By Sadie Fowler

Howard Hamilton has spent his entire life devoting himself to his family and the horse and he does it all for one very simple reason — love.

He and his family literally love the horse with all of their hearts; Howard certainly plays his part in doing what he can to ensure the horse, the industry and the industry’s youth thrive. Hamilton is so well-accomplished it would be impossible to list all of his wins and accolades he’s achieved over the years under his Southern Serenity Ranch banner. While the achievements, the thousands of blues and countless sets of roses are nice, Hamilton will tell you his drive is about more than just winning.

The bottom line is that Howard has a genuine dedication to the breed and the walking horse industry and gives back via his time and expertise because he wants to see the industry continue to grow and thrive for many years.

“I do it for the spirit of competition and because I just love this horse,” said Howard, when asked about what drives him to give so much to the industry. “Our horse family means the world to me and my family.” Whether it’s running a summer camp, leading the Mid-South Horse Association or mentoring younger trainers or the industry’s youth, Howard Hamilton indeed gives of himself completely and he does so in a kind, patient and respectable way. He carries himself to a high level that demonstrates his true leadership ability. He is loved by many.

“Howard is a very kind and patient man,” said Clarenita, his wife of 40 years. “He’s not one to yell. Mistakes can happen in life, but Howard sees these as teachable moments. He says, ‘Mistakes don’t happen on purpose.’”

As one of the most beloved and recognizable trainers in the Tennessee walking horse industry, it is interesting to note that Howard hails from near Jackson, Tennessee, a few hours west of the middle Tennessee hotbed for walking horses. Th at is where he was born and raised, and where he’s continued to make a major impact in the community through his involvement in business and horses.

Howard’s love for the horse roots back to his childhood. Born to Bill and the late Gladys Hamilton, both teachers, Howard has one brother, Billy Hamilton of Cedar Grove, Tennessee, and one sister, Jean Hamilton Wix of Morristown, Tennessee. Howard and his wife Clarenita have three daughters, Lauren, Jenna and Anna, who share their parents’ passion and love for the horse. Each of them began showing when they were very young and have won many of their own top ribbons, including several world grand championships. 

Now, beyond the horses, the family partakes in other business ventures together as well, with their latest adventure being a popular wedding venue they opened in west Tennessee. Howard graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee at Martin with a degree in zoology and chemistry. Upon graduating, Howard taught chemistry and biology at Jackson State Community College before getting into the real estate business. Several years later he found a way to pursue his true passion in life, took a leap of faith, and became a professional horse trainer.

Thirty years ago, Howard’s dream came true when he opened the doors of Southern Serenity Ranch and began accepting horses into his training program. His first customer was longtime friend Carthel Smith of Lexington, Tennessee. Howard recalls how much he appreciated his friend’s confidence in him during those early years.

“When I first got started, I wrote down the names of 20 people who I thought might let me train their horses,” he said. “Only one let me … It was a little harder than I thought.”

Today, Southern Serenity houses at least 75 horses from all over the country in its small pocket in Cedar Grove, Tennessee, which is about 20 miles north of Jackson. They have about 30 customers and the business remains a family affair, with each family member contributing to the efforts of the farm, as well as Patrick Thomas, who trains the many horses alongside Howard.

“Patrick has always loved horses and wants to learn,” said Howard. “He’s been with us for 15 years now. When he first started with us I told him all you have to do is love horses. If you love the horse I can teach you want you need to know.”

In addition to Patrick and the other team members at Southern Serenity, Gary Gilmore has been Howard's right hand man for more than 30 years. Gilmore started helping Howard when he was just in college, when Howard was still just doing amateur owned and trained.

To this day, Gilmore has never missed a beat and continues to help out at every Celebration. Reminiscing about his childhood, Howard says he would walk two miles away after school to Chalmus Davenport’s walking horse barn while waiting for his father, a school principal in Humboldt, to finish up work each day. Howard was fascinated as he watched the trainer ride and train for Dr. Harold Barker. Howard would take what he’d learn by watching and return home to experiment with his own pony, Goldie.

Howard finally was able to teach his pony the walking gaits and soon began showing in saddle club shows. His first Celebration was in 1964; he was 13. When Howard was eight, he began attending Joe Webb’s riding school and camp and did so for many summers. In fact, Howard credits this experience as laying a solid and meaningful foundation for him and ultimately inspiring him to start his own camp at Southern Serenity, which remains extraordinarily popular today.

After participating in the camp for several years, Howard eventually worked as a counselor at Joe Webb’s and later became the director. Again, Howard credits the camp for developing his strong and lasting love for the Tennessee Walking Horse.

In addition to Webb, Howard credits many wonderful influences in helping him reach his professional goals such as Charles Lowe, Jim and Debbie Nichols, and Randall, Gloria and Joe Dixon.

In speaking about his own camp at Southern Serenity, which opened more than 30 years ago, Howard says he loves that the program introduces young folks to the great disposition and versatility of the walking horse. He’s seen many newcomers come to the week-long camp and end up getting hooked on the horse for life.

He loves every bit of helping others on their journey in and through the walking horse industry. “You have to love the people that are involved in pursuing their hobbies,” he said. “If you love the people and you love the horse, everything else always works out … I’ve always believed if you help people get what they want, you will get what you want.”

Today, Howard is proud to have passed over the reins of the camp to his daughter, Lauren, although the whole family continues helping out with the camp in different aspects. Clarenita, for example, still teaches art classes to the kids as part of the camp’s curriculum.

A major advocate and promoter of the horse, Howard is also respectfully associated with the Mid-South Horse Show Association, the oldest Tennessee Walking Horse association of its kind. Originally formed in 1947,

Howard helped reorganize the association alongside friends Jimmy Cole and Carlyle Johnson in 1987. Today, the association remains a strong and vital association with hundreds of members. Its year-end banquet serves as one of the most beloved and highly anticipated events in the industry each year, large in part because

Howard understands what it takes to make events like that appealing to the masses. The pomp and circumstances connected to that banquet, for example, keep members wanting to come back for more each year.

Howard believes in the importance of promoting the horse and believes the best way to do so is by showing people the great qualities of the walking horse. He says, now more than ever, it’s crucial that we promote the breed.

“I’ve fooled with several breeds over the years and there’s nothing better than the walking horse,” he said. “They can do it all.” In addition to being a Celebration Hall of Fame member, Howard was first inducted into the Mid-South Horse Association’s Hall of Fame in 2004.

In addition to his direct involvement in the walking horse community, Howard also serves his local and regional community on broader levels. He serves as an advisor for the Graceland Estate whenever they need help with their horses. When needed, he helps find replacement horses with similar bloodlines as those originally bought by the late Elvis Presley, to keep Elvis’ love for horses alive at Graceland for the many tourists passing through.

Interestingly, Howard trained Ebony’s Double for Priscilla Presley and prepared him for exhibition at the Celebration, beginning the tradition for the Elvis Presley Challenge Trophy to be presented in the Four-Year-Old World Grand Championship class.

Howard serves as an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Humboldt, where he also serves as a trustee and sings in the adult choir. A member of several other walking and spotted saddle horse industry organizations, Howard is also a respected judge and has marked the cards several times at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

Though there’s not much of it to go around, Howard enjoys trail riding in his spare time with his family and friends. Whether it’s a trip to the Smoky Mountains or a two-week road trip out West, Howard and Clarenita make sure to work in plenty of time on the trails each year to enjoy their horses, relax and unwind.

Another one of Howard’s favorite traditions is teaching tricks to some of the family’s horses. Furthermore, he loves entertaining guests of the ranch with a fun performance any chance he gets. During Christmas, Howard is “Santa Howard” and even rides his trick reindeer horse much to the delight of children who come from far and near to enjoy the barn’s annual Christmas party.

Howard’s first Celebration win came in 1979 aboard his father’s great plantation mare, Ebony’s Princess. They won several titles together and Howard collected many more over the years with plenty of other horses. In fact, it would be fair to say Howard and the Southern Serenity team has won more than 250 classes at the Celebration.

The list of notable horses that have been associated with Howard and Southern Serenity are endless. Just of a few of the greats include Armed Red Baron, Lit Up's Double Time, Pusher's Beaming Pride, High Fashion Statement, A Neon Knight, Generator's Winning Colors, Generator's Evil Lady, I'm Rose Walker, Honor My Cash and All American Ritz.

Above all else, Howard is a family man — a devoted husband and loving father. He loves the way his involvement in the walking horse industry has been a family hobby as well as a business in order for them all to share more time together. He insists that his customers are like family to him. He enjoys every bit of time spent helping them show their great horses — for the joy of helping them be the best they can be and, of course, for his pure and simple love for the horse.

“I love people and I love the horse,” he said. “The only hobby I have is horses. I guess the reason I have taken the time to give back like I have is because I love the horse so much I have wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”

In looking toward the future, Howard says he feels as confident now about the industry as he ever has.
I think right now is one of the best times we’ve had,” he said. “I think we have to do better showing off our horse, but I really do feel good about the industry. It’s not like it was 10 years ago. Now, we have the talent, the breeding, a great horse … I think we are in very good times and if we just keep the horse at the forefront the industry will remain strong.”