ny rider who has ever competed has felt it: the adrenaline buzz and rush of thoughts in the final minutes before entering the ring or leaving the startbox. In this series, we examine the routines of top riders and find out what rituals keep them (and their horses) cool and focused in the moments before the spotlight hits them.
The Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) is winding down. Liza Towell Boyd is buzzing between rings showing horses for her family’s Finally Farm. Tradition, a nine-year-old Westphalian gelding owned by Maggie Hill, is getting ready to show in the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby. They had a good prep, winning the $15,000 USHJA International Derby Hunt & Go just two days before.
“This is his second WEF,” Liza says of Tradition, who got big jumper experience in Europe before being imported by Scott Stewart. “He’s an old pro in the sense that you don’t have to get him in the ring in the morning or do any of that kind of stuff. He’s a pretty straightforward guy.”
It's the day before the big class. It's a comfort that Tradition knows his job, but Liza has to make sure he's ready to work for her in the ring. She sets up a schooling course at home with the goal of getting his attention and fine-tuning his form. She raises the fences higher than they will be in the competition to sharpen him up.
“He’s so athletic and it’s so easy for him to do the derbies that sometimes I’ll do a little bit more challenging courses at home the day before,” Liza says. “I’ll do something like a big vertical, vertical, to an in-and-out set pretty tight, making him really have to rock back on his hind end and curl around. I think that’s the biggest thing with him: I have to school him a little bit bigger [the day before].”
It's the day of the show. Liza knows Tradition doesn’t require too much work to get him to the ring thanks to his big jump school the day before. “He’s not spooky,” Liza says. “He’s really a brave horse.” Nevertheless, he has to jump with good energy and form and stay focused on the job. Making a difficult task look easy is the nuance of hunters.
Within the hour, the class will be over. Liza and Tradition make their way to the warm-up ring. Today, Tradition’s flatwork will get a more technical upgrade. After a quick tack check, Liza mounts and trots a few laps each direction in the schooling ring while her father, Jack Towell, and assistant trainer, Katie Wood, look on. They are on the ground to adjust fences and be an extra set of eyes ensuring horse and rider look as good as they feel.
“The morning of, we flat him [and work on] lengthening, shortening,” Liza says. “We do a lot of counter-canter work. A bit more like a jumper or an equitation horse.”
10 minutes out: Tradition has warmed up well on the flat and the pair is three or four horses out in the order. Liza pops him over three verticals, starting small and working up to about 3’6”. His muscles feel loose. His jumps feels strong.
6 minutes out: The pair tackles two rampy oxers, then a square oxer. Liza and her team on the ground don’t waste much time in between fences: jumps are quickly adjusted and Liza and Tradition circle back around with few breaks in between. There is nothing flat about his jump. He rounds up and over the square oxer, his knees tight and pulled up to his chin.
2 minutes out: They are on deck, the next in the arena. There is not much time left to make adjustments. They finish their school over a tall vertical. Tradition rocks back on his hind end and powers elegantly to the other side.
1 minute out: Ready or not. Tradition has earned a short walk break while they head to the gate where Liza, Katie, and Jack exchange last minute observations about the course.
Time's up: As they step in the ring, the rest of the world falls away and all Liza sees is the course. All she feels is the horse. It's just her and Tradition, ready to show us what they've got.
They finish third in the $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby, capping off another successful season at WEF.
Photos by Kate Kosnoff for NoelleFloyd.com.