By Mitzi Oxford

For the Hamilton’s, life is truly a family affair whether vacationing together, in the show ring or on a fashion runway. While showing, grooming and every detail of caring for horses may seem worlds apart from fashion, their story is woven into the fabric of their lives and community like a beautifully designed bridal gown or prom dress.
If success starts at the top, Howard Hamilton is a significant role model. He is a beloved figure in the walking horse industry. He was inducted into the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame in 2006 and recognized in 2019 for his contribution in the Year in Walking Horses. Whether training champions, running a summer camp, mentoring younger trainers or the industry’s youth, Howard Hamilton gives himself completely.
Howard loves the way his involvement in the walking horse industry has been a family hobby as well as a business. It allows them all to share more time together and he insists that his customers are like family to him.

The Hamilton women

Beside him stands his wife of 46 years, Clarenita. Together they built Southern Serenity Ranch just outside of Jackson, Tennessee, which has produced nearly 350 world and world grand champions. As the matriarch, she collaborates with her husband to ensure everything they participate in provides great southern hospitality, including the annual Mid-South Horse Show Association’s Charity Horse Show benefiting Youth Town.

Based on the Hamilton’s love and importance of family, the icing on the cake has been raising three beautiful, talented daughters. The apples don’t fall far from the tree. Their daughters, Lauren, Jenna and Anna have each proven themselves in the show ring and in business. 

“My sisters and I grew up grooming, working and showing horses. We didn’t have many free weekends, but we were all thankful for the memories and friendships we created along the way,” Jenna Hamilton King explained.

After graduating from MTSU in Broadcast Journalism, Jenna discovered a formal wear shop that was closing. It was her “aha” moment. With the support of her family, she bought the business and opened My Best Friend Jenna in 2010 which caters to bridal, formal wear and prom dresses.

“I’ve always loved fashion. My mom was an art teacher and made her own prom dresses. It was actually her idea to name the shop My Best Friend Jenna because she said everyone I ever met was referred to as my BFF.”

Once again, it was a family affair when her sister Lauren, also a proven winner in the showring, joined her sister’s business. She had worked as a professional makeup artist with pageants, photo shoots, music videos and weddings. 

“All the while, having a makeup studio in My Best Friend Jenna, I began to do more and more weddings, helping with details and colors alongside the makeup, and it really sparked a fire in me. I really enjoyed the bridal side of formal wear! From that point, My Best Friend Jenna knew it was time to expand to be a full bridal boutique alongside prom and formalwear,” said Lauren.

Their sister Anna showed horses and helped her sisters as a sales associate and buyer’s assistant at MBFJ prior to attending MTSU. After graduating, her life also took a different turn. She is now the hospitality coordinator at Cooper Steel in Nashville.

“I loved growing up in the horse business and won my first world championship when I was in the fifth grade,” Anna said, “and I love going back home and visiting family and our horses.”

It’s no wonder she landed in the hospitality and event coordination field. It was probably destiny based on the Hamilton family history.

Giving back through Lights, Camera, Fashion

As the Hamilton daughters graduated one by one from Middle Tennessee State University and grew into young women, they also developed their parents’ heart for helping others and making life better for those around them.

“I raised you to be a thoroughbred. When thoroughbreds run, they wear blinders to keep their eyes focused straight ahead with no distractions, no other horses They hear the crowd, but they don’t listen. They just run their own race. That’s what you have to do. You just run your own race.” – St Jude’s Founder Danny Thomas to his daughter Marlo.

This could just have easily been Howard and Clarenita Hamilton’s message to Lauren, Jenna and Anna, only with Tennessee Walking Horses and perhaps the running walk to the finish line of servant leadership.

A year after Jenna opened MBFJ, she laid the foundation for the first Lights, Camera, Fashion event to raise money for the hospital and research program started by Danny Thomas, St. Jude’s. 

“Jenna and I consult on the event each year to make it special. The music, the backgrounds and everything in between to make the event a successful occasion each year. Our wedding and event venue, Madison Downs, is one of the main sponsors of Lights, Camera, Fashion,” according to Clarenita.

Since its inception, Lights, Camera, Fashion has grown into one of the Mid-South’s largest prom fashion shows. It’s held annually at the Carl Perkins Civic Center in downtown Jackson.

“Our family brainstormed about the perfect beneficiary for the event. Since we started, we’ve raised close to a million dollars for St. Jude’s,” explained Jenna.

Lights, Camera, Fashion features more than 50 young women across the Mid-South modeling stunning prom dresses and a panel of high caliber judges who select winners in several categories. It is a fashion extravaganza, but more importantly each of the contestants is required to raise money for St. Jude’s.

The six months of training in runway modeling and fundraising are beneficial for everyone involved. My Best Friend Jenna, through the LCF event, was named St. Jude’s Event Coordinator of the Year, but the real beneficiaries are the children undergoing cancer treatment and their families. The money raised ensures families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing or food during their stay at St. Jude’s.

Why support LCF? For some, it’s personal
“One woman is a pest, and two women is a team, but three women or more is a coalition. If you can bring a lot of people together as a coalition, you can get a lot changed.” – Marlo Thomas, National Outreach Director of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

The past few years’ success at the event can be attributed in part to walking horse BFF’s who support the fundraiser, including Jessica Lawwell. Faith and family are first in her life which once again creates the ties that bind in the walking horse industry when owners, trainers and riders get behind a project that strives to be “part of something bigger than us all.”

Jessica started showing in Lead Line classes at three-years-old. At seven, she won the Youth 11 & Under Novice Championship. Like the Hamilton daughters, she grew up in the walking horse business. Her grandfather was successful horse trainer Ronal Young.

“I had always heard about Lights, Camera, Fashion, and my senior year I told my mom, Beth Lawwell, that I wanted to go to My Best Friend Jenna in Jackson and get my prom dress even though we live near Shelbyville and her shop was on the other side of the state,” Jessica explained.

Her desire was to be a part of LCF and raise money for St. Jude’s. The match was one made in heaven for more reasons than one.

“My brother was seven-years-old when he had a bad horseback riding accident that ruptured his spleen. I kept saying that I was blessed with a healthy life, and this was a way to help other children coping with serious health issues.”

Lights, Camera, Fashion provided her with an avenue to give back. Jessica was a crowd favorite at the LCF in February 2023 and was recognized for raising the most money, $33,380, out of all the models. 

Jessica’s goal is to enter the medical field as a nurse. Once again, family ties came full circle for the greater good.

Making a difference: Whether it’s show business or horse business

As a young man, Danny Thomas had a simple goal: to entertain people and be successful enough at it to provide for his wife and family. But work wasn’t easy to come by. He prayed about building a shrine that would eventually change the lives of thousands of children and families. It was the beginning of St. Jude’s. 

Thomas’s goal mirrors Howard Hamilton’s in many ways. When Howard started his training operation, he wrote down the names of 20 people who he thought would let him train their horses. The process was much harder than he imagined. He persisted, and like Danny Thomas, who also struggled in the beginning of his career, the Hamilton family has made a tremendous impact on making life better through their philosophy of giving back and it all started with a Tennessee Walking Horse.