By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Hannah Draughan
Aubrey Torrez seeks the silver linings in every situation. No matter the obstacle that lies ahead of her, Aubrey won’t give up on herself or her horses. Aubrey’s determination has led her to find success with the most unlikely of partners — from her one-eyed show jumper that once teetered on the edge of life and death to her Craigslist palomino who’s found her way from a donkey barn in the woods to strutting her stuff at the World Equestrian Center.
Aubrey’s passion for horses runs in her blood, and so does her willpower. Her father, Eloy Torrez, was raised as one of 12 siblings in a tiny house with no indoor plumbing in Hondo, New Mexico, and has since worked to found his own engineering company, SEI Group, Inc., in Huntsville, Alabama. Aubrey spent her childhood looking up to her father’s determination to succeed and appreciation for their Hispanic heritage. Growing up in Huntsville, Aubrey cherishes her holiday memories with her mother Sheila’s family in Alabama and making tamales with her aunts and cousins in New Mexico.
“My grandmother, Savina Torrez, always loved horses and rode as often as possible while living and working on her farm in New Mexico. It’s a family anecdote that she delayed learning to drive because she always preferred to ride her horse,” Aubrey said.
Horses were also a way Aubrey would bond with her father. “As a young girl, some of my earliest experiences with horses occurred on early Saturday mornings while visiting local barns with my father,” she said. “He taught me about the different colors and breeds of each horse we encountered. He also taught me about each of the Triple Crown winners and showed me from an early age the beauty and brilliance of Thoroughbred horses, through our shared love of the iconic racehorse Secretariat.”
At age 8, Aubrey started taking riding lessons and soon transitioned to competing in 4-H and Pony Club as a hunter-jumper. Alongside under-saddle classes, Aubrey competed in horse judging, quiz bowl, hippology, public speaking, photography and model horse exhibitions in 4-H. In 2006, she was named Alabama State Huntseat Overall Junior Champion and awarded the honor of representing Alabama at the Southern Regional Horse Competition in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“My involvement with my local Pony Club was also very important in my development as a young equestrian competitor and horsewoman. I attained the C2 rating and learned so much along the way,” Aubrey said, reflecting on the friendships she made through Pony Club and the very special horse who helped her achieve her C2 rating, Pilox Pippin.
Working and Learning
Aubrey believes a great horse has the power to change your life, but the truly special ones define it. “Perhaps it was teenage obstinacy or Pippin’s stunning black coat with four matching white socks and a blaze, but from the moment I first laid eyes on him, I instantly knew he was my forever horse,” Aubrey said of her first horse, an Oldenburg imported from Germany.
During their time in Pony Club, Aubrey and Pippin competed through First Level dressage, but Aubrey couldn’t stray far from her love of jumping for too long. After making a name for themselves in the Children/Adult Jumpers, the pair was selected to participate in the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Regional Training Session with Melanie Smith Taylor.
“It was such an honor and privilege to ride with and learn from one of the most accomplished show-jumping riders in history, and one of my biggest idols,” Aubrey said. Aubrey was the only person to receive a perfect score on the written test during the Regional Training Session, and Pippin and Aubrey were ultimately selected to attend the EAP Level 2 National Training Session at Savannah College of Art and Design.
While Aubrey worked through her equine science curriculum at Auburn University, she was granted special permission to receive college credit as she traveled to Florida to be a working student in 2013. “I worked very closely with my advisors and kept them informed about my goals as an avid equestrian, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work for Icon Sporthorses out of Friendsville, Tennessee, for the HITS Ocala winter circuit,” she explained.
As a working student, Aubrey gained insight into the daily management and operation of a professional show stable. “The life of a working student is drastically different than that of a traditional boarder and rider. The mornings are early, the days are long, and the work is hard and unrelenting,” she said. The experience helped her find balance in her life and understand how much there is left to learn in the horse world — signifying her choice to remain an Adult Amateur.
Quiproco The Fighter Pilot
Today, all eyes are on Aubrey when she enters the ring with her jumper Quiproco, and it’s not just because he’s gorgeous. The 17-year-old warmblood wears special headgear, a pair of equine UV goggles to protect his remaining eye after the other was lost to a battle with severe equine recurrent uveitis. “Everyone, from other competitors to judges and stewards, wants to have a look at the one-eyed jumper in the fighter pilot goggles,” Aubrey said, thinking of the long and hard journey the goggles symbolize.
Aubrey imported Land Quiproco Do Feroleto from Brazil in 2015. “Not long after he came home, his run of bad luck started. He developed a summer sore that took him out of training, and around that same time, I tore my ACL. As we were both coming back, the uveitis struck out of nowhere,” Aubrey explained. Despite several state-of-the-art treatments and surgeries to save Quiproco’s eye, his pain was unbearable and his eye had to be removed.
With the challenge of acclimating and jumping a one-eyed horse weighing on her shoulders, Aubrey was pointed to Lee Johnson of Crossroads Sport Horses for his previous success working with vision-impaired horses.
“After Quiproco had his eye removed, we were obviously worried about how he would handle the loss of the eye. To our happy surprise, he recovered quickly with almost no complications or behavioral issues. I was thrilled that my horse was finally out of pain and acting like his old self,” Aubrey said. “Sadly, his recovery only lasted a few weeks before it was cruelly halted.”
One morning, Aubrey arrived at the barn and noticed that Quiproco was reluctant to go into the sun for turnout. His condition worsened, from violently tossing his head to burying his head in the darkest corner of his stall. “The poor horse spent all day shoved in the darkest corner he could find as his head shook uncontrollably,” she said. “Our veterinarian told us the condition was called ‘photic headshaking syndrome,’ which is an adverse reaction to UV, and is even rarer than uveitis, and that this was the most severe of the four cases he had ever seen.”
Nighttime turnout, midnight rides, sunscreens, nose nets and UV fly masks were met with limited success, and the very real possibility of euthanasia left Aubrey with a knot in her stomach. Finally, her veterinarian suggested a supplement from New Zealand that had been recently endorsed by Dr. John Madigan in a UC Davis case study.
“It was nothing short of a miracle. Even in the first few weeks of treatment, I began to get my Quiproco back,” Aubrey smiled. “He was still there behind his one eye, even after all of the pain and suffering he had endured. I am so fortunate to have so much support from my family and trainer during that time. Their encouragement as well Lee’s experience with special-needs horses made it easier to hope and plan for his recovery and eventual return to the circuit.”
Once Quiproco was comfortable enough to return to daily training, Aubrey was seeking an option to block 100% of UV rays to protect his remaining eye. With the help of a friend, Aubrey discovered equine goggles that would eventually become part of Quiproco’s signature look. “They were light, easy to adjust, and could stay on during jumping while offering complete UV and particle protection. We knew that he liked his UV fly mask but were concerned that the goggles might be too unusual. He took to the goggles straight away and now he puts his face in them the moment they are brought out because he knows that they mean he’s going jumping.”
A Craigslist Surprise
The 2020 show season not only saw the return of Quiproco, but also the show ring debut of Aubrey’s palomino Warmblood-Quarter Horse cross, Donatella. While scrolling through Craigslist, Aubrey stumbled upon an ad for an $800 palomino mare. “At first, I was suspicious, but it was too good of a chance to pass up,” Aubrey said. Though her fiancé, Matt, was skeptical, they headed down the road to meet her.
“When we got there, we found a little wooded lot with a falling-down barn filled with donkeys and one beautiful palomino mare. She seemed to be too pretty for the setting, and I was sure this must be too good to be true. What at first seemed serendipitous quickly made more sense as we met a very nice elderly man who explained that the horse had been his wife’s and that he could no longer take care of her since she had passed,” she said.
Aubrey led the mare, in a Western saddle, to the only place they could ride — the woods. “She was simple and straightforward but with plenty of spunk when I asked for more. I don’t think she had had any formal training, but when I felt her key on a small log in front of me, I knew she was a natural jumper,” Aubrey said. “I took a chance and let her go; she jumped it as well as any hunter I have ever ridden. I knew then that this beautiful little mare was my next jumper and came trotting out of the woods to happily explain this to her previous owner and my completely flustered fiancé.”
Under Lee Johnson’s guidance, Donatella has proven herself to be quite the jumper, ending her first show season as the champion of her divisions at the WTHJA Memphis Charity Horse Show. “Lee was patient with her and built up her confidence one day at a time. He was never critical or mean,” Aubrey said. “He always saw more in her than most people, and maybe that’s why he was able to get such amazing results out of her. It really is a powerful thing when someone believes in you and stays dedicated to a dream.”
As her two horses continue their training with Lee, Aubrey hopes their stories can inspire others by how much they have overcome. “In the competitive equestrian world, sometimes amazing animals are overlooked or not given the time and care needed to give them their best shot,” Aubrey said. “My goal for both of them is to have every chance to prove just how amazing they are and how much they are capable of. I’m truly enjoying having them both to ride.”
Giving Back and Moving Forward
Aubrey’s drive to inspire others doesn’t stop in the competition ring. At 21 years old, her first horse, Pippin, has found a new career as a therapeutic riding horse. “I’ve been passionate about therapeutic riding for several years. I participated in the 2016 Birmingham Special Equestrians Boots and Black-Tie Gala, which raises awareness and funding for programs that use horses to help treat children with mental and physical disabilities,” Aubrey said. “Pippin has personally participated in this program several times and has several friends whom he loves and who have loved having him in their life.”
Watching priceless moments between Pippin and his riders has further cemented Aubrey’s belief in the importance of bonding between humans and animals. “I intend to continue rescuing and rehabilitating animals in every way I can,” Aubrey said, hoping her efforts will lead to more success stories like Donatella.
Aubrey believes in the healing power of a serene atmosphere, and is blessed to have her horses at home at Rolling Oaks, her fiancé’s family farm. Aubrey met Matt while studying at Auburn. “We fell in love at first sight,” she said. “Matt is so supportive. He comes from a farm family and grew up riding and competing Western horses.” The two look forward to growing their four-hooved family and farm.
Rolling Oaks is a working cattle ranch, equine boarding and training operation, and wedding and events venue. “It’s so peaceful, with an idyllic white barn connected to perfect rolling paddocks. It’s been the perfect place for my horses to rest and recover,” Aubrey said. “After they healed, the farm became the perfect place for me to once again build confidence and plan our comeback.”
While the future looks bright for Aubrey and her horses, she remembers to stay grounded and appreciate the journey. “In a sport like this, almost everyone is an underdog of some kind. It’s important not to compete with everyone else and just go out and be a better you. If you are getting up and putting in the work for you and your horses, then to me you are winning,” she said. “Getting to go to a show or win a ribbon is just icing on the cake. Be proud of the work you put in and look for the merits of your work not just in achievements, but also in the health and well-being of your equine partner.”
Photos by Hannah Draughan Photography, hannahdraughan.com, unless noted otherwise
Photos taken at Rolling Oaks Estate with makeup by Nancy M Finnegan and hair by Randi Roberts. Riding boots from Parlanti; breeches from BOTORI; white top with black buttons from Animo; black top from Solid Citizen Equestrian; equine googles from Equick Evysor; casual wear from Free People, Anthropologie, Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch.