The outgoing Masked Rider reflects on her experience as a new rider takes the reins of the iconic Texas Tech mascot.
Caroline Hobbs combs through the pieces of sawdust in the mane of Texas Tech University mascot Centennial Champion.
This is part of her daily routine as the Masked Rider. When she has finished brushing out his mane and tail, cleaning his hooves, she took a moment to pet his forehead. This is a reciprocated by Centennial as he takes this opportunity to lick Hobbs' hand.
“Thank you. So kind of you,” she said.
It's not hard to miss the bond Hobbs has with Centennial as he rests his muzzle on the top of her shoulder.
“He's such a goober,” Hobbs said, laughingly.
This isn't a hustle-and-bustle day like it normally is. Call it the calm before the storm of activity that will fill the final few days of Hobbs' time with Centennial.
This is the perfect time to do some reflecting for Hobbs – how she arrived at Texas Tech, why she sought the opportunity to be the 61st Masked Rider and what is next as she hands the reins over to 62nd Masked Rider Lauren Bloss.
A History with Horses
The Masked Rider program is now in its 69th year, dating back to the first appearance in 1954 with Joe Kirk Fulton taking the reins in the Gator Bowl.
Each rider since has had their own personal connection to the program and the horse they partnered with to create the iconic Masked Rider. Hobbs is no different.
“My whole family went to Texas Tech, and I knew I wanted to go. I bled scarlet and black,” she said. “Growing up I knew I wanted to become the Masked Rider. My two favorite things, Texas Tech and horses.
“Something a little different for my family than others is my grandfather went to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in the late 1950s and he actually ran Peruna, their equivalent of Centennial Champion. It's a little smaller, so we like to say that I'm carrying on his legacy in a bigger way.”
Bigger is right. Not just in terms of size, but the expectations of the job itself according to the Dallas native.
“The Masked Rider is such an iconic figure at Texas Tech and you're also a spokesperson for the university,” she said. “It definitely has exceeded my expectations.”
Learning Curve and The First Ride
Coming into her run as the Masked Rider, Hobbs knew she would have a tight time frame in which to operate before her responsibilities grew exponentially. She admitted the outgoing horse, Fearless Champion, played a significant role.
“With Fearless, I had him for about two to three months into year, so I was able to figure out my job before bringing Centennial into the program and letting him learn his job,” Hobbs said. “They both love the public, which was nice having the same personality.”
Those two to three months were paramount for Hobbs and her preparation process going into a packed year.
“Caroline had an unusual year to experience the Masked Rider program,” said Spirit Program Director Stephanie Rhode. “She was the first of my now 21 Masked Riders who had to transition out of one horse and bringing in a new horse. She did that in very little time since we got Centennial Champion at the end of July.”
Yes. A little over a month was the time frame Hobbs had to work with Centennial before the Texas Tech football team opened its season on Sept. 3.
It's often been called one of the most iconic and stirring entrances in college football – the Masked Rider leading the Red Raider football team onto the field at Jones AT&T Stadium. For Hobbs, it was something she will never forget sharing with Centennial Champion.
“Every rider says the stadium goes dark and silent on the first ride. And it does,” she said. “You're hearing the fight song and then it went completely silent for me. It was so iconic and surreal that I could feel him running and feel his feet on the ground.
“I remember finishing and putting my guns up and smiling, giving him a pet and making sure the football team was still behind us. It felt like a dream.”
Centennial-sized Year, Centennial-sized Responsibility
When she took the reins in 2022, Hobbs knew this would be a unique year for not only herself, but also for Centennial Champion. After eight seasons and the third longest tenure as the mascot, Fearless Champion retired. December of 2022 also meant the start of a yearlong celebration of Texas Tech's centennial.
Rhode came on board when Midnight Matador, the 13th horse in the Texas Tech mascot program and Fearless' predecessor, was early into his run. She was impressed with the degree of poise Hobbs was able to handle during the transition of horses and everything the position of Masked Rider entailed.
“The fact she was able to take a horse who was not at all accustomed to being put in front of a crowd was almost miraculous in my mind,” Rhode said.
Over the course of the year, Hobbs made more than 300 appearances combined on Fearless Champion and Centennial Champion. That's holidays, birthdays, big events Hobbs was there with Centennial – representing Texas Tech.
“We've definitely done a lot more events because of the centennial and it's been amazing,” said Hobbs. “Going to Austin and being one of the few horses to go on the state capitol grounds for Texas Tech Day, doing centennial events in Amarillo at Cadillac Ranch, we've done so much. I've done so many rider-only events and then of course the bowl game and doing centennial events there.”
Those are just the game-day scenarios for the Masked Rider. Their responsibilities extend far beyond their time at Jones AT&T Stadium especially during a year-long celebration like Texas Tech's Centennial Celebration.
“For those riders, it's a 12-hour day,” said Rhode. “They are going out, riding the horse, so the horse won't be fresh and somewhat tired when they go into the stadium. Then there's bathing the horse, getting the tack ready, getting the trailer ready, the rider getting ready. It's a long day.
“When we have an 11 a.m. game, my heart goes out to the Masked Rider. I know everyone is like, ‘It's an early game.' But for the Masked Rider, what I'm thinking is they're not going to get any sleep the night before.”
This all comes with the territory. Hobbs wouldn't want it any other way.
“We're not just running down at the football field. We're going to meet fans – going
to baseball games, basketball games and different live events,” she said. “We're going to all of these different events for the community and surrounding community that truly touch people's lives.”
Special Job, Special Horse
Forming a bond with a horse doesn't just occur through big events like football games and public appearances. It's everyday moments that cement the connection and establish a level of trust that stays with the Masked Rider even after their time donning the uniform is over.
“It's definitely the small things, like when I come in the mornings and in the evenings and take care of him,” said Hobbs. “He's sleeping, you know, laying down and I immediately whip my phone out and take a video cuddling with him.
“One of my favorite things I like to do during my year was sit with him in his stall and do homework. I would just sit on the ground and try – emphasis on try to do my homework. Because every time he would stare me down, put his nose on my nose, my computer or put his head on my shoulder. It was very hard to write a paper.”
Those special moments between Hobbs and Centennial are not lost on Rhode.
“It's a commitment like no other,” Rhode said. “I don't even know if other employees spend as much time with their job as the Masked Rider does with the horse. They're a real team and consequently at the end of the year, you see that bond.”
Those special moments Hobbs was able to share with Centennial Champion are ones she is hopeful new Masked Rider, Bloss, will experience as well.
“I definitely hope she gets to grow the bond with him. You know, it's a special job. It's a special horse,” Hobbs said. “Take in every second and don't take it for granted because it goes by so fast.
“He truly is an exceptional horse and I'm so lucky to have had him for this year.”
A year goes by fast. It most certainly did for Hobbs as it was just one year ago Ashley Adams passed the reins, mask, hat and cape to Hobbs. As Hobbs passed those emblems over to new rider Bloss, she clearly knew this experience wouldn't be easy. It wasn't.
“The Masked Rider is more than just a public figure,” she said. “The Masked Rider is a girl's dream come true.”
The funny thing about a dream coming true – a new dream has to begin. And it certainly has for Hobbs. She will graduate in December with a degree in animal science with a concentration in equine-assisted therapy from the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
As Hobbs leaves Texas Tech in December, she does so with a significant amount of reverence, pride and humility in what this entire experience has given her.
“It has given me everything,” said Hobbs. “I can't thank Texas Tech enough for allowing me to do this job, but also allowing me to follow my dreams of being the Masked Rider while getting a college degree and furthering my knowledge in the horse industry.”
Hobbs plans on staying in Lubbock after graduation to open her own equine-related business she put on hold during her stint as the Masked Rider.
“I'll start teaching lessons and get back to training and breaking horses and start to expand my business as much as I can,” she said. “I'm going to start that back up and hopefully grow my clientele, my brand and maybe even have my own place and go from there.”
And with the experience she received as the Masked Rider, Hobbs can go just about as far as she can imagine.
Next: In part two of the transfer of traditions, new Masked Rider Lauren Bloss details her story of how her formative years of experience around horses set her up for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.