80-year-old rides horse for Alzheimer's research

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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Bill Taylor and a horse named Liberty are preparing for a journey.

But Taylor is not your average cowboy.

At 80 years old, he aims to ride across Iowa on horseback to raise money for Alzheimer's disease research at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

The Iowa native said he lost a good friend to Alzheimer's last year, and he has known several others affected by the disease.

"When you have someone with Alzheimer's, and you lose them to Alzheimer's, they're gone, but you've still got them," Taylor said. "That's the terrible part about it."

UI neurology Professor Daniel Tranel, the director of the neuroscience graduate program, said he met Taylor in February. Tranel said Taylor walked into the waiting room at the UIHC neurology clinic wishing to speak with someone about raising money for Alzheimer's research.

Tranel, who has conducted neurological research for three decades at the university, said researchers now know several details about the disease, which, according to the Alzheimer's Association, affects 5.4 million Americans.

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"But still, after 30 years of research, we don't know what causes it, and we don't know how to cure it," Tranel said.

The two bonded over their interest in horses. Tranel, originally from Montana, said he was impressed with the fellow horseman's altruistic effort.

"He's completely serious," Tranel said. "He's got his act together. He's got a plan."

Taylor's plan is to begin his journey in the eastern Iowa town of Grandview and follow the 259 mile route along Highway 92 to Council Bluffs. Starting June 6, he will cross the state over an estimated 10 days, at 26 miles a day. He said he plans to wear a purple shirt every day for easy recognition.
Taylor said he realizes the trip could take more than the allotted time. But he and Liberty will rest on Sunday, he said.

And Taylor, a heart-attack survivor, has worked with horses for many years.

He said he learned to ride a horse "as soon as [he] could get on one." He dabbled in the rodeo world before serving overseas in Germany during the Korean War.

He became a rodeo announcer in 1960, first in regional rodeo before moving on to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association four years later.

Taylor spent the next 22 years in the profession, living in several parts of the Western United States in the summertime.

He then brought his love for rodeo to Millersburg, Iowa. White fences mark the area known as Taylor's Arena, just a few gravel roads away from the small town. Different animal shows used to entertain the town's fewer than 200 residents, he said. But the grandstand is long gone.

Early on a Saturday, 17-year-old Liberty was the only animal in sight at Taylor's Arena. The three-quarters quarter horse and one-quarter Arabian gelding's black coat — except for distinctive white markings running up each of his front legs — and Mohawk-like mane stood out on the gray April morning.

"The first time I saw him, I said, 'Boy, it looks like he has lightning strikes on his legs,' " said Taylor, wearing a tan cowboy hat and boots.

Ruth Henson, a neurology research assistant, said she knew Taylor when he was her bus driver in Millersburg, her hometown. She saw him in the neurology waiting room at UIHC twice, recalling he always rode his horse around town.

"It's pretty much been his life," Henson said. "I guess it would be hard for him to give horses up."

Taylor still loves his horses. Along the journey, Liberty will wear an 18-pound endurance saddle to avoid the weight of a regular 44-pound outfit. Hay and water will be available on each day's halfway point for Liberty to rest.

"He's being pampered all the time," Taylor said.

He even has another, younger horse in mind in case for some reason his gelding can't make the voyage — Miss Liberty.

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