By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Woods Baughman was surrounded daily by all things horse. Driving through Lexington, he couldn’t help but see horses, whether they were in a field along the road, on billboards advertising upcoming equestrian events or on street signs—as even the roads are named after horses.
As a child, Woods and his non-horsey family attended a rodeo that came to the area. Immediately, Woods knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a rodeo rider. “That’s when the nagging to my parents about wanting to ride began. Eventually, they caved in and signed me up for English riding lessons, with the agreement that if I stuck with it, I could switch to Western and go down the rodeo path,” Woods said.
Woods never made it to the rodeo circuit, as another equestrian event in Lexington captured his heart. When Woods was 6 years old, his grandfather heard about “some horse thing” that was taking place at the Kentucky Horse Park. That “horse thing” just happened to be the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. While bull riding initially won Woods over, watching the horses gallop the cross-country course left Woods awestruck.
“After attending the Kentucky Three-Day with my grandfather, I came back with a whole new goal: I wanted to be an eventer. It just so happened that the barn where I’d been taking lessons, Champagne Run Farm, was eventing-focused,” Woods said. “That made it easy to start looking toward my new goals.”
Although Woods was young when he set his sights on conquering the eventing world, age is only a number when it comes to chasing your dreams. “It took almost 20 years to go from being that kid watching with my grandfather to being the one galloping home through the flags at the Kentucky Three-Day, but it was well worth it. To finish the weekend at that level after chasing it for so long was a feeling like no other,” Woods said.
With help from trainer Maggie Wright and the school horses at Champagne Run Farm, Woods began learning as much as he could about the sport. “I had the opportunity to compete on some of the school ponies at local events. When I was 10, my parents bought me my first pony, Smoothie. Together we started competing at recognized events,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Woods to be hooked on the sport. “Like any kid, I wanted to climb up the levels as soon as possible and I was always looking for what the next step would be. When I heard about Young Riders, I knew I needed to get on the team and go,” he said.
Having a goal of Young Riders only further cemented Woods’ passion toward the sport. “When I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to do horses. I was always dead serious about it, but no one took me seriously. My parents were convinced it was just a phase,” Woods said. “Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t. I stuck with it and stayed at Champagne Run learning to ride through the end of high school.”
While Smoothie showed Woods the ropes, it soon became clear the pony wasn’t going to cut it to make Woods’ dreams of being a part of Young Riders a reality. “While Smoothie did everything she could, my horses Truckee Bash and Montesquieu were the foundation of me starting my career. First, Truckee Bash took me to the Junior championships and then a few years later, Montesquieu and I went to the Adequan/FEI North American Young Rider and Junior Championships,” Woods said.
Truckee Bash and Montesquieu were perfect teachers for Woods and helped him get involved with Young Riders. As part of the program, Woods participated in the Area VIII camps, where designated coaches would come give week-long camps to the rising eventing talent. It was through these camps that Woods made connections with riders his age and eventing trainers from outside the area.
“It was a huge change being in the same circle as so many other riders my age who were at the same level. Before Young Riders, I’d never competed against so many people my age,” Woods said. “When you’re young and doing two-star and three-star events, you really feel like you’re a big deal. To then find out a lot of other young people were also in the same situation helped make me even more competitive.”
Young Riders truly shaped Woods’ career. It was during one of the camps that he was first introduced to rider/trainer Sharon White of Last Frontier Farm. “After working with her at one of the clinics, I jumped at the chance to start riding with her a bit more regularly through the end of the year,” Woods said.
As 2014 came to an end, Woods not only had competed at Young Riders, but he was also named to the USEF Eventing 18 Program, which would entail a week-long training session in Ocala, Florida. “Not knowing anyone else there, we called Sharon and asked if I could come down and stay with her in Ocala. She said yes, but on the condition that if I was going to be there, I was expected to work,” Woods said. “That winter extended to the summer and then the fall, and soon enough it had been eight going on nine years as part of the Sharon’s program at Last Frontier.”
When Woods arrived in Ocala, he brought Truckee Bash and Montesquieu to continue his equestrian education. “At that point I had gone up through the Intermediate level, but it was off of nothing more than the basics and a positive, ‘get it done’ attitude,” Woods said.
After a year with Sharon, they decided Woods needed a new partner that could help him achieve better dressage scores so he could advance even further in the sport. “We ended up deciding that I needed to sell Truckee to bring Maverick McNamara to the States. It was a brutal decision to make at the time, but Sharon couldn’t have been more right about needing a mount like Maverick,” Woods said. “He was a proper schoolmaster, which was something I’d never had. Maverick gave me the chance to learn how to stop riding not to lose and start riding to win.”
In 2018, Woods decided to go abroad for a year to learn the European system of producing eventing horses. “It was between going to England or Germany, but it didn’t take long to decide on going to Germany and working with Dirk Schrade, as Maverick had come from his yard. Working with Dirk gave me the opportunity to not only learn to make full use of a schooled horse, but also gave me a look into how to produce another one to that point,” Woods said.
While abroad, Woods and Maverick competed at the CIC3* at Luhmühlen in 2018. With eyes on getting to the five-star level, Woods again had a difficult choice to make—he could do his first five-star with Maverick, which would likely max him out, or he could find Maverick a lower-level job where he could be successful for years to come. “I didn’t want to be that person who maxed out their horse, so I sent Maverick back to the States where he found a new owner and he’s still happily doing his job today,” Woods said.
That choice left Woods without a horse for the top levels, but luckily Dirk had one in mind. “C’est La Vie 135 was already in Dirk’s barn and his name kept showing up on my daily ride list. We’d been trying horses for a while and hadn’t seen anything we liked,” Woods said. “One day we were driving around in the car and Dirk casually mentioned that I should buy C’est La Vie 135.”
Woods wasn’t so sure about that idea, as it was no secret that C’est La Vie 135 could be difficult to manage both on the ground and under tack. “He’s an incredibly capable powerhouse of a horse. The question was never if he could do the job, but more how to make the job his idea, because anything else simply won’t happen,” he said.
After a year learning the ins and outs of the systematic European training method, Woods came back to the States where he accepted the role of assistant trainer with Sharon and started the journey with his new partner, C’est La Vie 135.
“To be honest, it was a bit of a rough start and our results were fairly mixed as I struggled to sort out all the kinks in our new partnership. At the end of the year, we were finally able to pull it together finishing on our dressage score to win the three-star long at Fair Hill and take the 2019 National USEF title,” Woods said. “For me, that was the moment that I knew I could do anything with this horse and that things would start coming together to help me achieve my goals.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic modified the competition year in 2020, Woods and C’est La Vie 135 were ready to conquer 2021. However, fate had other plans. “We came out that spring a little overconfident; I made a few mistakes and ended up breaking my back,” Woods said. He decided to get back into the saddle four to five weeks later, still in a bit of pain. “If you don’t ask the doctor what your recovery plan should be, you can do whatever you want,” he chuckled.
Woods had tried to find the form they’d had when they won at Fair Hill; however, C’est La Vie 135 wasn’t having it. “He’s a horse who likes to charge. I tried to fit him a bit too much and he was either charging the jumps or stopping at them. I decided we needed to just slow it down, drop back down to the Preliminary level and then build him back up,” Woods said. “It was a cluster of a year.”
All of Woods’ hard work ended up paying off. The duo won the CCI4*-L National Championship in 2021. Woods then checked off his five-star dream when he competed at the 2022 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, back where all his eventing dreams began.
It’s the highs and lows of the sport that keep it interesting for Woods. “If you want to be really good at anything, you have to be willing to risk making a mistake. If you hide from it, sure, you can keep the mistake from happening, but you end up stuck in place never progressing. When you’re brave enough to push that line, you learn exactly where it is so you can walk it, but never cross it,” Woods said.
As 2023 approached, Woods had to be brave once again as he decided to step away from Last Frontier and begin his own eventing business, Woods Baughman Eventing. “I had gone back and forth for a very long time about when it was the right time to strike out on my own. I just didn’t have enough hours in the day to put 100% into my own three horses and my duties as assistant trainer. I thought, I’m either going to have to rein back my string or tell Sharon thank you for almost nine years. If I’d stayed on, it felt like I’d be giving only 50% effort for my horses and 50% for Sharon. That didn’t sit right with me,” Woods said.
Woods admits making the decision and telling Sharon was terrifying. “After being with her for so long, I didn’t want to disappoint her. Sharon was fantastic about it, very understanding and kind,” Woods said. “I felt a huge sigh of relief after telling her, then a few days later, I thought, Now what?”
Woods Baughman Eventing
After spending the winter in Ocala to sort out the logistics of starting his own business, Woods made the move to Middleburg, Virginia, where he shares a barn with his girlfriend, fellow eventer Mia Farley. Nearly a year since Woods struck out on his own, he’s fallen into a routine where he sets the pace each day. “While I initially would ride anything I could to stay busy and get paid to keep things going, now I’ve started working toward building a program where I can build my personal string and keep working toward my goals,” he said.
During this process, Woods has discovered that he truly enjoys coaching riders and training young horses. “I’m now in the role that Sharon was when we first met: teaching and sharing what I have to offer to help others reach their own goals,” Woods said. “It’s so rewarding to watch when my clients get something they haven’t understood before and it suddenly clicks. I love when they have those lightbulb moments.”
Woods hopes to have more magical moments with his horses C’est La Vie 135, Hopak de Greenbay Z and Kamara CFF. Each of his unique mounts has proven to be game for helping Woods accomplish his goals, which include someday being on Team USA.
While Woods keeps his eye on the long-term goal of representing the red, white and blue, right now he’s focused on continuing to expand his business. “I hope to increase the number of horses and clients I have to justify a working student,” he said. “I’d love to be able to take someone under my wing and give them the same experience Sharon gave me.”
Follow Woods on Instagram @woodsbaughman
Photos by Melissa Fuller, melissafullerphotography33.mypixieset.com, unless noted otherwise
Photo by Sherry Stewart