It is an understatement to say that Brian Isbell's involvement in the horse industry has been a roller coaster ride full of ups and downs. His professional and personal life has endured extreme highs and lows....Congress wins to suspensions.....Burning bridges to finding unconditional love.
No one has ever questioned his talent. Isbell is one of the very few individuals to have won the Congress in both open English and western events. He has won the Congress Open Hunter Under Saddle Maturity three times with Naturally Ironic, Sky Blue Summer, and Double L Impression as well as the Open Western Pleasure Maturity in 1995 with the famous Palomino mare, Really In Trouble.
Isbell, who recently celebrated his 44th birthday, is also the only homosexual man in the industry who is openly HIV positive. He has been HIV positive now for 14 years and due to the incredible advancement of antiretroviral medications, his current viral load is virtually undetectable in his blood stream.
Despite all his trials and tribulations, he has finally found stability, happiness, and health partly due to changing his outlook and realizing that building lasting relationships is much more important than winning at all costs. He credits his recent happiness to his life-long partner of almost 19 years, Kevin Garcia, who Brian says has the biggest heart of anyone he has ever known. Brian says that Kevin has put up with so much but still stood by him when everything almost became unbearable.
Isbell grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and showed horses competitively on the Quarter Horse circuit starting when he was a freshman in high school. His mother, Cheri, wasn't into horses but his father, Bob and step-mother Margie were highly involved in the industry on a local level. He graduated high school in three years and briefly attended University of Tennessee--Knoxville before quitting to go work for horse trainer Patty Campbell of Rockford, Illinois. Isbell recalls a time in the mid-80's when Campbell took eighteen youth kids to the Congress.
"It was a great time, but crazy because we hardly slept, and it was a little miserable at times," Brian admits and then laughs. "But all of Patty's kids did great that year, so, we definitely had a successful show."
When Patty got engaged to be married, Brian went to work for several other trainers including Brent Tincher, Cliff Morrow, Carl and Trish Yamber and Wayne and Judy Davis. In the late 80's, he ended up working for Ann and Rodger Call of Fort Worth, Texas. This was also around the time that he publicly admitted that he was gay to his parents and to a select few in the horse industry.
"My mother was okay with it.....my father on the other hand took a while to come around and accept it," Brian remembers. "With regard to the horse industry and how they took the news, it really depended upon who it was. I would share it with only certain people, depending on whether I thought it would help or hinder me in the show arena."
Brian believes that there was discrimination by some of the judges because of his sexual orientation. He recalls rather matter of fact: "Yes, I know of a specific example of a time when one judge placed me lower. I know for a fact because I placed first and second and fifth in a hunter under saddle futurity, and the judge that placed me first asked the judge that placed me fifth how he could have placed me that low. The other judge answered, 'Because I don't use damn *&%#!*@!'"
While that is the only specific instance that he knows about, he does believe that there was a stigma about gays in the horse industry, starting back as early as the seventies and lasting through the nineties. He believes that times are better today.
"I know that I and some openly gay exhibitors now prominent in our industry helped lay the ground work of developing acceptance of our lifestyle and orientation," Brian says.
How did he handle the news when he tested HIV positive fourteen years ago? "I was taken completely by surprise and was devastated," he remembers. "I had just gotten back from the Arizona Sun Country Circuit. I found out through a letter from my insurance company after I was switching private insurances, and they took a blood test."
Within four weeks of learning his diagnosis, Brian came down with PCP Pneumonia and became deathly ill. He now had full blown AIDS. His viral load was 455,000 and he only had seven active T cells. The normal range of active T cells in a healthy individual is between 400 and 1600. "I was so sick that I could hardly get off the sofa for three months, and I got down to 125 pounds."
At the time he got sick, Brian was working for Donna and Steve Stumpf, and he remembers this family being extremely kind to him by keeping him on the payroll for two more months after he became ill.
Brian also said that this news definitely tested his relationship with Kevin. "That type of news either makes a relationship stronger or it ends it. Luckily--it made ours stronger."
As for how the horse industry treated him when they found out he had AIDS, "I think for the most part people were really sincere with their concern, and they wanted to help," Brian remembers. "Bruce and Sue Kaplow were life-savers. We had a very special connection, and I had never been treated with that type of unconditional love."
However, Brian admits that for the most part he had blinders on when he was at shows and was pretty much numb to any reaction from people in the industry--both positive and negative.
In 2003, several things in his life came to a breaking point when he knew he had to make a change. The stress of being expected to win all the time, his health, getting suspended in 2003 by AQHA and NSBA for a year (for having a rubber snaffle wrapped with vet wrap on a horse in a stall)--all caused him to reevaluate what was important in his life. Also, all of these stressors began to wear on his relationship with Kevin.
"I just decided that my drive and desire to remain on top and win at all costs was no longer worth it," Brian says. "I decided I wanted to take a break and quit riding horses professionally."
Around this time, Kevin's show clothes business, Kevin Garcia Originals, took off. Today, Kevin is considered one of the top designers in the industry. This long-time couple also moved to Atlanta and one of Brian's friends talked him into working for Starbucks part-time to be able to receive health insurance. (A corporation with 300 employees or more cannot deny anyone health insurance regardless of their health history.) However, due to Brian's competitive nature, his part-time job turned full-time, and he has become one of the top managers in the Southeast region--helping turn around three different under-producing stores.
"I was surprised that I ended up working for a corporation, but I love it! Also, since my medications are around $3,200 a month, the insurance definitely helps," Brian said.
When we asked Brian whether he was ever going to show again---surprisingly, he revealed that in January of 2012, he will be eligible to show in amateur and non-pro events. "The horses will always be in my blood. I would like to have a double registered paint and show in the Amateur all-around events," Isbell reveals. "I am looking for a prospect right now, and I would like to show for fun and on my own terms."
Brian adds, "I'm sure I'll get some more interesting reactions from people in the industry when I start showing in the amateur, but I have waited five years and followed all the rules."
Isbell concludes his thoughts by saying that when he looks back on his life and show career---he definitely made mistakes that he is not proud of but that he had to forgive himself and move forward. "Before, I would do anything for the win, regardless of the price. I burned a lot of bridges by catering to a new customer with a better horse, even if I had a long time loyal customer--especially if their horse wasn't as talented."
Isbell continues, "Where now, I know that loyalty, sincerity, and friendships will last longer than any Congress trophy or any amount of money I could make in my lifetime. I look forward to returning to the show pen and re-building some of those bridges I burned and look forward to starting a new chapter in the horse world."
at shows in the warm up areas. I loved to watch him. He had presence even outside the show pen. I am so glad to hear that he has been able to obtain treatment. I had wondered one time after he looked so ill......
Brian, I have your video and can still remember you patting the horse on the head and saying you liked a broad forehead--lots of room for gray matter!
Enjoy your amateur time...something tells me it won't last at that level long.
Brian, No one can ever take the ability you have, you are simply one of the best trainers of all time. I can honestly say that when I had you as a trainer and you accepted me as a customer, I had the best time of my life. You and Kevin also made everything so much fun. My life had one of the opps moments that took a long time to recover from but thank God it is good now. I will never be able to thank you for the great memories I have of Hot Roddin with Zip and you. Thanks, I hope you are having a blast showing again.
Brian you have always been one of my idols! I have known you since I was in walk trot and then into my professional career and you always encouraged me! I wish you the very best in your future endevors!
Can't wait to see you!
I met Brian back in the 80's when he worked for my then Youth trainer Brent Tincher. We always had so much fun either at the barn or horse shows!! Brian always had a good eye for horses and was just as particular as an assistant trainer back then, as now.
I am looking forward to seeing you back in the saddle again soon, BEST OF LUCK on ALL YOU DESIRE!!
I fail to see anything mentioning what is going on in the privacy of his bedroom. This article is tastefully written for a great member of our industry and should be left at that-this is the 21st century!