By Susan Friedland-Smith
Liz Anne Hill’s life sounds just like the storyline to a country song, complete with love, heartache and a handsome cowboy. The surprise twist to this story line is that Liz, a singer-songwriter and equestrian, moved to Nashville in 2017 with her horse of a lifetime by her side — a horse she never gave up on even when he broke his leg in a freak accident.
Liz, 30, grew up in both Southern California and Arizona, and found early success in her career with two of her songs ranking top 20 on Billboard’s Electronic Dance Music chart. However, deep down, the electronic dance genre didn’t fit her personality, as a horse and country girl at heart. Despite a stint touring in a pop band, taking on a trendy stage name and wearing over-the-top outfits, off stage Liz continued to write country songs — about 100 of them. She secretly dedicated her creative efforts to the genre that fed her soul.
In late 2017, Liz released her first country single, which she co-wrote with her dad, Jake Hill, titled, “The Fish Ain’t Bitin.” The song idea came to life as her dad was teasing her about her bad luck finding a good man.
Everyone in Liz’s immediate family plays music. “My parents started a band together in high school and ended up falling in love. I showed up and they said, ‘You have to learn to play something if you’re going to stay in the family,’” Liz said with a laugh. Her mom sings and plays piano, her dad plays guitar and writes songs, and her older sister sings, writes and plays piano.
“I learned to play the bass first,” Liz said. “It’s the root of harmony for every song. It’s like a rhythm and harmonic instrument at the same time. I was 10. I picked up guitar at 16. I play piano well enough to write, but badly enough to not be heard in public.”
When she went off to college, Liz struggled with body image issues and decided to try something new — find a diversion from her studies and have a little fun to escape her funk. She called both a belly dance studio and a voice lesson instructor. Only the voice instructor returned her phone call, and Liz began formal vocal training at 19, her freshman year. That returned phone call was further evidence that Liz and music were meant to be.
Soft Spot for Draft Crosses
While attending University of California-Davis, Liz started volunteering with local search-and-rescue drills and exercising horses in El Dorado County. That’s how she met Suzie Harrer, who made Liz an offer she couldn’t refuse. “Suzie told me, ‘If you get a PMU foal, I’ll let you keep him at my house for free.’”
Liz’s heart leaped at the offer because in high school, Liz worked at a barn that took in two PMU foals and was smitten. She fell in love with a Clydesdale/Thoroughbred filly who looked like a Barbie horse. Liz trained her to be ridden and wanted to buy the horse when she was up for sale. Sadly, the teen didn’t have the $10,000 asking price in her bank account.
Thanks to Suzie’s encouragement, Liz went online to a PMU foal adoption website and found her dream horse. “I saw Cairo’s picture — it was snowing and he was at an extended trot with his little stick legs! On his ‘dating profile,’ it said Shire/Thoroughbred. He would mature to 17.2 and be an excellent jumper or dressage prospect. He matured to be 15.1. All signs point to him actually being a Quarter Horse/draft cross.”
Liz became a first-time horse owner when the black colt with wide blaze was 5 months old. “Cairo was feral when he showed up. It took three months to be able to walk him in-hand because he was terrified,” Liz said. “He tried to give me a hug and reared on me. Years later when I started riding, he bucked me off the first time we loped. I’d put my leg on him, and he’d cow kick.
“Everything we did with Cairo was accomplished with food,” Liz recalls. “We first started him Western and then trained him in dressage from about age 3 until 6.” Liz was excited to start working with a jumper trainer to get Cairo show-ready.
From Hollywood to the Barn
Liz continued singing and started playing in bands throughout her college career, with Cairo as her faithful companion. After transferring to UCLA and graduating with a degree in Spanish, Liz began touring as bass player and backup vocalist for pop singer Allison Iraheta from Season 8 of “American Idol.” While playing for Allison, Liz toured with Adam Lambert for five months.
After the tour, Liz started demo singing for Hollywood songwriters and producers, giving decision makers a taste of what songs would sound like on the albums of A-list pop stars.
Liz balanced her music and equestrian career, often recording late into the night, only to wake up early the following day to teach beginner English and Western riding lessons. “I started riding when I was 5. Whenever I’d hit a roadblock with music, I thought maybe I could just teach riding full time and maybe music was not supposed to work out,” Liz said. “I tried out horses full time. I loved the kids and horses, and every day I wanted to go to work, but I just knew something was missing.”
Everything changed when Liz was invited to a last-minute, whirlwind audition. The producer liked her, and Liz got a recording contract with an independent label to be the lead singer in an electronic dance music band. “Music is one of those things where you never know what will happen,” she said.
“It’s like a shoe: You can love it, think it’s great but it’s just not a right fit,” Liz recalls about her 2 ½ years with the pop project. While named an “Artist to Watch” by Rolling Stone and featured as an “Artist of the Month” by American Airlines, the project struggled to move the needle on domestic radio. When the label made the decision to pull back their efforts and release Liz from her contract, rather than being devastated, she breathed a sigh of relief. She was now free to pursue her country music passion.
Not a Hollywood “Break a Leg”
While working on music, Liz found a jumping trainer in Orange County and began training Cairo over fences. Two weeks before their first scheduled horse show, as Liz was free lunging Cairo in a round pen, she watched in horror as he broke his leg. “A tarp over bales of hay flew up and he spooked, stepping on himself. He pulled his right hind leg up like a dog. He went around on three legs, came to a full stop and looked at me and screamed. He let me touch it and bend it, but just stood there. We stabilized the leg with wrap, but watching him gimp back to his stall in so much pain, I fell apart.”
When the veterinarian took X-rays that evening, he confirmed that the gelding had broken his short pastern bone but said, ‘If you want him to live, there’s a chance he can live.’” The next morning Cairo loaded onto a trailer bound for Chino Valley Equine Hospital.
While Dr. Ted Fischer was about to perform the surgery on Cairo, another surgeon confided in Liz as she waited, “I wish I was operating on your horse. This is what we train for. We like it when we can fix them.” Those words gave her hope.
After the surgery, Dr. Fischer told Liz there was about a 65–70 percent chance Cairo would be serviceably sound, but said, “I’ve had horses go back to playing polo, so don’t give up on him.”
Cairo was in the hospital for a month. Liz recalled, “He had a cast put on and they fused the long pastern to the short pastern and put a plate on either side and took cartilage out between the short and long pastern. So he was standing on his toe.”
Rehab and Romance
When Cairo was discharged from the equine hospital, Liz moved him to an equestrian facility in Los Angeles for his rehabilitation, and another plot twist occurred. “I was sitting in Cairo’s stall, reading a book, minding my own business, and this sexy cowboy with ripped jeans burst through the door.”
Chris Hieber, now Liz’s boyfriend, was the equine rehabilitation practitioner who treated Cairo. The cowboy and Liz hit it off right away. Liz’s dedication combined with the successful surgery, and Chris’s expert care led to a complete recovery. Cairo and Liz finally made it to their first horse show, 15 months after the injury. “We took him to Thermal in February 2014, and he was awesome! Super brave. We competed in the .80s and .90s. We didn’t place, but we went over every one. He took a rail in each class and I didn’t care because we did it.”
Happy Beginning in Nashville
Liz, Cairo, and Chris moved to Nashville in October 2017. Since then, Liz has written about 200 songs, over 20 of which have already been cut by country and pop artists alike. Liz’s second country single, “Head in the Clouds” was released in October 2017, and used as a trailer credit song for an independent film called The Rocket. In addition, she performs at numerous live shows around Nashville and is preparing to record new material with producer Louis Newman.
While Liz’s country career is on the upswing, Cairo is also embracing a new country lifestyle.
“I’ve been told it’s important to make sure Cairo keeps moving, so he’s happier and sounder than he’s ever been,” Liz said. “Being in Tennessee in a green pasture is a good reward for him. Cairo took one for the team, and I met my dream man because of his broken leg.”
Maybe one day Liz will write a song about a resilient horse who played matchmaker, the cowboy who brought him back to health and the cowgirl/equestrian who fell for them both.
Photos by Sarah Chavez, unless noted otherwise