by Ann Jamieson
When Jack and Lisa Towell were starting out, Jack served as a farrier as well as a trainer. “He did a little bit of everything, probably dictated by the finances of the time,” daughter Liza recalls. He was working on a horse that was difficult to shoe when Lisa’s water broke. Rather than rushing her to the hospital as Lisa requested, Jack said, “Just let me finish shoeing him; he’s super hard to shoe.”
On the way home from the hospital with their newborn daughter, Lisa and Jack stopped back at the barn. They placed their newborn baby on the back of a horse. There was never any doubt about what Liza’s future would be.
Beginning in the short stirrup division at about six with a pony named Cash N Carry, Liza got a great start in the show ring. Although he didn’t do his changes, he was a good, safe pony who taught her a lot. A year later, she graduated to the small ponies with the fancy Welsh pony, Himself the Elf, a pony who says Liza “taught so many riders so much!” Although really scared of men, the pony “wasn’t spooky, had a really solid, nice uphill balance, and was super cute. “He was a great pony!” remembers Liza.
Noting the change over the years in horse shows, Liza recalls watching some old videos with the kids at Christmas time. She won at Harrisburg on a pony that swapped twice. Her daughter Elle wondered how she won the round. “I would have gotten a 74,” she said.
“Courses have changed so much,” says Liza, “they’ve gotten so technical in the pony hunters. Judging criteria is so different. The course for the handy hunter is basically the same as I would do in a 4′ division.”
Although Liza didn’t participate in other sports in school, she’s quite adamant about exposing her kids to different sports. For example, they all ski together and take ski holidays. Adeline takes tennis lessons. Liza tried swim team and gymnastics as well as trying out for cheerleading but didn’t make the team. “I’m not very athletic in that way. Riding was it for me!”
She remembers some ponies and horses that really shaped and molded her career. “Tickled Pink was one of them. We only went to Pony Finals one year, as my dad felt it was a bit of a waste of time to go for just one class.” But they won. After that it was time to move on, she had “ticked that off of her list.”
Tickled Pink was a super fancy pony, and Liza wasn’t initially ready for him. While she continued to gain experience on other ponies, older kids showed him for her. “You want to set yourself and your pony up for success.” Since she wasn’t ready for him right away, letting the bigger kids show him really kept his confidence up, and “Then when I was ready the pony was ready.” It was a lesson in good horsemanship.
When Liza graduated to horses, she went right into the 3’6″ juniors. She loves that now, “We have the 3’3″ divisions so my kids don’t have to move right up to 3’6″; instead we have the stepping stones.”
One year at Wellington, Liza amassed an incredible record (never equaled by any other rider) by taking the championships in the small ponies, medium ponies, large ponies, and junior hunters. She also won the World Champion Hunter Rider title three times. “Coming up in my career I was lucky for all that was developed thanks to Louise Serio and Geoff Teall. And then the hunter derby system was developed. We had this amazing pipeline that allowed me to establish my career. I remember the first Capital Challenge ever I won the pony and the horse World Champion Hunter Rider (they don’t allow that anymore, now you have to declare one or the other). Years later Liza went on to win the Professional title. “I’ve had so many good goals and the pipeline to follow to achieve them.”
The first horse who really made Liza’s career was Monday Morning. An off-the-track Thoroughbred, Monday was scheduled to go to slaughter, but instead got on the wrong van, saving his life. Lisa felt an immediate pull towards Monday, and felt he was the perfect horse to follow Tickled Pink, the pony Liza had had so much success with. Andrew Lustig had owned Monday, showing him to circuit champion in Ocala in the pre-green hunters. While Monday was a hot mess in the schooling area, in the show ring “The horse,” says Andrew, “knew exactly what he was doing.” Lisa pestered Jack to take a look at him, and her gut feelings proved on the money. Monday and Liza won Horse of the Year, were champion at indoors, and as Liza says, “He taught me so many life lessons!”
Even though he had never been in a show and come directly off the track, he went in the ring and turned it on…and won. When Andrew first showed him, he had two lead changes. That changed before Liza got him. Monday had been incarcerated in a chicken coop for months because of a deal gone sour, and after being rescued by Andrew, now only had one lead change. Liza isn’t sure if she had him now if “I might have ruined him. I might have tried to make him learn that lead change. As a kid, you just kind of go with the flow and adapt, but as an adult, you start to insist that ‘the horse has to learn it!'”
She and Monday won the very first Palm Beach Spectacular together. Ronnie Mutch and Roger Young, two great old horsemen, helped her with the horse. “I was super lucky as a kid that I got such great exposure to so many other professionals, not just my parents. I was very lucky at a young age to work with so many great horsemen from the past. Roger Young was our neighbor so I would go over there to have lessons with Judy and Roger. Ronnie helped me on ponies throughout my junior career.
“Then I went to Missy Clark for equitation. I learned so much from everybody and then you kind of mold and shape it into what works for you, and you have your own identity and training program and method of riding. When I graduated from college I rode with Chris Kappler doing the jumpers, and I think those jumper miles really helped me become a much better handy rider and for the hunter derbies.
Liza knew what her path in life was, and it included college, where she studied psychology. For her, it was, “a super great getaway” from the horse world. Some of her friends in college didn’t even know that she rode. It was “a little break from this world” even though she continued to ride while in school. She emerged from college with great friends that she still sees today; in fact some stopped by recently for a visit. “I really did college, I was in a sorority and I was ‘little miss college student.’ It was a great four years of my life.”
After graduation, Liza went to work for Sandy Lobel, a wonderful horsewoman in New Jersey. “I learned so much about the preparation of the horse, the behind-the-scenes part that my dad always did for me. I was a good show rider but I don’t think at that point I was as good a horseman with the preparation and the care of the horses. Sometimes your parents do it for you, but you don’t realize it. I was always the catch rider but this was a great time for me just to learn the important horsemanship aspects of the business. I still remember to this day what to do if a horse has a fat leg, so I’m really grateful for all she did for me.”
The following year, Liza worked for Tom Wright for a short while, who taught her a great deal of the flatwork, the technical side of riding. “It’s not just about finding all the distances but that next step, the higher jump, and more sophisticated flatwork. I still find myself using little things that he taught me, some technical things, and I’d be like wow that made the difference between an 86 and a 90. Even today, I can be in the schooling arena and I remember, Tom said, ‘If you can get the horse’s mouth at the walk, and get a little shape, that’s going to carry over to that last single oxer where the horse breaks over and you get that great finish behind’, and all the technicalities for making the handy hunter smooth. I’ve been so lucky throughout my career that in addition to my parents, I’ve had so many great professionals guide me.”
After that, Liza went back to the family business. “It was really wonderful that I could come back with those tools and resources. And they were probably the same thing that my dad, who’s a great horseman and great with the care and the prep and a great rider himself, it’s all the things he probably taught me but sometimes when you hear it from somebody else worded differently or it’s just not your family member telling you, you get it.”
Being at the top of the sport with her many international derby wins isn’t easy. “It wasn’t easy to get there and it was even harder to stay there. Sometimes I was second sometimes I was third, and once I went off course and I was devastated! And that’s when you get into the mental aspect of this sport. I always knew I had a special horse in Brunello but sometimes I made mistakes. I’ve got all of the training, all of the resources, but then you’ve got to have the right head space.”
After she went off course Liza thought “Oh my God now I’m going to be known as the rider who went off course. And it really gets into your head and I was nervous. I came back and was second to Jen Alfano and Jersey Boy and rightfully so. She was more focused than me. The following year I came back and I won. Yes, I won three years in a row but before that, there were four years that were a real struggle.
Liza read books, worked with sports psychologist Margie Sugarman, and went over the tools, learning so much that goes into it from that end as well, such as breathing, and practicing yoga. “It seems like such a simple thing but I thought ‘Oh my god I really don’t even know how to breathe!’ Conquering that aspect of the sport, Liza developed good mental horsemanship skills, and came back, “Then it was great and I won!” She and Brunello had won the USHJA International Hunter Derby Champion title!
The following year Liza had Adeline, who was born at the end of May. That didn’t stop her and Brunello from winning again. The event was in August “So that was really close to when I gave birth. But that was probably the easiest year mentally because I was like ‘You’ve already won, and you’ve just had a baby.’ I was telling myself just to be there would be great, I literally still had baby fat. Then I set a goal for myself, just top 10 would be great and then it got a little closer and I was riding again and feeling really good and then it was like “top 10, no way! I want to be top 3”, and then I ended up winning, and that was the icing on the cake!
“The third year coming back was hard again because I was thinking now I have no excuses and this is a great horse. I’m expected to win because I don’t have the excuse that I just had a baby. I remember going in for that final and being super nervous and ‘I think Brunello just did it for me.’ And then that was it. He was done.”
Since then Liza has been second; she’s been third. Last year she was sixth, and each one was on different types of horses. But Brunello was a horse of a lifetime.
He was Hanoverian and came from a farm in Europe where Jack bought horses from. “My dad would go over there about once a year and he would always see Brunello, and Brunello has this beautiful long neck and he would stick his neck out of the stall and my dad loved him and he would say ‘I really like this horse’ and they told him ‘No, no he’s a jumper. He’s good, he’s doing big jumper stuff.’
“And then one year they were like ‘Actually, he’s a hunter.’ My brother Hardin was over there and tried him, and loved him.” Caroline Clark, a client of theirs, bought him to be her amateur hunter, and Hardin was going to ride him. But when he got out of quarantine Liza just happened to get to the barn and got on him first and Hardin never got him back.
“I’ll take this one,” Liza told him. “It was my lucky day.”
Caroline showed Brunello herself and then ended up getting really involved with her son and his life and wanted to sell him. The Towells were able to buy him in partnership with Janet Peterson. “She was an amazing owner, she trusted our program, 100 percent supportive. And he went on and had so much success.
“He is really easy to ride, and less is more. A lot of horses need more, you have to train them a lot. They’re fresh. They’re spooky. But with Brunello, we did a lot of trail rides and a lot of field work. And sometimes we would do a jumper class before the Derby to work on rideability and carefulness. I think that’s what makes a good horseperson, adapting to different horses and not being regimented like ‘This is how I train and this horse is going to fit this mold. He definitely did not fit a typical hunter mold. Like he didn’t lunge, and most of my horses lunge. But my dad and I figured out we had to listen to him and let him tell us what he needed. Fortunately, we did and listened to him.
“He’s very grumpy in his stall, bites at other horses, he’s a very strong character, kind of a warrior horse, you could take him fox hunting. He’s not fragile, not a flower. But he’s sweet to people, although very strong-willed.”
In 2015 Brunello, after his third International Hunter Derby Championship win, was named the Hunter Horse of the Year by The Chronicle of the Horse, and earned the USEF National Horse of the Year title as well.
Liza has a record unmatched by any other hunter rider. As a junior, she was named Overall World Champion Hunter Rider three times, was second in the Washington International Equitation Finals, and won the Best Child Rider Award at the Washington International Horse Show four times, setting a record that remains untouched. So far, she’s won more than 25 USHJA International and National Hunter Derbies and rode Brunello to victory in 2013, 2014, and 2015 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships.
She is quick to share the credit. “It’s rewarding and I’m grateful to all the horses and people who have helped me get here. It’s each and every horse along the way that helped me be the World Champion Hunter Rider three times. We have really great clients and a terrific support system. And the staff that works for me. It’s not me, I don’t think ‘I did all this.’ It’s the whole picture, like my husband, everybody plays a role. And then I’m the lucky one who gets to get on and do what I love.”
Behind the Scenes
“We have Carlos Ramiros who’s been with us for a very long time, and he really really loves the horses. He’s trained the other guys in the barn on the horse’s health and how to tell how they’re feeling that day.
Randi Button manages the farm. “She’s amazing. She’s so so knowledgeable; she could be a trainer herself. She really reads the horses well, and you have to have this because it’s a lot. We have over 30 horses down here. There’s a lot to remember. She’s very good about keeping the horses healthy, the care side and the veterinary side, and their stomachs and staying on top of all the supplements. One person can only do so much.”
Liza’s two assistant trainers and riders, Olivia Murray and Theresa Tolar, are young, in their late 20’s, and excellent riders. Theresa shows for Liza, competing in some of the other divisions, as well as giving lessons. “She rode with me as a kid so she thinks like me. She’s been with me so long, she knows our system and she’s super organized.
“Olivia is super on the flat and she knows how to prepare the horses for my clients and I. Then you have my brother Hardin who is more on the jumper side, and then my Dad does a little bit of everything. He’s 70 so he doesn’t do everything he used to do, he’s not quite so hands-on, but when I need him he’s there.”
This past Saturday Finally Farm had 15 horses showing before 10 a.m. “We had 15 horses to lunge, and 30 horses showing, and he was out here at 4:30. To me everyone is humble and everyone will get down and get dirty and do everybody else’s job.
When asked what hunter derbies have done for the sport, Liza answered “The Derbies have done so much for the sport; they’ve gotten people more excited about owning hunters. People that had moved on to the jumper ring have come back to the hunter world. I think they have made the classes more exciting and brought more spectators. For me alone, they have gained me so much sponsorship that I wouldn’t have gotten before.
“I also think because of the group of people, the great minds that came up with the derby system, they also came up with Pre-Green Incentive, which is your pipeline to bring a horse all the way up from the young horse to the Derby system. It also allows the young horse to make money, which we didn’t see a lot in the hunter world. Now in the Pre-Greens they might not only be able to pay for their class but get recognition for their accomplishments as well.
“It’s wonderful for the owners, and it helps the dealers be able to sell their horses as well. They have an end goal where they can go to Kentucky and do the Pre-Green incentive. There is a lot of money in that! It’s derived from Colleen McQuay coming up with that idea from the reining world. There’s an enrollment fee that goes back into the pot for the championships at the end of the year.
“And then from there, the National Derby. These are enormous for so many reasons. Now, every horse show I go to there are like 50 in the National Derby! They are not only great for young horses, who are coming up the pipeline learning to do a Handy Hunter at a smaller height to eventually do derbies, but amateur or junior riders are able to partake at a highlighted class like on a Friday afternoon so they get exposure. So the young riders, the amateurs, the young horses, it all leads you up to the International Derby.”
Introducing Hunter Derbies to the World
Liza, with her incredible hunter derby resume, was chosen in 2010 by the USHJA High Performance Hunter Committee as one of the riders to be a member of the World Equestrian Games Hunter Derby Exhibition Team, introducing derbies to the world. She felt it was “fun, there was no pressure. It was a good introduction to it back then; I think it would get even more attention now.”
While other countries may not yet have embraced hunter derbies, they have absolutely since “picked up the idea of what a good hunter is. And that’s not necessarily a good thing,” laughs Liza. “The prices are so much higher! They know what a Derby horse is now, they know what a nice hunter is now.”
The Europeans used to believe that hunters had to be little dainty movers. Now they understand that hunters don’t necessarily fit that description. They get it that Americans “want scope, we want ability, we want a 1.4 m horse to jump 3’6.”
Liza competed in some Grand Prix (before Hunter Derbies were introduced) to push herself to become a better rider. “You don’t want to get stagnant. It was exciting, all the adrenaline, and I was good enough to go double clean but I was never that fast. I was accurate, I could find the spots but I’ll never be that fast.”
When the Derbies were introduced, they were just what Liza wanted. They forced her to up her game, to become a better rider. The Handy Hunters provided the adrenaline that you get in a jump-off but are judged on precision and accuracy. Liza thought, “I’ll go down that venue.”
While she prefers to ride in the Derbies, Liza has a great appreciation and love for the jumpers and loves to watch them and follow their program, “to see how they keep those horses so sound and fresh after all those years. I’ve tried to emulate that with Brunello because he was 18, and the Derbies give horses like him another job. I don’t know what would have become of him otherwise as he got older because he did get a little bored at the smaller jumps.”
Finally Farm bills itself as a “full-service horse farm with small-town charm.” Liza is proud of their students, who range from pony kids to children’s hunters and junior hunters, and amateur hunter and jumper riders. “My brother helps the jumper riders; we have a good group. I have some kids that did well at indoors this year with the ponies and the junior hunters. Liza and Jack share training duties, while Hardin has his own farm in Wellington, Florida, but helps out at major competitions.
Liza’s list of accolades is stunning. In 1994 she won the Pony and Junior World Champion Hunter Rider titles. In 2013 she was named the Hunter Horseman of the Year by The Chronicle of the Horse and earned the WCHR Professional title for the first time. In 2015 she won the USEF Emerson Burr Trophy and was nominated for USEF Equestrian of the Year. In 2016 she won the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at Devon with Like I Said. and then won the WCHR Professional title again in 2017 and 2018. Liza is the only rider to ever earn all three WCHR titles.
When asked, after such a brilliant career, what else Liza would like to accomplish, she answered, “At this point in my career I’m really involved in my children. Elle won Pony Finals, which was exciting. Adeline is starting to do small ponies and Itty Bitty Jumpers which is super fun. I think at this point I’m very focused on them, and on being a mom.
“But I’m always looking for that special hunter to bring along. I just love it, I love the Derbies. But I want the horse to be ready, and to be prepared. Also, my dad always says this, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.’ And that’s such a great thing to remember in this business, that we’re always learning. And that’s what’s fun and what’s exciting. And if we stop learning then why are we doing this? Every week I’m always learning something and asking questions, trying to do better, and making myself a better rider, better trainer, better horseman.”
About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years.
She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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