Growing with Horses: A Conversation with Kristen Hamel

by Jess Clawson

Kristen Hamel is the owner of Sunset View Farms, a horse show parent, founder of the Hamel Scholarship and the Hamel National Horse Show 3’3” Medal. We caught up with her to hear about her journey with horses and what the Hamel family is all about.

What drives your philanthropy within our industry?

Animals have always been a passion. When I was a little girl, I always wanted the runt pig or baby sheep to take care of. I grew up in a rural farming community, so I was allowed to have a lot of those things. I was brought onto this earth to be a nurturer. I love the horses, love their attitude, how they’re like a big dog and have opinions.

My husband Jim and I have moved around a lot to places where we could only have dogs, and I missed having a lot of animals around. When we had kids, we moved to the country and my daughter Sydney started in Pony Club. I was the parent who learned along with her, helping her tack up and get her equipment organized. We had horses around as a kid but they were mostly pasture ornaments, so I wanted to learn, too. Sydney and I would spend all day at the barn.

Then a pony came along for Sydney, and a mare for me, and it all just morphed itself. Pony finals became a goal for Sydney, and I knew it was expensive–anything with horses is expensive. I saw what the Gochmans were doing with the Pony Finals Grant and I loved the feeling it gave me to see them helping kids. I wanted to know what we could do to help, and thought about taking over the Pony Finals Grant when the Gochmans were done. But they have, fortunately, funded it through a number of years.

So Jim and I decided to do something new. We’ve been very fortunate financially, and have worked hard. We wanted to pay it forward. Education is one of those things we have always been very strong on with our own kids, encouraging them to go to good colleges and be prosperous in their own way.

So we talked to Lynne Jayne about what we could do to help, and we decided this scholarship would be a great new thing that hadn’t been done before. It fits with my family, and it fits with the horse world well. I can sit at a horse show and watch all day. It makes me happy, and I want to help make other people happy, too. At this point in the world, if you can do that, that’s what it’s all about.

Dominic Gibbs on Limitless with the Hamel Family, Jennifer Burger and Mason Phelps

How did you get into owning these beautiful horses you have?

I got into the ownership side because I was putting a lot of pressure on Sydney, wanting her to do more, and I realized I could own horses for our trainer Maria Rasmussen to ride. I ended up buying a couple horses to start, thinking we could grow Sunset View Farms and have some investment horses. It’s a blood, sweat, and tears investment in addition to a financial investment.

Kristen Hamel and Hobbs Lane

You have several exciting young horses right now. Do you have a favorite?

Hobbs Lane is my favorite horse. He’s the one that Maria rides. He’s like a big dog and he’s just very lovable. He’s got a little kiss mark right on his cheek, and he just is really really spoiled. But he’s a baby yet, and he’s doing amazing things being just seven years old. I think he’s something special. His name, Hobbs, is my grandmother’s maiden name and my Lane is my mother’s maiden name. If our horses are babies without a record, will will use “Lane” as a last or middle name.

Sydney Hamel and Chicago; Photo © Al Cook.

Do you have any favorite horse show venues? What makes them special?

I have a couple. I really love AIken. We go to Aiken after WEF. It’s just really sweet. It’s little and the stalls are old fashioned and I just like the feel of it.

We went to Brandywine last year and I love it. I love the people who run it, like Louise Serio and Jennifer Burgess. The horse show makes you feel special when you walk in. Their prizes are great; they make the rider feel really welcomed and accomplished when they’re out there. The derby at Brandywine is fun. It’s like going to a professional baseball game, that feeling of being in the stands, it puts a smile on my face.

The WCHR Peter Wetherill Hunter Spectacular at WEF in February was a special night for you and your team. Please tell us about it.

It’s a little surreal! Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would look out there and see two horses that I own. Last year when Jennifer Burger’s horse Rock Harbor won it with Louise Serio, I was so happy for her. I thought that I would love to do that someday. And then this year we had two in the top 12. It was so exciting.  Maria was the only trainer with two horses in the call back which was really special and exciting to watch. Seeing Maria have that success on my horses was doubly special.

You have sponsored the National Horse Show 3’3” Medal class since its inception. Why do you think the 3’3” equitation is an important division?

Since we got involved in the equitation world, I’ve seen that there wasn’t something for the 3’3” and for a lot of kids that step from the 3’ to 3’6” is huge. A lot of kids can’t get themselves or the horses to 3’6.”  So, what if you never make it? Now there’s a great opportunity to qualify for the 3’3”. It’s run just like the Maclay. The kids put in enough hard work, they should have the reward for it. It was a great fit for us; we were happy to start sponsoring that class and it’s growing and growing. Almost every show they had to do a California split.

Sydney is a successful student and equestrian. What values have you worked to instill in her and your other children as a parent?

I think both Jim and I work hard. I still help clean stalls at home and I still mow the lawn. My parents are in their 80’s and they still do their own yard work. Jim’s parents are in their 70’s and running their own business. Our kids see that success doesn’t come from sitting on the couch or riding someone else’s coattails. You have to put the work in, and you should want to. There’s pride to be had in ownership of accomplishments. So all our kids have that, they’re all accomplished. Both my boys have graduated from college and have great jobs and wonderful partners and are happy.

We believe in keeping the family together as much as we can. When the kids were growing up, we’d have dinner at 6:30 every night. It was important to us to spend as much time together as we could, whether we were outside doing yard work or camping.

Sydney Hamel with O. Edward and Chicago; Photo © Kristen Hamel.

The Hamel Foundation Scholarship is an impactful gesture for our community. How did you and your family decide to offer this opportunity?

Education has always been a huge thing for us. When the boys were little, we didn’t have a lot of money. When they could order books from the Scholastic, that was a big thing, and we let them order books because we figured they would learn from it. We could justify that money.

Jim, in his business, is constantly learning. He reads all the time, so the education part rings a bell with him. The horse part not so much; he’s not a horse lover. He loves the fact that it makes me happy, but he wouldn’t go and buy a horse for himself. But the foundation grant resonated with us; we’re all about paying it forward. So, if we can help somebody who may have started out like we did with not much, and apply for grants and scholarships and loans, how awesome is that?

We’re trying to figure out how to reach the kids who aren’t at WEF, who can’t afford as much, trying to figure out how to reach that market of kids so they know this opportunity is available.

2017 Hamel Scholarship for Further Education recipient Lizzy Traband. Photo courtesy of the USHJA Foundation.

What advice would you give for young riders who hope to apply for the scholarship?

It’s important that their essay is written well. If they make it an application from the heart, it will be felt more than an application from experience. They should focus less on emphasizing that they’re a good rider and more on telling their story. Be passionate, not laissez faire. If you’re going to continue in the horse world you have to  be passionate or it’s going to eat you up.

Speaking of which, what advice would you give to parents whose children have the same passion for horses that Sydney does?

If the kid has the passion, the parent has to. They can’t get it if they don’t have the passion, and it’s hard for them to grasp how the kids want to spend all their time at the horse show.

I hope the parent can learn from the child how special it can be. I’ve been around to see different sports, cross country, tennis, wrestling–none of those sports are anything like the horse world. You’re dealing with an animal. You have to be compassionate and understanding, and know that the horse might get hurt and you’ve put all this work in and can’t ride. Or the horse can’t do that particular class you want it to do. You have to learn to be well rounded and go with the flow. If you don’t understand the animal then you won’t understand those things.

How have horses and your involvement in this industry impacted your family, in either a positive or negative sense?

It’s changed my world for sure. I never thought in a million years I would be 53 years old spending months in Wellington watching horse shows or having a show barn. It’s so opened my world in meeting awesome people, and some not so awesome, and having to learn how to deal with that. And travel, Sydney’s gotten to travel, it’s opened her world. You meet every kind of person. If we were going to stay in little rural Wisconsin and go to school day in and day out, she would never have gotten to learn a lot of this stuff, which makes her a great student.

Are there other efforts in the sights of the Hamel family?

Not right now, we’re just trying to plug along here and see where this year takes us. I would love to add a couple horses into my ownership. Sydney has a great string of horses and we’re going to keep those going, and I would love to add a couple more to mine.


About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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