People who know him as a banker cannot believe he is a horseman, and people who know him as a horseman cannot believe he is a banker.
“I don’t think any banker really sees themselves as bankers,” said Tom Austerman, CEO and president of the Bank of Evansville. “I am blessed to have the relationship with horses that I have, and the enjoyment of being a banker. I have a good vocation and wonderful avocation; I look forward to going to work and forward to going home. I live life 24 hours a day and don’t have a part that I don’t enjoy. That is a blessing.”
When Tom drives past a grove of trees on his way home, he lets out sigh because just past an area near Wadesville, Ind., he experiences a time change.
“Everyone who lives in or around New Harmony knows of it,” he said. Everything just slows down. By the time he’s home and changed to boots, jeans and a cowboy hat, time according to his watch is non-existent. Until after dark.
“After dark” is the phrase used when he tells a person to call, which is a typical request from someone who has horses: “Who would want to be in the house?” he asks.
His casual reference to time is possibly why his bride, the former Cindy Morris of Lexington, Ky., chose the fourth month, the fourth day of 2004 at 4 o’clock for their wedding: “She wanted to make sure I couldn’t forget it,” he said.
The couple was married in the Roofless Church in New Harmony, probably because getting Tom inside at daylight might have proved difficult. Their home is called “Serenity” and Cindy said the name is perfect.
Recharging the Batteries
Serenity offers far more than Webster’s definition: Tom’s Serenity is a 35-acre horse ranch with a lake, a screened-in porch that keeps the people in and the bugs out, several barns, a round pen and paddocks that house nine palominos known as Serenity Golden Quarter Horses.
Time at home is how he “recharges his batteries.” Charging commences when he enters the barn, works a couple of hours or tends to a horse for the farrier and it is here that he strives to be the kind of horseman that horses want to be around.
“It’s not that you turn yourself off because the very nature of horses demands that you think about what you are doing, but it is a calming concentration rather than stressful,” he said. “I head to the house and realize I’ve just spent two hours in the barn, and the bank never entered my mind once.”
Looking over Serenity, the geldings are in one paddock and the mares in another. While they are bred for disposition, conformation, athletic ability and working well with cattle, they also leave the couple “not wanting for something to do on the weekends.”
Tom participates in team penning, where horse and rider sort cattle, placing them in a specific pen in the shortest amount of time possible. Usually the most focused rider and horse win. Tom said it’s good marketing for his horses, getting them in the public so people see what they can do, then if a person wants an exceptional cow horse, they will come to Serenity.
Tom purchases 6-month-old weanlings. “We teach them manners, to respect people and their space. They don’t encroach on your area, bite or pin their ears back (sometimes a deliberate threat). They won’t kick, and we teach them to be groomed, to tolerate clipping with electric clippers and to have their feet handled.” Training steps are calm and gentle, and help build a bond of trust between horse and rider.
He said the key to understanding horses is to learn some horse psychology, to realize they react as prey animals because for hundreds of thousands of years, they were. They have a desire to be comforted and they have a desire to trust. Yet, they are all different.
While Tom always tried to include horses in his life, that wasn’t the case with banking. He wanted to teach history until he realized he was disillusioned. “I loved history; it excited me but after a year I learned that teaching history and loving it are not the same.”
He bought Serenity, exactly one mile south of New Harmony, for the log barn built in 1813, which was a stagecoach stopover and had been a tavern. Its history is similar to that of the Log Inn at Warrenton, Ind.
“The stories are so unique,” he said. Most alcohol consumption back then by the Rappites and Owenites took place outside of town. At one time a house was attached to the barn but it is now converted to a workshop, where a facsimile of John Wayne graces a corner.
Serenity’s lake is not lacking in history either. Tom tells the story of two sturgeon which were placed in the lake in the 1980s. One died, but the previous owner told Tom that the other 250-pounder still resides there. “She said it brushed up against her son once while he was swimming.”
Tom’s son, Greg, caught the gilled wonder — briefly — until his pole broke. Even though Tom hasn’t seen the fish, he keeps watching.
Tom has not always had horses, but they’ve always been a part of his life. One of his earliest memories is of riding.
“I remember the horse went left and I went right,” he said. “My mom was so mad at my dad. She came out of the house saying he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing — which was watching me.” While his father was engrossed in conversation, he let go of the reins of the horse Tom was on. Taking a fall, Tom learned “To get up, you’ve got to be down,” he said. These days, he doesn’t fall often, because he follows the horseman’s rule: “You stay focused; you stay balanced.”
On March 26, Tom shared his lessons learned by inviting three busloads of Boys & Girls Club of Evansville youth to Serenity. Tom saddled and rode for the children, showing them cantering techniques such as riding and stopping the horse without using the reins.
Tom asked them, “When you’re driving a car, you don’t pull the steering wheel to stop, do you?” And they would shout, “No!” The children yelled, “faster, faster, faster” and Tom would canter. With feet down, and a seat firmly planted in the saddle, the horse stops.
“Do you brush his teeth?” A child asked. “You would need a big toothbrush.”
Tom laughed, and said, “No, I don’t have to brush them. Beau eats grass and that cleans his teeth.”
Why does a banker/horseman/husband take time to share his horses with children, on a rainy Friday afternoon, lifting every child, regardless of their size, onto a horse so they will have their picture taken to remember the day?
Taking a moment to himself, Tom walked toward the gelding’s pasture. The horses immediately left their hay to come to him. While petting Sheriff and Sundance, Tom replied to the question: “I think because of my grandfather,” he said. “His time always meant a lot to me.”