Liz Austin has never been afraid to embrace the unconventional.
“It’s the same Grand Prix test whether you’re sitting on a big Irish Draught or if you’re sitting on the best horse in the world,” she said. “To me, gaining that experience and having the horse that went in there and really, truly tried his heart out, that’s invaluable.”
Over the winter, Austin was showing Irish Draught stallion Steeped In Luck (Mount Diamond Flag—Steeple View, Agherlow) in the CDI Grand Prix tests in Florida, and this summer, she reunited with a horse that spent the last several years in the hunter and equitation rings.
Austin, 36, got her start riding sales horses for her mother Madeleine Austin, and her big break came aboard one of Madeleine’s homebred stallions Olivier (Idocus—Rowillie, Porter). With “Fizzy,” Liz was the first winner of the USEF National Young Adult “Brentina Cup” Dressage Championship in 2006, and the pair won again in 2007 and earned a spot on the long list for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Kentucky).
After Fizzy retired to breeding, Liz put her hopes in his offspring Coltrane (out of Farahdine). But that journey got derailed, and Liz sent him to Mandy Lynch to be sold as a hunter. Coltrane did everything from children’s hunters and equitation to national hunter derbies before he returned to Liz’s farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts. After five years out of the dressage show ring, Liz is once again thinking about Grand Prix with Coltrane.
We caught up with Liz to chat about having Coltrane back, her goals and motherhood.
Tell me a little bit about your journey with Coltrane.
I got a training grant with Olivier to go train with Carl Hester in 2013, and Coltrane came along. He was 6, and he was supposed to be my next big horse. He ended up getting EPM, and then he came back from that. It wasn’t too serious, but he needed some time. [Afterwards] he really wasn’t happy in the collected work, and I spent a lot of money on vet bills, and I really tried to figure out.
Then two years ago I found out I was pregnant, and I thought, “What do I do with this horse that doesn’t want to do it?” So I actually sent him off to be sold as a hunter. He ended up not being sold, so I got him back. We did a little more investigating and found out some stuff management wise, managing some stomach issues and managing his back a little bit, and he’s getting ready to do the Grand Prix. We did our first Prix St. Georges this summer, and then we did our first Intermediaire A. He basically does the whole Grand Prix, but I just want to get him a little stronger before we do it.
[My fiancé Erik Shields was] very helpful in bringing Coltrane home. Because I kept crying at night, he finally said, “I think we have to bring her horse back.” He said, “It doesn’t matter if he lives in the field; we’ll figure out paying for him. He can just come home and just live out here with us for the rest of his life, and we’ll just figure it out.”
It’s been really exciting for me to have Coltrane back because [my mom] bred him, and she also bred my stallion Olivier, so it’s nice for me because we had these great hopes for him, and then it didn’t work out, and then he was really good as a hunter too. I think it’s really nice for her that she has been able to produce a number of really good Grand Prix horses.
How did Coltrane do as hunter?
Amazing! He was incredible! His first year he went to the New England Equitation Championships [Massachusetts], and then he did some hunter derbies. He was just fabulous. And then of course we had some perfect clients who were flying in from Colorado to try him, and everything seemed great, and he was lame the day they came to try him. I didn’t know what to do, so I just brought him home and was like, if I can just get him happy enough to do a normal national Grand Prix and not put a lot of pressure on him. He’s doing all of the work, and he’s really, really special. I’m just having fun with him.
Is he similar to Olivier?
He’s much hotter. His mom’s Dutch, but she has a lot of Trakehner and Thoroughbred blood, so he’s a hot, hot boy. In a really fun way, but he is hot for sure.
Do you have anything else in the barn right now you’re hoping will do Grand Prix?
I don’t. I had a half-brother that was hopefully going to be my next international horse, but he ended up almost dying in a pasture accident. He cut his leg in the field and almost bled out. In the process he severed all of his tendons and ligaments in his leg, so he was on stall rest for quite some time. He’s just allowed to go outside a bit now, but I don’t think he’ll come back. It’s a tough sport.
I have some training horses, and I have a lot of clients right now that I’m helping with their horses. One of my clients, we’re going to try to buy a young horse for me. But right now, I’m just kind of riding and training and doing the best I can, and maybe something will come along.
What is Steeped In Luck up to these days?
He went up to stand at stud in Canada. He was amazing. He really is a very, very special horse. He was very, very fun to ride. Obviously, he was kind of unique in the dressage arena. That horse just did not have a no in him. He always tried, and it was incredible for me to get to compete as much of the Grand Prix as I did with him.
It’s frustrating because we had a few lovely, clean tests [this winter] and would score in the low 60s. I think it was tough because he was never going to have a big flashy front leg, and he was never going to be a wow mover, but a lot of the work that he did really was quite correct. We did Devon [Pennsylvania] and Tryon [North Carolina], and we did under the lights at [the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida)]. It was an amazing experience, and his owners were just so proud of him, and the Irish [Draught] Society as a whole was just so excited to have a horse out there doing it. It was about his temperament and heart honestly.
What are your own goals at this point?
I just want to be a really good Grand Prix rider, and I want to make happy horses and have good, compassionate riders. I really believe in the welfare of the horse and the horse being happy in their job and the riders being very fair to their horses. If that means I get to go on a team that’s great, but I already had one horse that I pretty much ruined because I got greedy, and we pushed him too hard. I don’t want to do that. Life’s too short.
That’s partially why I tried to sell Coltrane as a hunter because we were sort of at that crossroads where I was like I can either beat you up, and I don’t ride like that.
I don’t think you mean to do it, but when the top trainers see you on a really good horse, they see you as the next Olympic prospect, which is great when things go well. But when things start to go south you’re the one who has to pick up the pieces, and hopefully your horse makes it through OK mentally and physically, but a lot of times that’s not the case. I really think you have to be an advocate for your horse first and foremost.
What do your days look like right now?
My days are long. I have a 2-year-old son [Max]. Usually, it’s a good combination of teaching and riding. I have like five that I’m riding right now. Depending on the day, I ride [some of the nine] training horses. And then usually in the afternoons I teach off site, and then on my light days I go and do clinics all around. It’s a nice combination.
I look at the people who ride 12 horses a day every day, and it’s a lot on your body. I think eight is a good number to ride. I really do enjoy teaching. I have a couple [students] who are getting ready to go Grand Prix or are just starting Grand Prix, which is amazing because I’ve been helping them for a long time. My working student is riding a Grand Prix horse that I was given a few years ago. She’s getting ready to do the U25 with him, so there’s some really exciting stuff going on. I feel extremely lucky.
Is Max interested in horses?
Yes, he loves horses. He has a pony named Jack. He’s 2, so sometimes he rides around; sometimes he just wants to pet him or wants to lead him. I’m not going to push it either direction. If he loves horses, great; if not, it is what it is. He definitely is an animal lover for sure.
The pony lives up at my mom’s farm now in Vermont, so we go up every couple of weeks. Last time we were up there he learned how to climb up the mounting block and to jump on him bareback. It’s really cute.
Is your fiancé a horse person?
He’s not horsey, but he played hockey professionally, so he is extremely, extremely supportive of my dreams and my hopes and my horse bills and my vet bills. I think it’s kind of fun for him. He didn’t quite make it to the NHL, but I think it’s fun for him to be able to see me pursue these dreams, especially with the horse I have right now.
How has it been trying to balance your own ambitions with raising your son?
He’s at such an easy age. He can come to the horse shows; he’s starting to talk. Everything is fun. I think it’ll get a bit more challenging as he gets older, but again Erik is incredible. My family’s been very helpful; his family’s been very helpful. It really has been not so difficult so far. Obviously, I haven’t had to go to Europe or anything, but again he’s kind of at a great age to have all those things still be fun and not just he’s getting dragged around to horse shows.
I think more and more riders are figuring out how to have a family and how to have an international career. Especially with schools being able to be done remotely and there being more kids at the shows and more activities, it’s not as hard as it used to be. I do think it’s really important though, because people need to remember that there’s life outside of horses.
What do you like to do outside of horses?
I love going to see live music. I love being outdoors not in riding clothes. I basically live 20 minutes from the ocean year-round, which is amazing. Last year we made it a point, we went every week to the ocean, which was incredible. And just really hanging out with my family and going on adventures and little getaways.