Pam Baker’s Quest for Empathy in the Hunter/Jumper Sport

Photo courtesy of Pam Baker

BY JESS CLAWSON

Pam Baker’s name is familiar in the hunter/jumper world, and with good reason. She has spent a lifetime in the industry. A master of the craft, she has worked with horses and riders for decades. Baker’s equestrian lineage goes back to Captain Vladimir Littauer and Clayton Bailey, early proponents of the American system of forward riding.

“The only reason I’m still in the business is that I went to a clinic when I was a teenager that Captain Littauer was giving, and I’d never heard anyone talk about making the horse happy or comfortable,” Baker said. “That’s an important part of horsemanship, thinking about the horse and how to make him understand. That partnership between horse and rider can be a beautiful thing.”

Baker has always believed in learning from the best in the field. “I think I’m very lucky that when I started out I was ignorant, and I knew I was ignorant,” she said. “I read everything I could when I was 12, 13, 14. When you go to a horse show and someone is beating the crap out of you, don’t stand there and criticize. See what they’re doing right. I’m still always learning.”

Baker’s clientele at Hillcrest Farm in Bealeton, Virginia spans pony riders to junior hunters to adult amateurs. She helps a lot of professionals, too. Her training philosophy is simple: “My favorite part is when a student learns to have empathy and understand that their aids are a system of communication. And if they use their aids properly as communication, to teach their horse to respond, that the horse will do whatever they want happily. That’s basically my big thing.”

Photo courtesy of Pam Baker

Baker believes that winning is the natural by-product of good riding and good horsemanship. “I start with the basics and help my riders develop a system of true communication with their horses. I hope they end up with a deep empathetic relationship with their horses as well as the physical skills needed to compete,” she said. “I like to teach people to ride through the levels, and I find that it’s important to me to understand what a horse and a rider are capable of, and you can have a beautiful performance at an elementary level of riding. If the person is not capable of riding at a higher, they can still present a good performance.”

Empathy seems to come naturally to Baker, who can now be seen at horse shows in her green golf cart with her tiny rescue chihuahua, MeMe. “I got her from Danny and Ron’s Rescue,” she said affectionately, petting the elderly dog’s head until its eyes closed with contentment. “They called and told me they had a dog who was supposed to be mine.”

Her instinctively kind nature is a welcome trait in someone who has earned a very long list of honors, including induction into the National Show Hunter and VHSA Halls of Fame; Lifetime Achievement Awards from the USHJA, AHJF, and WCHA; and twice winning the VHSA Horseperson of the Year Award. In addition, she has received the Leading Trainer award at the Upperville Horse Show more than once. Clementina Brown donated a perpetual trophy in her name to the Middleburg Classic Horse Show for the Grand Champion Hunter. Recently, the Big 3 Horse Show Series in Lexington, Virginia, inducted Baker into their Hall of Fame and dedicated a trophy in her name to the leading hunter derby trainer for the series.

Baker’s kind demeanor does not preclude a toughness of character. She is serious about her profession, and expects riders to be ready for their lessons and bring their best. She has mastered the art of balancing kindness and critical feedback. “I tell people when they come to me, don’t waste your money if you don’t want to learn how to ride, if you don’t want to learn the basics. Because I’ll make your life miserable, and that’s the truth,” she said. “I make them go out and learn the name of the rein aids. They have to know the three basic leg aids and how, where and when to use them. They have to know how the horse moves, the mechanics of the gait, because all of that affects how the horse responds. How do you know how to use your legs if you don’t know the mechanics of the gait?”

“My way is harder in the beginning because you have to learn the steps, but in the end, it’s like riding a bicycle. You always have it,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Pam Baker

“If you really want to learn to ride, I love to teach,” Baker emphasized–a fact proven by her lifelong career teaching riders to be their best. Good teaching is hard work. “It’s harder to really teach than it is just to stand out there and say ‘stop straight,’” she said. “If they don’t stop straight, how do you make the horse stop straight? You don’t just grab the reins and jerk. You ride through your leg and seat to your hands so the horse can halt nicely. I always emphasize the effect and the cause, so I’ll say can you feel whether the hips are straight? And they’ll say no, the hips are to the right, so we’ll talk about how to make it.”

Baker wants the horse show world to be a more positive, educational, and empathetic place. “I think right now, it’s a whole thing with our world. Everything is instant gratification. You buy a nice horse, you should just put your leg over and automatically win. That’s not the way it goes. A great rider, wonderful rider, generally has empathy for the horse. The people I admire the most in the hunter world, when you stand and watch them, you never see them be abusive. Firm, but not abusive. It used to be you’d go to the horse show and you would evaluate how you were riding and see what you needed to work on. Then you’d go home and work on what your weakness was and you’d go back to see if it was any better.”

She teaches people around her all the time, whether they’re her students or not. “I think about how it was to be in the schooling ring with Rodney Jenkins. He was just as humble and polite and nice as he could be. He would never react like some of these riders,” she said.

“Everybody has their good years and bad years, but nobody has to be totally rude in the schooling area. People gallop around and try to get to the jumps with not even a thought of where they’re going or looking,” she said. “When I get really tired of it, I’ll yell out, ‘Manners!’ We all make mistakes, I might miss a horse coming and be in the way, but I will say I’m so sorry, because I have manners. Treat the horse and your fellow competitors with respect. That would be nice.”