BY LAURA DUGGAN
Breaking with her western cowboy family tradition was not the goal for Hampton Baker’s young self. She simply wanted riding lessons – not being content to share space on her dad’s saddle anymore. The only local option for the seven-year-old, however, was a hunter/jumper show barn, and that meant crossing over to English riding; and so began Baker’s new direction to award-winning equestrian.
“My grandparents on both sides come from agricultural backgrounds, so I was introduced to horses while watching my family gather cattle on horseback,” Baker said. The family ranching and rodeo culture runs deep. In fact, her grandfather was named “2021 Citizen of the West” by the National Western Stock Show organization.
Baker competes as a hunter and a jumper. She has two horses, both mares, one for each specific sport. The shows she attends are nationally recognized among the highest-ranked and most competitive of all the USEF-rated (United States Equestrian Federation) shows. For most of the school year, Baker says she can personally only train four days a week, although her horses train six days a week to stay in show shape.
This past week, Baker competed in the $15K Junior/Amateur Derby at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida, and was the youngest rider to finish in the top 12 out of 50 competitors. In 2021, she finished 8th in the 3’3” Large Junior Hunters 15/under out of 64 of the top-rated hunters in the country. In 2020, at the age of thirteen, she finished 5th nationwide in the 3’3” Large Junior Hunter 15/under category.
For the uninitiated, equestrian riding is a complicated, multi-tiered activity. “Basically, the difference between hunters and jumpers is that in hunters the horse and rider jump a memorized course in which they are judged on their accuracy and graceful style. In jumpers, on the other hand, style rides behind speed. In that course, the fastest horse and rider without any faults wins the class, and it doesn’t matter if you and your horse look graceful doing it,” Baker explained.
As beautiful as it is to watch an equestrian, it’s not all ribbons and trophies. “Sometimes I’m afraid Hampton is going to have the bones of an old rodeo cowboy before she’s 18,” said her mom, Elizabeth Baker.
Baker has fallen off, been bucked off, and been thrown into standards more times than she can count.
“I learned very early that I wouldn’t last long in this sport if I didn’t have resilience and patience. To win, so many things must go right: you yourself must be riding well, and your horse has to understand what you’re asking of them and want to do it for you. On top of that, things like weather, travel, and injury can all affect the performance of your horse, and sometimes you don’t even know it until it’s too late,” Baker said.
As a St. Michael’s freshman, most of her classmates aren’t aware of her equestrian accomplishments. “It’s not a conversation starter for me,” Baker said, “it’s just something I like to do with my family, and most people don’t really know about that world.”
During her first year at St. Michael’s, Baker decided to try a team sport, although she is quick to point out that being a hunter/jumper is also legitimately a team sport – your teammate being equine. Like many St. Michael’s students, Baker is a multi-sport athlete. This year, she got involved in cheer, basketball, and lacrosse – not easy to manage when she’s going to horse shows out of state once or twice a month, which she says is all part of the fun.
“One of the best things about riding is that I get to travel all over, especially in the summer, to places like Florida, Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina,” Baker said.
And, yes, she would like to continue riding when she goes to college. “That would be my dream to be a part of a college equestrian team,” Baker said. “Right now, I’m learning about the differences between the two main collegiate equestrian programs: Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and figuring out which one would align best with what I have to offer a college team.”
Baker may have been the first to break with family tradition, but her parents also recently jolted the local riding world in a big way by moving their horses from a commercial barn and starting their own family barn in Dripping Springs last August. Establishing their independent barn, “Hacienda con Vista,” has spurred some friends to join them, and the new barn currently has eight horses and five mini mules the Bakers rescued from a kill pen in Tennessee.
“To the outside world, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to create your own family show barn, but it’s really not all that common, so I think people were really surprised when we decided to do it,” Baker said.
Unlike commercial boarding facilities where management challenges often mean horses are kept stalled and isolated for extended periods, the Bakers are able to provide species-appropriate nutrition and customized care. At “Hacienda con Vista,” the animals can roam and socialize as nature intended.
“It has been incredibly rewarding to be able to stand on our own, care for our horses the way we want to and have the unique opportunity to learn from different trainers from all over the country,” Baker said.
Since going out on their own, Baker has had the opportunity to train and show with top professionals, such as the leading US show hunter rider, Victoria Colvin, as well as top ten-ranked derby rider, trainer, and judge, Hope Glynn. “These opportunities wouldn’t have happened if we had stayed where we were,” Baker said.
The young teen is keenly aware of her advantages and takes nothing for granted.
“I realize, more and more every day, how lucky I am to be able to do this. My entire family lives a certain lifestyle and makes sacrifices so that I’m able to compete at a national level. Our family vacations are now mostly horse shows. I’m so grateful and know none of this would be possible without the support of my parents and grandparents,” Baker said.