Ellie Wood Baxter says it’s her straight back that helped her achieve prolific success in the hunter ring through the 1930s to 1960s.
The pioneering rider was the most famous lady amateur for decades and at age 98, she still has a straight back.
A true Virginian horse woman, Wood Baxter loved foxhunting as much as riding in the show ring. In fact, she still follows the Farmington Hunt in her car—the Virginia club she carried the whip for in the 1950s.
The hunter scene was quite different in 1936, when Wood Baxter won the Maclay Trophy. She remembers the stalls at Madison Square Garden were beneath the ring and to warm up the riders would give the horses a “good canter” up the ramp.
“Nobody would do that today—gallop their horses up a ramp before going into a class. Today a horse isn’t allowed to tweak an ear without getting knocked down.”
Showing hunters back then was more instinctive and less programmed, according to Wood Baxter.
“We would use our eye over every jump. We never counted strides. You still had to have a good round and be even but you never had to have five strides here and six strides over on that side,” she said.
And you’d get very little instruction or direction if you were riding someone else’s horse in a class.
“If I got on a horse to ride in the ladies class the person might say ‘Well, this horse goes best if you have a little contact with it,’ but that would be the only information they’d give you.”
Wood Baxter didn’t read any horsemanship books, but she did get a great tip from her father—to ride with the ball of her foot on the stirrup.
“Nobody rode with the ball of their foot on the stirrup in early riding. I was one of the early ones to start riding on the ball of my foot, that was 1939 or 1940.”
Today, it’s the jumpers, not the hunters that really catch her eye.
“Those men and women who gallop around those huge international courses—they’re the ones I admire. Our (American) team rides beautifully.”
Hear more about Ellie Wood Baxter’s remarkable riding career on the Equestrian Legends Series podcast: