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Seeking Serenity?



By Sadie Fowler

It was nearly 30 years ago that Howard Hamilton came up with an idea to offset the costs and increase revenue of the farm he’d purchased in Cedar Grove, Tennessee. As a young man, nearly 50 years ago, Howard had worked for the renowned Joe Webb riding school. Since his two talents in life involved horses and business ventures, he thought why not find a way to do both — all while sharing his passion with kids and educating them along the way. 

Soon enough, Southern Serenity Ranch, which sits on about 70 acres of gorgeous land that includes miles and miles of trails ideal for riding, became home to a riding school each summer, in addition to its core mission, which is serving as home to many champion Tennessee Walking Horse show horses.

“For me, it’s horses 100 percent,” said Howard, pausing to reflect his life-long devotion to the horse. “I used to try and go on vacation but now I just take my horses with me when I go. I don’t care about nothing else.” 
Howard grew up on a farm, but really didn’t see anything else he liked on it besides horses. They had pigs, cows, cotton, and everything else, but for Howard horses were the only animals to catch his eye. Now, in addition to being a world champion trainer, he is equally known for his innate ability to deeply connect with the horse — in a horse whisperer kind of way. 

“It’s in me, and if it’s in your blood you can’t take it away,” he said.

SATISFACTION GURANTEED

Howard soon realized after starting the camp, which hosts between a dozen and two-dozen kids for several days during June of each summer (and sells out months in advance), that in addition to providing a revenue source for him and his family, the camp would also provide the Hamiltons with a great amount of satisfaction as a result of the impact it has on the campers who participate.

Several years ago, Howard passed over the reins of the camp leadership role to his daughter, Lauren. Now, it’s Lauren who eats, breathes and fully embraces everything about the well-known program. She even takes a week off from her normal “day job” to fulfill her commitment to teaching youngsters how to ride or polishing the skills of those who already know how to ride but attend the camp anyway. 

As campers of this summer’s session enjoyed a leisurely trail ride, which is part of the daily routine of the five-day camp, Howard stayed back at the barn waiting for the group to return for their next session, which included art activities followed by a demonstration he’d give them with one of his favorite horses. While waiting for the campers, Howard shared his wisdom about the breed that’s so near and dear to his heart, and the mission of the Southern Serenity Ranch camp. As he talked, he walked one of his horses on the green and lush lawns outside the barn, allowing it to graze.

“We have to take care of our horses because they take care of us,” he said. “That’s what we teach these kids, too. They learn that here, and also, they learn confidence. That’s probably the biggest takeaway for them I think.”

GALLOPING AHEAD IN LIFE

Soon enough, a group of about 12 kids and their trusty mounts, all led by Lauren, emerged from the woods and headed to the outdoor arena where they’d partake in their favorite activity of the day — cantering. Camp volunteers, farm trainer Patrick Thomas, and Howard watched while Lauren led the crew of lopers. Next, all converged in the indoor arena for a continued lesson on their equitation skills.

“I learned how to ride here and that’s why I like to work here at the camp,” said Megan Hyde, 22, a long-time counselor at the camp. “All of us who work here started here. I was seven when I first came here and now I have my own horse stabled here … Last year was my first time to go to the Celebration.

“Some of the campers who come here already know how to ride, but many do not. I love being here, mainly because it’s so nice being among friends who are all like-minded. I love watching the kids’ confidence grow as the week progresses as well. It’s my favorite week of the year.”

FULLY ENGAGED

During the mid-day lesson inside the arena, Lauren stays busy instructing each rider in the group lesson. She sincerely apologizes for not being able to engage in much conversation about the camp, but explains her focus is on the kids. She does, however, take a break long enough to say the camp, and all aspects of it from cooking, campfire songs, and even girl talk, are her passion.

“It’s my life,” she said. “It involves my two favorite things; food and horses. What more could a girl ask for than to share my love of horses with these kids?”

Next, some of the riders took it up a notch by engaging in a bareback riding lesson, which teaches them not to solely rely on equipment in communicating with their horse. It’s just one of many tools and activities used to improve campers’ skills.

As the lesson resumed, Howard continued his gracious knack for hosting guests by saying his favorite part of watching all this these days is one particular expression he sees on the kids’ faces.

“When they smile and you realize how happy they are, and also when you know they’ve been working on a particular skill and the moment you see the light bulb go off and they have that, ‘Oh gosh I’ve got this!’ moment … that is what makes it all worth it. We just have a lot of fun, and kids are so easy to please. Last night we had an ‘auction,’ for example. I gave them each 25 pennies to spend. They had the best time you wouldn’t believe it.”

WALKING PAST THE NEST

While many riding camps exist across the nation with various missions as their primary focus, there are things at Southern Serenity that set it apart from other camps. The main thing: It uses the walking horse as its vehicle to teach, and there’s no better breed than the walking horses. As a side note, the Hamiltons also hope their camp teaches the public through a “word of mouth” type of campaign, about how diverse and wonderful their breed of choice is.

“There’s nothing like a walking horse,” Howard said. “It’s amazing what they’ve developed into — and they are the sharpest and happiest horses on the planet.”

Over the years, there’s no telling how many established walking horse equestrians have graced through the camp. Some of them even went on to be trainers, such as Winky Groover. Jordan Howell was another well-known walking horse exhibitor to have started at the camp. Today, children of industry insiders join the eclectic group of campers that make up any given class of Southern Serenity. Carly Cagle is one of them. Trainer Michael Wright’s daughter attended two years ago. This year, Chrystal and Edgar Abernathy’s daughter attended, as did the children of Sarah and Tim Smith. There are many more…

“Yes, we’ve had a whole bunch of folks from the industry. It would be hard to count how many over the years … Winky went through here and I don’t believe he behaved too well,” laughed Howard,

joking about his old friend. 

STAYING CONNECTED

Indeed, the camp reaches riders of all levels, and all ages of kids. Michaela St. John, who is 19 now and another counselor at the camp, was six when she went through the camp.
“I wanted to come when I was five but they said I was too young,” she laughed. “I love teaching kids how to ride. When I came here as a kid, I knew how to ride, but the camp really polished my skills. For example, my posture on a horse greatly improved.”

Lillie Homberg, 19, was also very young when she went through camp, and like Michaela, she too serves as a counselor now. 

“I learned about the camp because my dad knew the Hamiltons,” she said. “I started out with Arabians but fell in love with walking horses. I love being here and doing this because I have such a passion for this horse … The kids make it so much fun. The first day they’re here we are up at 5 a.m. and everyone’s ready to go. They’re all so passionate. They come here sometimes as strangers but always leave as friends.”

LAUREN'S LOVE

As the afternoon session closes out, Lauren finally takes a break herself, sharing a bit about what fuels her passion and devotion to the camp.

“I’m starting to feel my age these days,” she laughed as she took a deep breath. “I was six when my dad bought this place so I never got to be a camper as I was too old by the time the camp was started. Our whole goal here is to have fun. That’s number one and I’m really big on that, and also respecting one another. My motto is, ‘We all do it, or no one does.’ This camp is truly my passion in life.”

Lauren echoed her dad’s sentiments about the camp being a good educational tool for the public as much as it is for the rider. 

“This exposes them to the wonderful qualities of our breed,” she said. 

Her dad chimed in, adding, “The public can always use to be educated and anything that trickles out to the public about our camp is a good thing … Anyone who talks bad about our breed is simply not educated about our horse. We have the best horse, and the worst publicity … The walking horse industry is filled with plain and simple real people who love our horses, and I’m proud for that.”

Howard and Lauren cited many reasons that form their opinions that the walking horse trumps other breeds. 
“They are just phenomenal horses,” Howard said. “People of all ages can enjoy them. If they ever went away there would be nothing that could replace it.”

A LIFE WITHOUT REGRET

As he reflected on his life’s pursuit of his passion that led to the start of Southern Serenity, Howard says he looks back on his life with no regret. 

“My parents made me go to college,” he said. “I thought about going to pre-med or being a teacher, but I opted out because I would have to work during the Celebration … I just wanted to do my own thing and that’s why I eventually settled in here. Of course, I did other business ventures early on as well, but only just enough to get by. My heart has always been here.”

Above all else, Howard says horses have taught him love and patience. Trust and respect are other lessons that follow through a connection one develops with a horse. 

He hopes his camp, and his horses, will continue to serve as a vehicle to spread on and teach those invaluable life lessons.  

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