Classic Champions: Bringing European Traditions to America

Cynthia Hampton and her stallion Orbetello


“I want to honor the horse and bring the horse back to the center of the picture,” says Cynthia Hampton, founder of Classic Champions. 

In 2015, Hampton set out to do just that by starting a nonprofit organization with the goal of implementing educational age-appropriate practices for the maximum development of young horses in North America. Classic Champions offers classes for four-, five-, six-, and seven-year-olds that are intended to educate talent, appreciate inherent attributes for the sport, and assess ability. 

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Hampton excelled in the equitation ring as a junior, studied documentary filmmaking and French Literature at Stanford University, and then pursued a career in photography. 

“After college, I moved to Paris where I met photographer Deborah Turbeville, who hired me as her assistant. We did high fashion photoshoots including Valentino, Vogue and Elizabeth Arden.. Eventually, I got my first job as a freelancer with Harper’s Bazaar in Milan with a 12- page editorial spread, and that was the beginning of my career,” she says. 

Hampton’s passion for art and love of horses have gone together wherever life has taken her. “When I taught photography, I told my students that the only real rule is to press the button when you feel something; that’s when you will truly be expressing yourself. The thought behind your actions is what matters when creating art and the same thing goes for horses,” she says. “It’s all about the passion you bring to it and one’s ability to transmit this awareness.”  

While Hampton’s whirlwind photography career took off, she maintained her time in the tack and trained under Christophe Escande at a farm near Dreux outside of Paris. It was during this time she had the opportunity to observe how Escande developed young horses. He used systematic methods, focused on the relationship between horse and rider and the optimal manner in which to communicate these things to the horse.  

“If you think about a human child when they are very young and how you want them to learn something, you take your time to instill that knowledge,” she says. “There is an optimum time in  life for learning new things. It is important to introduce these various things at the right time in the life of a horse while doing this in an appropriate way.  When horses are young, they need time to compute what’s happening. These are physical, emotional and intellectual abilities. We need to take steps to develop the entire horse.” 

Irish show jumper Paul O’Shea has collaborated with Hampton and been a supporter of Classic Champions. “He takes lessons with top dressage trainers such as Ruth Hogan-Paulsen every week on the horses that he’s developing” Hampton says. “He keeps them mentally and physically as sound as they can be. I’m trying to promote Paul and that kind of horsemanship.” 

When she returned home in 1997, Hampton was stunned by the contrast between European and American show jumping practices. This ignited her passion and sparked her desire to start developing the roots of Classic Champions. 

Hampton recognized some key differences between competing in France versus competing in the United States. In France, it wasn’t as simple as arriving at the show and entering any class you want; there was a solid framework in place to help riders and horses be successful. 

Horsemanship First

Before Hampton’s daughter Olivia could even get into the show ring in France, she had to complete seven levels of testing, or “Galops.” By contrast, recognized competitions in America are open to all levels of riders. “In France, the seventh exam involved riding a cross-country course, performing a stadium jumping course as well as a dressage test, and an oral and a written exam,” she says. “We had to know and understand the use of a double bridle plus how to take it apart and put it back together. We had to understand nutrition, basic care, morphology and pathology.” 

Making Horse Shows More Accessible

Hampton points out how shows in France are also more accessible and affordable, allowing riders to gain miles and experience with young horses. 

“Here in North America we deal with distances that European countries don’t face, which is a challenge,” she adds. “In Paris, you can drive a couple of hours outside the city and there are top horse shows. The shows are shorter and there are not big, expensive circuits like you see here.” 

Hampton with Tom Holden, International 3* course designer and Vice President of Classic Champions Inc.

Course Designing for Confidence 

Classic Champions classes feature course design specifically tailored to young horses to build their confidence in the show ring. 

“The Classic Champions courses are inviting, and ask the horses the correct questions without over-facing them, and that’s very important for young horses; not to ask them things they can’t do,” says top trainer and Olympian Joe Fargis. 

“I have worked with FEI course designers that specialize in young jumpers, such as Frédéric Cottier, Michel Ismalun, and Tom Holden,” Hampton says. “I want to eventually create a path to certification for course designers who want to learn about designing for developing young horses.” Holden, an Irish FEI 3* course designer who has built for the Irish Young Horse Championships in Dublin, Ireland for the last sixteen years, now serves as the vice president of Classic Champions. He is a former competitor in three-day eventing in Ireland.

Paving Career Paths and Maximizing Potentia

Hampton believes there is great untapped potential for many careers focused on developing young horses in North America. 

“I want to help develop an educational program to teach riders who might never go to the top grand prix levels on how to educate young horses to develop their maximum potential,” Hampton says. “We have an enormous opportunity for this class of riders to make a career.”  

This also constitutes an important opportunity for our horses, their breeders, riders and owners. In addition to creating jobs for professionals, Hampton also aims to find suitable careers for young horses. 

“It’s all about doing the right thing on the horse at the right time. Our goal is to maximize the potential of each horse. One horse may be suited to amateurs only, but that’s a useful horse that can have a useful life.” 

Looking Ahead

Prior to the pandemic, Classic Champions has offered classes at The Ridge, Old Salem Farm, Palm Beach Masters, and a series and final at the Kentucky Horse Park in the Rolex Ring in September of 2019.  

Hampton looks forward to expanding Classic Champions to more horse shows nationwide and continuing her mission to educate people and horses. 

“The Development of our young competition horses matters deeply to me. I will work to the best of my ability to make this become my legacy,” she says. “The USHJA Young Jumper Task Force has done a great job of starting to create opportunities for young jumpers. I want to build on this and give back to the sport through sharing what I learned during my 20 years in France: an educational format for successfully teaching young horses and aspiring professionals.” 

To learn more about Classic Champions, visit their website or follow them on Facebook @Classic Champions Inc and Instagram @classic_champions_inc.

*This story was originally published in the May 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!

Photos: Cynthia Hampton and EQ Media