The biggest Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration ever—with some 700 horses entered—takes place this week (Aug. 29-Sept. 3) at Shelbyville, Tenn. the heart of the Walking Horse country and world. Thousands of Walking Horse owners, breeders and exhibitors have jam-packed every hotel and rooming house for a 50-mile radius, and for the next week they will think, talk, sleep and buy nothing else. For to those who own and love Tennessee Walking Horses the annual Celebration is an institution, which although only 16 years old is as traditional as the breed itself.
The Walking Horse breed originated in middle Tennessee over 100 years ago as a result of farmers trying to produce a multipurpose animal—one which was strong enough to pull the plow, docile enough for the kids to ride to school and yet smart enough to hitch up to the buggy on Sundays.
By crossbreeding the Thoroughbred with the sturdy stock of saddle horses brought across the mountains by Virginians in early pioneer days and adding characteristics of the pacer and the Morgan, farmers produced an animal which combined sufficient qualities from each to mark it as a distinct and individual breed. Short in the back with a deep body and a long, graceful neck in the perfect specimen, its most distinctive quality was a running gait peculiar to that breed only. This gait—a diagonally opposed foot movement—started with an ordinary flat-footed walk but as the speed increased the hind feet overstepped the front hooves by many inches. This unusually long stride by the hind legs coupled with the short stepping front action gave a "gliding" sensation to the rider which was immediately sought after by plantation overseers and farmers who had to spend long days in the saddle.
The horse could go in a relaxed and steady manner over soft ground not only at the flat-footed walk and running walk, but also at the canter. Even at this gait the Walking Horse offered unusual smoothness in the saddle, having such a rolling, non-jarring motion that its canter came to be called the "rocking chair ride."
Before long Plantation Walkers, as they had come to be called, were eagerly sought after through the whole South.
In the years that followed the Civil War, Walkers earned a reputation as easy-riding mounts, which has since culminated in their being called "World's Greatest Pleasure Horse." It wasn't until many years later, however, that any organization of the breed took place. Then, in 1935, several prominent owners of Walkers banded together to protect the horse's bloodline and formed the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' Association. Even so, the U.S. Government did not officially recognize Walking Horses as a separate and distinct breed of light horse until 1949.
Today, there are some 40,000 registered Walking Horses—plus three times that number unregistered. Because they are easy to ride and do not require the equestrian skill demanded by other breeds, Walkers have become very popular as mounts for children and older people and have secured for themselves a permanent place on the American saddle horse scene.
Every year since 1939 the National Celebration at Shelbyville has provided the climax to the Walker year when it crowns the "World's Grand Champion Walking Horse."
Unfortunately, because of a rift which split the Walking Horse ranks wide open, there are currently two horses which claim the title "World's Grand Champion Walking Horse." One is last year's Celebration winner, White Star. The other is a gelding named Sun's Big Shot which—because the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' Association does not endorse the Celebration any more and crowns its own world champion at its own sponsored show a month later—is officially and sonorously titled "The Only Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' Association of America-recognized World's Champion."
For three years now the Breeders' Association has been unable to see eye to eye with the way non-horse-owning professional promoters have run the Celebration. But confusing as it may be to have two world's champions in the same sport, the Walking Horse fraternity has come to accept the oddity as just another part of its split personality.