For most hunter riders, winning the AHJF Hunter Classic once is a lifetime dream. Liza Towell Boyd has won it twice, and in a way that made the victories "very special" for her. In 1997 (the Classic's inaugural year), her father Jack Towell laid the groundwork for her as a Junior to win on her hunter Monday Morning. In 2008, it was her younger brother Hardin Towell—only recently out of the Juniors himself—who was "eyes on the ground" for Liza Boyd, now riding Fiyero as a professional.
Just as this history illustrates how the Towell family team from Finally Farm has grown and strengthened, Liza Boyd also found the two classics differed in an important way: her own involvement in the process. Her Junior Hunter Monday Morning, an off-the-track Thoroughbred, was "a little bit of a tricky horse who would only do one lead change," so he was routinely prepared at home and at the shows by Jack Towell. "Then I just got on and rode him—I was the jockey!" Liza Boyd says. By 2008, after more than a decade of learning to adapt to all types of horses in the family business, she was "much more hands-on in the care and training of the horse" and much more responsible for Fiyero's achievement. Ultimately, however, the result was still all about a family effort that started before Liza Towell Boyd was born almost 30 years ago.
Growing Up With the Best
Liza's mom, Lisa, rode in the Amateur divisions for a while after she and Jack started their Finally Farm business (originally in North Carolina), and she was the parent most often helping Liza on the flat during her earliest riding years. "I loved my little white ponies," Liza recalls. "I loved brushing them and hopping on bareback and riding with friends." Jack coached her over fences, where she had a natural eye for "finding the jumps." However, the technicalities of riding demanded more work. "The correct position, the strength for holding a two-point and—especially—getting the correct diagonal, all that was really tough for me." Liza remembers days of practicing on the longe with Lisa giving instruction and encouragement. "But it was something I always wanted to do." By age 3 she was showing on a small pony named Cash and Carry.
She affectionately recalls Hardin having a more ambivalent attitude about riding as a youngster. "He liked to ride when there was an audience, but he didn't like to practice at home. He had some really bratty ponies, and I remember once when he fell off and looked at my dad and said, ‘I'm taking up a different sport!'" The middle Towell sibling, Ned, showed in the Short Stirrup and Junior divisions until his main focus became foxhunting. "That was his world," Liza says. "He was very social and went to all the hunt balls." Ned has put even hunting aside in recent years for a business career and involvement in local politics, but Liza is sure he'll be back on a horse when time permits.
The young Towells' access to training from other professionals was a plus whose importance Liza recognized only later. "I look back now and think, ‘You didn't realize how lucky you were!'" A great friend of the family was the late legendary trainer and judge Ronnie Mutch. One of Jack Towell's early mentors, Ronnie also trained Liza and Hardin. Now that she is teaching and giving clinics herself, Liza says she finds she uses teaching techniques that she absorbed from Ronnie.
Other key influences included top equitation and jumper trainer Missy Clark, who coached both Liza and Hardin in their Junior equitation days, and the late hunter judge and trainer Roger Young, who lived across the street from the Towells' Finally Farm. "We would go over there after school, and I remember Roger watching me ride and giving me tips."
At horse shows, Liza had the chance to watch the best riders in the hunter/jumper world. "For me, it was people like Elizabeth Solter. I remember thinking how great she was, such a diverse rider who could ride a hunter round beautifully and then go win the grand prix at Harrisburg. Also Nicole Shahinian-Simpson—she was a little older than me, but when I started doing Junior Hunters she was winning everything and I thought she was terrific. She rode in such beautiful style, so slender and tall and always in perfect position."
"Just Another Girl"—NOT!
Top coaching plus Liza's own work ethic added up to a brilliant Junior career whose many high points included winning the National Pony Finals on her large pony Tickled Pink, coming second in the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Classic on Brother and winning the Junior Jumper Championship at Washington on Naturally, a sister of famous grand prix jumper The Natural. In her final Junior year Liza also won the Junior Hunter Championship at Madison Square Garden on Juliet, a "very special" hot chestnut mare who continued to win championships with Liza in her first year in the professional divisions.
Then, with the Juniors behind her, Liza had a go at a conventional non-horse-show lifestyle when she enrolled at the College of Charleston about three hours' drive from the Towells' farm in Camden, South Carolina. "I wanted to totally do the college thing. I didn't take a horse to school with me. I joined a sorority and didn't ride on any college team. At the beginning, none of my college friends knew anything about my riding life—I was just another girl there."
But not for long. She says, "I couldn't keep it up. Even though I told myself I wouldn't, I couldn't stay away from the horses. Saturday afternoon would come and when everyone else was relaxing I would be saying, ‘I need to go and ride.'" Some good friends of the Towells' had a farm not far from the college. "I went out there on the weekends to teach lessons and ride." She also went home occasionally to show. With Naturally, she eventually competed in her first grand prix classes. "She was a steppingstone into the jumper ring for me. That was fun—I thought, ‘Hey! I can do this!'"