Jack Towell: ‘Make the Shot When it Counts’

This National Show Hunter Hall of Fame trainer shares why he’s been successful and the biggest moment of his career
Jack Towell and his daughter, Liza Boyd, after she and Brunello won the 2015 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. | © Tricia Booker

Q: You started your career as a rider. How did you learn to ride?

JT: When I started riding, we didn’t have a lot of money. We couldn’t afford lessons. My dad was a school teacher, so he bought “Learning to Ride, Hunt, and Show” by Gordon Wright. And he would be out in the ring with me riding a circle around him. He would look at the book and tell me, “It says here you should do such and such.” And that’s what I would do, and it was just how I got started.

Q: What is it about this sport that attracted you in the beginning?

JT: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a really good rider. As I went on and went to bigger shows and met other people, they were a lot more talented than I was. So I knew I wasn’t a very good rider, and I wasn’t going to be. That was hard to stomach for a while.

But I had to be successful. So I thought that making up a horse and getting through to a rider, I could be good at that.

Q: Was it difficult to make that type of shift?

JT: It wasn’t that hard. I just wanted to be really good at something. You know, I used to listen to country music in my truck. And I would listen to Clint Black, the country singer. He’s a short, little fellow. So I always thought, “You think that guy is ticked off because he is not a basketball player?”

Q: You have been tremendously successful in this sport. Why do you think that happened for you?

JT: Well anybody that I’ve ever seen who is successful has to work really hard. I would work like crazy. We would be the first ones at a horse show and the last ones to leave for all my life.

And I was so completely hands-on. I think my record was 21 horses prepared before 8 a.m. And every one of them I did myself. I’ve always had good workers but I wasn’t a very good delegator, so I did everything myself, checked the details myself. Because when it comes down to it, the buck stops with me.

Now this business is mainly my daughter Liza’s, but I still go over the details with her.

Q: What would you tell your 20-year-old self?

Jack Hardin and Lucifer V | © AMy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

JT: I used to always think you are only as good as your last win. You’re really not. And if you feel that way, you will never be happy.

You’ve got to look back at what you’ve done. Horses are really unpredictable, and so much about horses is out of your control. So you have to look at the whole story; you have to learn to enjoy what you’ve done.

Q: Finally Farm has been very successful over the years. How did you get this farm started?

JT: In the beginning, we had several farms we rented. The first farm we bought was in 1982. We named it Finally Farm because we had worked so long and waited so long to get it. So it was like, “Finally, we did it!”

It was wonderful, and it would also scare you to death. I thought, I got the land and got the farm, and now I have to pay for it? And in those days interest rates were quite high. Our payments were $1,500 a month, which was like a million dollars today. 

We did everything—riding, training, grooming, braiding, blacksmithing. It was 24 hours nonstop. It was just what we had to do. We didn’t have any chairs around the barn because you just never sat down.

Q: What has been the biggest moment of your career?

JT: There have been a few. The first was at the equitation finals at the Washington International Horse Show in 2006. My son, Hardin, won the finals, and when he cantered by on his victory gallop, he just took a big breath out. You could hear it. “Phew!” You could see all those years of tension just blew out. That’s all Hardin had wanted to do, win an equitation final. As a father and a trainer, it was good to see all the effort that he had put in it. And see the relief that came out that he had done it. 

Then Ike [Brunello] winning those three [USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships], especially the third one. In the first and second derby, other people made mistakes, so he won. But in that third derby, he really won it. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Brunello was way ahead of everybody else. That was plain and simple.

There is a funny video of me in Kentucky jumping up and down when Liza won. It explains everything, everything that we do. People like it because they can see our love for that horse and what’s between a father and daughter. You can see that happiness. But then you have to enjoy that moment, enjoy that happiness for a long time. That’s what matters.

Q: What has been your biggest failure?

JT: We were lucky enough to have that horse Monday Morning early in Liza’s career. He was the Brunello of his time; champion at all the end-of-year shows. He won the first night class, the first hunter classic of West Palm Beach in 1997. He was a big deal.

After having Monday Morning, I would get other horses and try to make them be that horse. I failed a lot asking them to do things they couldn’t do. A good friend pulled me aside and said, “If you keep looking for that horse right there, if you are trying to make them all be that horse, then you are never going to be happy.” 

I did mess some horses up trying to make them do something they couldn’t. You know, if a horse gives you everything he can, don’t be mad if he can’t do better. I had to learn that.

Q: What makes Brunello such a special horse? 

JT: Brunello was a remarkable horse for us. We were lucky to have him.

At the derby [in 2015], before the class I went over to sit by myself because I was going to make everyone crazy. So I go over to the barn and I hear … Bam! Bam! Bam! Brunello’s stall was facing the stadium. He had his eyes over there, looking at the stadium, he was kicking, pawing, saying, “I’m ready.” Damn that horse. He is different than most horses; his ability is so much more than the average. Somehow that horse just knows when it counts.

When he jumped that night, he jumped so high, he gave everything he had. I think that was his way of just wanting another big win.

Q: How do you feel about winning? 

JT: I’ve never got over not wanting to win. It can be a short stirrup class at the local show to the derby finals, doesn’t matter, I still want the blue ribbons. I’ve never gotten over that. And when I lose that drive it’s probably the time to quit.

Q: And how do you feel about losing?

JT: I don’t like to lose. And I used to look for reasons, blame the judge. But sometimes you get out-jumped, sometimes you get beat because that’s just a better horse. And you have to learn to accept it.

It doesn’t do any good pouting and sitting there. You’ve got to learn anger management. You’ve got to learn to accept it and ask yourself “Why did I lose?” And then do something better about it. 

Q: What has been your most important accomplishment?

JT: Teaching my children to ride and teaching them how to make a living out of the horse business, that’s for sure. Now they [Jack and Liza] are very successful at what they do.

Q: Is it challenging to work with them in the business?

JT: I think it is hard for me. And for them.

Times do change, but it is hard for me to accept change. And it’s hard for them because they are the new generation, new ideas. You just have to have the conversation. Just talk and talk and talk. And try not to say, “I told you so.”

Q: What have you learned that you consider a life lesson?

JT: There is always another class. 

Q: What do you wish you had handled differently?

JT: Learn to think about other people more than yourself. You know the people who help you are really important. We can’t do it without everybody. Our staff—they need to have a good life, too. I used to not worry about that in the least. I would work them until dark all the time. But they’ve got to be happy.

Also, I wasn’t always the best sport. That comes with the territory. But you know there is nothing bad about being upset when you lose. It is not all bad to be a bad sport; it is bad to show it. Because if you don’t care, you probably are not going to try as hard.

Q: What one thing would you change about yourself?

JT: Relax and let things go. It’s hard for me to make myself at ease if I’m not constantly doing something. Sometimes if I just relax, there is a little fellow in my head saying, “You don’t deserve that, don’t sit down yet.” 

So I would like to enjoy every minute of everything I’ve got. In the end, you’ve got to learn to live with yourself.

Q: Is there one phrase that speaks to you?

JT: Ian Millar always said it was an honor to accompany Big Ben around the course. Brunello and Liza? I just accompany THEM around the course. But I have a phrase that I always say to Liza, and I think it made a difference. She wears it on a necklace around her neck.

Going in to the in-gate at the derby finals, I would tell her, “Make the shot when it counts.”

Jack Towell started riding as a young child in Salisbury, North Carolina. By the age of 17, he was already training and would leave high school at noon to go to a nearby farm to teach his clients. Fast forward more than 40 years; in May at the Devon Horse Show, Jack was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. 

Jack’s students have won more than 75 champion and reserve champion titles at the fall indoor shows, making him one of the only trainers to consistently win at that level in equitation, hunter and jumper divisions. 

Two of Jack’s children followed him into the business. His daughter, Liza Towell Boyd, steered Brunello to three consecutive wins as the USHJA International Hunter Derby Champion in 2013, 2014 and 2015. That achievement netted Brunello the 2014 and 2015 USEF National Horse of the Year awards. Jack’s son, Jack Hardin Towell, is a successful trainer and rider on the international show jumper circuit, based out of Wellington, Florida.

 Jack and Liza now partner in running their Finally Farm, in Camden, South Carolina. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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