By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Will Baker has always lent a helping hand to other equestrians. Growing up, Will spent most of his weekends at the University of Richmond equestrian team’s barn where his father, Paul, was the coach.
“I was too young to really help; I was 10 and under at the time, but I always tried to be around the horses and do the little jobs I could. I would show the college students where the horses’ stalls were, help bring them in and sometimes I was able to walk them out after their lessons,” Will said. “As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved being in the barn and doing whatever was needed.”
While Will loved following his father around the barn as a child, he never imagined he would follow in his career footsteps. However, all that changed once he was introduced to the “A” hunter-jumper circuit and became a working student.
“Once I started as a working student, I quickly realized how much I enjoy the everyday challenge of this lifestyle. Whether it’s riding and training, helping clients figure out the best system to be successful or the tests of showing and producing top horses, I enjoy every minute,” Will said. “Being able to travel to the shows and see top barns and riders competing every weekend, I knew that one day I wanted to have my own business and do what I saw everyone else doing.”
Today, Will runs his own Coast To Coast Equestrian in Reddick, Florida. Remaining true to his childhood spirit, Will continues to help others find their way in the sport to which he’s devoted his life and career.
Finding His Path
Will didn’t find his way to the show ring until he was 15 years old, when he was able to purchase his own horse and started going to local shows. “Before then I would care lease foxhunters during the off season in Virginia. This was the only way I had access to a horse that wasn’t in a lesson program, and I could ride more than a couple of times a week,” Will said.
Three years later, Will took a clinic with jumper rider and trainer Sulu Rose-Reed that changed his life’s trajectory. After having a great experience at the clinic, Will approached Sulu and asked her if she’d be interested in having him join her team as a working student. Sulu said yes, and for the next four years, Will worked for Sulu and her husband, Derek, at their Reed Training and Sales at Stillmeadow Farm where he eventually became their head groom and manager.
Working for Reed Training and Sales was Will’s first introduction to the A-circuit show world and he absorbed everything he could from the duo. While the experience Will gained from riding, training and managing clients and their horses was invaluable, Will is most thankful for the everyday horsemanship skills he learned from Sulu and Derek.
“They taught me that having a good, consistent program at home is essential to success in the show ring. This includes surrounding yourself with the top veterinarians, farriers and staff,” Will said.
As Will traveled the circuit with Sulu and Derek, he got to experience the highs and lows that come from working in the industry. When the days got long, Will reflected on the days he had wished for ample riding opportunities. “While the sport can be incredibly hard at times, I learned it’s important to remind ourselves about why we each started riding—for the love of horses,” he said.
After gaining a great foundation in managing and training competition horses from Sulu and Derek, Will decided to head to Europe in 2012 to further his equestrian education. He initially went to Switzerland to work for Irish team member Niall Talbot, and then moved to Germany to learn about breeding and the proper development of young horses.
“The expense of showing and training horses in the U.S. makes it so hard for young professionals to gain experience versus going overseas. While in Germany, I worked for multiple breeders and discovered my passion for young horses,” Will said.
Will learned several lessons in Germany he’s been able to carry on to his business today. “The biggest thing I learned is to have passion and understanding for young horses and to hold them to a high standard without over facing them. Focus on the details and make them the best you can versus just being able to go fast and jump big without having rideability or confidence,” Will said.
Using these “European skills” to produce quality young horses that at 5 or 6 years old can have their owners get on for a safe and fun ride gives Will a great sense of delight. “I love being able to give a horse a solid foundation and ensure its first few years of jumping are full of positive experiences,” he said.
By fall 2013, Will was ready to come back to the States and continue his education with an American twist. While at Parkwood Equestrian in Idaho and in Kansas, Will was able to get more time in the hunter ring and learn the art of promoting and advertising sale horses.
It was also on American soil that Will was able to get into both the derby and Grand Prix ring for the first time in his career. “Learning how to produce young horses from their first jumps through the highest level of the sport is something I’m very proud of and enjoy,” he said.
In April 2018, Will decided the time was right to hang his shingle and opened up his Coast To Coast Equestrian in West Milford, New Jersey. “I felt that I was knowledgeable enough to take the leap, but also knew that I had built a great support system around me should I need to ask for advice or help about a horse or situation,” Will said.
When it came time to name the business, Will decided to pay homage to the journey that led to this point. “Over the last decade, before opening Coast To Coast, I had traveled from the East Coast to West Coast, the Midwest and around Europe. I felt this was the epitome of going ‘Coast To Coast,’” Will said.
Fast forward to 2023: Will and his wife, Katie, have purchased their own farm in Reddick, Florida, and he’s built a prominent sales business in addition to training clients. “Six years later, I’m very happy to be able to say we’ve reached our goal of selling horses from Florida to New York, California to Seattle, and everywhere in between, including Canada,” Will said. “We also have very valuable partners and contacts in Europe that our clients can trust to import their future superstars from.”
Coast To Coast Equestrian has clients in both the hunter and jumper rings, as well as having a large portion of their business in sale and consignment horses. “Our barn is full of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds. I’m fortunate to be able to continue working with young horses today, as I find it so rewarding,” Will said.
Having a farm of his own in Florida is a dream come true for Will. “Our 18-acre farm has incredible turnout and housing for staff so they can be on site 24/7, and there are so many great venues including WEF, WEC, Venice and HITS all within a short distance. This was something New Jersey didn’t afford us, and we are loving it so far,” he said. “Also, I don’t think there’s a better place than Ocala for our sale business.”
Relocating an equestrian business 1,000-plus miles is no easy task; however, Will is thankful that his assistant, Saralyn Darmstatter, and some of his clients were able to make the move with him. “From riding and coaching to prepping horses at the show, as well as holding down the fort when I’m away, Saralyn is an integral part of our team,” Will said.
Another integral part of the team is of the smaller equine variety—the farm donkey, Tator Tot. Initially acquired to babysit Katie’s horse Amaro Z, who needed a buddy when he was rehabbing from an injury, Tator Tot has become the barn mascot. “Before Tator arrived, Amaro didn’t want to stay outside for even 20 minutes. Now they stay out six or seven hours every day and play like dogs and push each other around. We even had to get Amaro special boots so Tator wouldn’t pull them off,” Will said. “If Amaro comes in and Tator is left out, he just brays until his friend comes back. They’re so cute together!”
As someone who didn’t grow up on the national A-circuit or have endless equestrian opportunities, Will understands how hard it can be for the next generation to break into the sport. He knows sometimes it can feel out of reach and be very daunting to make your way into the upper levels.
“I’m very passionate about being able to close that gap and give kids every opportunity possible. I always try to have a working student or two who may not otherwise be able to be on the circuit or have access to these top shows we’re able to attend,” he said.
Will likes to share the horsemanship and riding skills he’s learned along the way by giving clinics. “One thing I love about training horses and people is putting the pieces together and figuring out what works for each situation. I feel like a clinic is a great test where I can try to bring out the best of each horse-and-rider duo in a short period of time,” Will said. “Doing clinics is a nice change from my everyday routine and lets me see places I wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to see.”
Giving yearly clinics at Gleneayre Equestrian Program is just one way Will gives back to the equestrian community and works to make our sport more inclusive. Located in New Jersey, Gleneayre allows at-risk youth to participate as working students. They not only learn horsemanship, but the horses help them learn social skills they can use in society.
“These are kids who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to ride. I think it’s important that they get to learn from as many teachers as possible, and I’m happy to share my methods with them,” Will said. “It’s so rewarding working with these kids and being able to go back a few times a year to see their progression.”
It was through a 2020 clinic at Gleneayre that Will met his client Bill Rube, who is the executive director of the Gleneayre Equestrian Program. After Bill watched a few sessions of the clinic, he asked Will if he could get on Bill’s horse, Elliot. Bill and Will instantly clicked and have been working together ever since, with Bill being one of the customers whose horses made the move to Florida.
“From that first clinic when I rode Elliot, Bill has been such an amazing supporter,” Will said. “Not only does he believe in me, but he also has a wealth of connections and has been helping me meet new people and network within the industry.”
In addition to being a resource for aspiring riders, Will tries to make himself available to any other young professionals who may be looking for advice or help. “I think the hardest part of being a young professional is building a network and breaking into the right areas of the business. Having moved around a lot, I’ve been lucky to meet lots of different trainers and barns and have used those contacts while growing my own business,” Will said.
When possible, Will tries to pay it forward to the next generation. “I was very fortunate that when I was in my 20s, I had older trainers who were always opening doors for me and helping, so I want to do the same,” he said.
Although it can be tough to break into the business, Will believes there are some advantages to being a fresh face. “Just because something has been done one way for the last 20 years doesn’t mean it’s the only or best way. I love being able to collaborate with the generation ahead of me and behind me to try to find the best possible training solution,” Will said. “I’ve found that a combination of traditional and new ideas, be it in training, horse care or show routines, tends to give you the best and most effective technique.”
Will is optimistic about what the future holds both personally and professionally. While horses consume much of Katie’s and his life, they love being able to share the same passion. An amateur with a non-riding job she’s able to do remotely, Katie is able to travel the show circuit with Will and her two horses. “Katie helps me with scheduling and general office work because I’m much better at horse training than organizing and paperwork,” Will admitted.
“The future is really exciting for us!” he concluded. “I’m really excited to concentrate on our new farm, build our house on the property and watch everything evolve and grow at Coast To Coast Equestrian.”
For more information, visit coasttocoastequestrian.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, melissafullerphotography33.mypixieset.com