, Howell said he didn’t have the proper support system. Not many people were willing to help him improve and he had nowhere to practice.
“There has been more people that have told me that they didn’t know bareback riding was the right place for me to be but man, looking back now, I wouldn’t change anything because I can tell those people they were all wrong. I mean, being 71 points at a pro rodeo and finishing second, I don’t know what says I told you so any better than that.”
Howell’s prospects turned around after he contacted fellow bareback rider Brad Gower through Facebook. Gower became blind in one eye after being kicked in the face with a horse.
“We have to rely on feel,” Gower said. “When you lose one sense you have to start relying on a new one.”
Gower became Howell’s mentor and brought him out to Oklahoma.   
Through Gower, Howell also met new friends Willie Clyde and Ben Meek, two other IFYR bareback competitors. They met for the first time at the Hartshorne Rodeo during the July Fourth weekend. All three will be attending Connors State College in Warner for rodeo this fall.
Though they’ve only known each other for a short time, they’ve become fast friends.
“When we got there (to the Hartsthorne Rodeo) and we met him, he kind of changed us,” Clyde said. “I thought before you had to see to ride, but it’s all about feel. I think he’s going to change rodeo for everybody now. Everybody can look up and realize everybody can actually do something in the sport of rodeo.”
Even if no one else is inspired by Howell’s story, Clyde and Meek have already been impacted.
“I’ve thought about just doing everything blind,” Meek said, laughing. “I close my eyes and try to walk around, can’t do it. It’s amazing is what it is. He’ll put a new inspiration in everybody in rodeo now.”
Howell is also thankful for his new friends.
“Shoot, I think this weekend (at the Hartshorne Rodeo) these guys saved me about all three nights. I got hung upside down one night, kicked in the back of the head the next and thrown into the fence in the last one.”
Gower said Howell has a bright future in bareback riding and he would not be surprised if Howell made it to the national finals eventually.
“As long as I can stay healthy I’m going to try and do PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) and make a run for the finals, that’d be a dream come true.”