Why I’m in the Business Today: An Interview with Pam Baker

by Pam Whitfield

Pam Baker has spent a lifetime in the horse industry, taking horses and riders to the highest levels of the hunter world. From her home base of Hillcrest Farms in Bealeton, VA, she works with a range of clients, from pony riders to adult amateurs to working hunters shown for other professionals. “I’ve had champions and reserves in almost every division at Washington [International],” she said. “My business runs the gamut.”

She traces her success as an A-circuit trainer and instructor to a pivotal moment in her teen years: observing a forward riding clinic taught by Captain Littauer at Sweet Briar College. At the time, Pam and her brother Jimmy Cantwell were running their own lesson program in Virginia Beach, VA. “We had 300 once-a-week students and about 50 boarders,” she recalled. “We were 18 and 19 years old. People used to be amazed that we did that.”

The siblings began by helping their parents run a summer camp on the family farm. “Some of those people wanted year-round lessons,” Pam explained. “My parents hired someone to teach, and when he didn’t show up, we took over.”

“Our best thing was that we knew we were still ignorant,” she continued. Pam took Jimmy with her to the next clinic at Sweet Briar. “I wouldn’t still be doing this today if it weren’t for the forward riding system,” she admitted. “When I saw Littauer and how he did things, it inspired me. Back then a good rider was someone on a rank horse, and that never appealed to me.”

Pam and Jimmy also tapped into the methods of Jane Dillon, a proponent of the system. “When I was a kid, we read all the Jane Dillon books. We really used her model for our riding school, even to the point of giving our students written tests,” she explained.

Pam also rode under Clayton Bailey and read the works of Gordon Wright. During the early 1960’s, Patricia Horst Moon ran the Sweet Briar riding program, and Bailey served as an advisor. “That was a great time of education, with all the theory we had to go through,” said Pam. “I even became a Number One Rated Rider and Judge; I went to the top level and gave clinics all over the country until I got so busy [with hunter shows].”

Pam finds that the key element of the system is its logical progression. “You have a reason for how and why it affects the horse… before [the system], riding was too rough and tough,” stated the instructor. “The logic and the reasoning behind it appealed to me the most. It’s teaching a system of communication.”

Clearer communication between horse and rider makes for happier partnerships, according to Pam. “The horse is happy and relaxed; he understands what you want from him. To this day that still influences me the most,” she stated. “In fact, one of the biggest compliments I can get is, ‘your horses always look so happy.’ Geoff Teall said that to me at a show one time.”

Pam employs Littauer’s levels in her own teaching. “Littauer tried to do it step by step to the top level,” she explained. “When I take on new students, I tell them that it’s going to take them back a while, because they’ve got to understand the basics. Even with the kids, I teach the three leg aids and five rein aids, I teach them to own the mechanics of the gaits, because that’s how I learned.”

Pam finds that teaching the system makes her students more confident riders. “If they have a base and they’re secure, [the system] takes away the fear. If people don’t have the basics, they don’t have anything to fall back on,” she said. Lack of a solid foundation can also contribute to riding that’s abusive, even in subtle ways. “A lot of riders don’t realize they’re abusing the horse by not following with their hand or by clutching with their leg.”

Horsemanship has always been about education for Pam, who found a mentor in Clayton Bailey. “He believed in me. He made me believe in myself,” stated the trainer. “He believed in the method and spread the word, but he was also such a good teacher. I would have quit the business if it weren’t for this [system]. It got me so excited—being able to learn. All you need is a new horse or a new situation to keep it interesting.”

After a lifetime in the horse industry, Pam still looks forward to walking into the ring each day to teach. “I love the lessons. If they want to learn, I want to teach,” she said. “When people come to me, I want them to be able to do more than find the jumps. I want them to have empathy for the horse. I want them to be horsemen, whether they’re six years old or sixty.”

Pam Baker’s goals for her students go beyond the show ring; she strives to make riders who are educated, responsible and empathetic. “They’re developing the right love and the right direction for it,” she said. “It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but that’s how it is.”