Representing Texas Tech University as the Masked Rider is a once-in-a-lifetime, full-time job.
Caroline Hobbs leaned back in the seat of her pickup truck donning the “official” attire of winter work at the horse barn: trucker hat, hair in a braid, long-sleeve T-shirt, Carhartt jacket and a wild rag.
Even though it was only 10 a.m., Hobbs had already been to three local feed stores to get supplies before coming to the barn to do chores and ride.
While most college students would likely balk at the thought of being up so early on their Christmas break, this is par for the course for Hobbs.
Hobbs, a senior equine-assisted therapy major from Dallas, serves as the 61st Masked Rider with the beloved Texas Tech mascot, Centennial Champion.
“It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Hobbs said. “It can be time-consuming and difficult, but when I pulled up to the barn and rolled down my window, Centennial stuck his head out the stall, nickering to greet me. Those moments are priceless.”
Hobbs is a second-generation Texas Tech student who “always wanted to bleed scarlet and black.” From the first time she saw the Masked Rider gallop across the football field, she knew what she wanted to do.
While she considered other universities, and was even offered equestrian team scholarships from other schools, she always came back to Texas Tech.
“The first time I stepped on campus, I knew it was home,” Hobbs said as a grin spread across her face. “I wanted to be the Masked Rider, and I wanted to make an impact on the community and Red Raider fans.”
In a way, becoming the Masked Rider was part of a family legacy for Hobbs. Her grandfather was a handler for Peruna V, the black Shetland pony mascot for Southern Methodist University, in the 1950s.
“My family has a running joke that I am carrying on my grandfather's legacy in a bigger way, since he ran a pony and I'm riding a Quarter Horse,” Hobbs said with a laugh. “It just adds another level to the honor of being able to represent the university.”
While running an equine mascot across the football field was not new for her family, it did not make the inaugural run any less impactful for Hobbs.
She had the normal nerves as she prepared for her and Centennial Champion's first run across Cody Campbell Field at Jones AT&T Stadium.
Her thoughts raced. Centennial Champion was a new horse. She was about to take a live animal down onto the field. She was about to run that live animal through a stadium in front of 65,000 people.
The next thing she knew, they were galloping across the field. In what felt like an instant, it was over.
“It was surreal,” Hobbs said. “There is no other word to describe the feeling. I looked back down the field and thought to myself, ‘I just did that.'”
As she looked back and the teams were preparing for kickoff, one thing stood out to Hobbs: her family elated and cheering at the 50-yard line.
“I looked up and there's 20 of my family and friends cheering and jumping up and down,” Hobbs said. “My mom was even standing on the seats. Taking it all in was just amazing.”
However, that brief but surreal moment does not come without extensive preparation.
There were months of work that took place before Hobbs and Centennial Champion entered the stadium.
Hobbs spent hours each week getting to know Centennial Champion – riding him while doing groundwork in the area and learning his quirks, likes and dislikes. Not only did they spend considerable time in the arena, but Hobbs also would spend time with him in his stall getting to know his personality.
“I wanted him to know that I was going to be his person for the year,” Hobbs said. “He's an in-your-pocket horse, definitely a big lovebug. He loves cuddles and will just put his head on my shoulder or the middle of my chest whenever he gets the chance.”
Building this bond is important, because Hobbs and Centennial Champion spend the vast majority of their time together over the course of the year.
Not only is she at the barn two or three times a day to feed him, clean his stall and ride, but they will also work than 350 events and travel more than 15,000 miles together throughout the year.
On the days when there are football games, they will often spend nearly 20 hours together. If kickoff is at 2 p.m., then Hobbs is up by 1 a.m. getting herself ready and at the barn by 2 a.m. to prep Centennial Champion ready for the day. By the time the game is over and the horse has been taken home, brushed, fed and watered, it is nearly 9 p.m.
“It's a long day,” Hobbs said with a nod, “but well worth it. We do what we need to ensure everything goes well.”
With all the time that goes into serving as the Masked Rider and adding on a full class schedule, there is not time for much else.
Stephanie Rhode, Texas Tech Spirit Program director, said the Masked Rider program would not be possible without the generous endowments and support from donors.
United Supermarkets serves as the official sponsor of the Masked Rider Program. Combined with funds from the Masked Rider Endowed Scholarship, it provides support for operational expenses, a truck and trailer, a leadership scholarship, the uniform and accessories, travel expenses, tutoring and more.
“I'm always blown away by the support for the Masked Rider Program,” Rhode said. “There are simply not enough hours in the day for the Masked Rider to have a job, so the funding from the sponsorship and endowment allows us to do what we do while ensuring the student can still be successful. It's been a game changer.”
Before becoming the Masked Rider, Hobbs ran her own business providing riding lessons but had had to put that on hold for a full year. Fortunately, donor funding to the Masked Rider Program not only provides her with a scholarship to help pay for school but also covers nearly all expenses incurred during her time as the mascot.
“I cannot thank our sponsors and donors enough,” Hobbs said. “They are the kindest people. The relationships you build through this program – with the horse, the fans, the bosses, the donors – are what makes this program special, and it cannot be done without being able to have those scholarships to let us fulfill our dreams.”
To help continue this tradition by donating to the Masked Rider Endowment Fund, visit give.ttu.edu.