When it comes to horses, Liz Austin has always been precocious. She started riding her first pony when she was just 15 months old and made her European Grand Prix debut at 22. In 2006 and 2007, Liz won the National Dressage Championship Brentina Cup, and earned her USDF Gold in 2008. Not only did she become the youngest ever World Dressage Masters competitor at the 2010 WDM Palm Beach, she finished ninth in the Grand Prix and third in the Grand Prix Special with only a few weeks’ notice. Those are just a few of Liz’s accomplishments. Still, her scores and awards only tell part of the story. Alongside her accolades and her international dreams, Liz Austin is leaving a trail of happy horses.
Liz attributes her start in horses to her mother, Madeleine, a professional trainer. “She started out doing hunter jumper stuff in her younger years and then switched over to eventing and eventually ended up doing dressage. So that’s really how I got started; I got my first pony when I was 1 ½, and that was it for me,” Liz said. “It was not such an easy pony and certainly taught me how to ride.”
Madeleine was Liz’s primary teacher as she began her equestrian journey. “My mom was amazing. Our riding school that we had, we would have jumping lessons, we rode bareback, we went out trail riding, we did cross-country; we were very well-rounded,” Liz recalled. She even stays in contact with a few of her old riding buddies. “I think I pretty much had the best start that you could have with riding — I get a little scared for these kids that come to me and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never jumped,’ or ‘I’ve never trail ridden,’ or whatever. It’s so important as a rider to learn about balance and an independent seat and all of that through things other than dressage.”
Liz began competing at age 5, and by 11 was hooked on dressage. Her horse at the time was a Trakehner cross named American Pie, who was anything but “easy as” – he was a failed event horse with no love for flatwork. “One of my first tests, the judge’s comment was, ‘This very capable and determined young rider might have more success on a horse that isn’t so difficult to ride,’” Liz shared with a laugh. “I’m one of those people that if you tell me I can’t do something, that’s what I’m going to do. I think that’s part of what started it; I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to make this happen!’”
Making It Happen
After learning a great deal from American Pie, Liz was ready for another challenge. One of Madeleine’s friends, Scot Tolman, started a consortium called the Dutch Breeders of North America, and the Austins became involved. “They wanted to bring in three stallions to improve the options for fresh semen in the States,” Liz said. “My mom said she would stand one of the stallions if they could find one who would be a potential Young Rider horse for me. The stallion they found and subsequently imported was Hierarch.”
Things didn’t go exactly as planned. “Of course, what we didn’t realize was that he had a whopping 53-percent average at Prix St. Georges in Holland and he was very, very difficult.” Liz, as usual, made the best of the situation. “But, you know, he really taught me a tremendous amount.” Not only did she make the North American Young Riders’ Championships (NAYRC) U.S. Team in 2002, 2003, and 2004, she took home the Young Rider Championship from the 2003 CDI Blainville, was the 2004 Youth Dressage Festival Champion for the Young Rider division, and was the Individual silver medalist at the NAYRC 2004.
“From the experience gained from those two,” Liz said of American Pie and Hierarch, “I was ready to eventually take on riding Olivier.”
Olivier, aka Fizzy, was bred by Liz’s mother Madeleine and became the first American-bred dressage Elite Stallion in Belgian Warmblood Studbook (BWP) history. He was also the catalyst for Liz’s career. “He was a 7-year-old when I started riding him,” she said. “Before that, he was just a big, strong stallion — he was a lot of horse for me. When he was 4, I was 16, and that’s probably not the best match.”
Madeleine knew he was so talented that she wanted him to “go on to do big time stuff with somebody” if Liz didn’t want him, and was going to sell him. “So I actually took him to Florida to sell in 2004, and then the rest is history, I guess!” Liz said.
“History,” according to Liz, includes winning the National Dressage Championship Brentina Cup in 2006 and 2007, earning her USDF Gold medal, competing in the World Dressage Masters and the Festival of Champions, making the long list for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, becoming the reserve rider for the 2011 FEI Dressage World Cup, making her European Grand Prix debut, and training in Europe twice, just as a few milestones.
In addition to her mother, who still helps in Liz’s training quite a bit, Liz has had the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top riders throughout her career. “The first time I was in Florida I was with Jen Baumert,” Liz said. “Jen was amazing. I went as a working student for her, and she gave me an amazingly positive experience that was sort of a deciding factor for whether or not I was going to try to make it in the horse business.”
From there, Liz has worked with Lendon Gray, Tuny Page, Michael Barisone, Robert Dover, Kathy Connelly and others. In 2013, Liz and Olivier spent two months riding in England with Carl Hester. “That was really cool. I feel like I’ve gotten some of the best help in the world, and it’s helped me to formulate what kind of rider and trainer I want to be,” said Liz. “You take little bits from everybody, and you figure out where Liz Austin as a trainer fits in. It’s been really interesting and exciting. You’re always developing.”
Most recently, Liz has been working with Debbie McDonald. “I just really love the connection you have with the horse in dressage work,” Liz expressed. “A good dressage horse will completely give you their body, and it’s so cool to develop that relationship of trust. You add in the suppleness and the connection and the trust, and then the movements are just the icing on the cake. They’re fun. When you have a nicely trained dressage horse, the movements are the easy part; it’s all the other stuff that builds the foundation.”
While Olivier is now a successful sire based at Imajica, the Vermont facility where Madeleine trains, breeds, and sells, Liz is focusing on bringing up young horses. One of those young horses is Coltrane, a 9-year-old son of Olivier.
Liz and Coltrane have already had show ring success, but that’s not Liz’s focus for him right now. “I’m really just trying to develop Coltrane for the Grand Prix,” she explained. “I competed him last year a bit, and I might compete him a little bit this year, but he’s just one of those horses where he’s pretty hot. He’s needed a lot of time to grow up, physically and mentally.”
Partially resulting from her many successes with Olivier, Liz was able to create sponsorship partners that still support her as she focuses on training younger horses. Alongside training schedules learned from Carl Hester and special attention to the health and happiness of each horse in her program, Liz has another tool for success: treats.
“I’m a big believer in feeding them treats when you’re riding,” Liz said passionately. “I always let them walk for about 10 minutes on a long rein when I first get on, but everyone knows where the treats live. I get on and they walk straight to the treat box and they get a cookie. Then we’ll do a little warm up, and they’ll get a cookie. And really anytime they do anything, when they’re trying hard or whatever, I’ll say, ‘Do you want a cookie?’ and everyone gets very happy and excited.”
In addition to keeping stomach acid at bay while working, Liz likes using the treats to positively reinforce whatever she’s doing. Because she’s also very conscious of the health of the horses, she has made the switch from sugar cubes to BioStar’s whole food treats. “I’ve been super, super happy with the BioStar Bites, and the Metabites for my fatties,” Liz said. “I think it’s a great alternative to sugar.”
For now, Liz’s future goals aren’t focused in front of judges, although she does still dream of riding for the USA Dressage Team one day, if the stars align. “For me, I love the training part of everything. I do enjoy showing; I think it’s great, I think it’s a valuable barometer of where you are with your horse,” she said. “But at the end of the day it’s most important to me to have beautifully, kindly trained horses that are happy in their job.”
About the Writer: Britney Anderson believes in following one’s dreams, currently pursuing her own of being involved in professional equestrian events. When not riding an OTTB at Creekside Equestrian in Payson, Utah, Britney can be found working at home with carefully mismatched socks and possibly a princess crown. Read about her journey at horseworldlife.com.