By Mark McGee

2020 Panel
The 2020 Panel of judges for the 82nd Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration will have no trouble finding the center ring. The five judges – Rollie Beard, Ross Campbell, Mike Hilley, Sam Sorrell and Leigh Stuart – have a combined 20 years of experience as Celebration judges. The show is scheduled for August 26 through September 5 with day shows in Calsonic Arena and evening performances in Maverick Arena.

The year has seen many changes in the world due to the COVID-19 virus. The Walking Horse industry has been no different than any other group. To guard against losing a judge to the virus, for the first time ever, two alternates – Chris Bobo and Paul Robbins – have been named.

Bobo has previously judged the Celebration in 2012, 2016 and 2017. Robbins judged the 2014 Celebration. The Celebration is affiliated with the SHOW-HIO, which is owned by the Celebration. Judges are selected from the list of AAA licensed judges from SHOW HIO. There were 20 AAA judges who offered their services to the Celebration this year.

Rollie Beard
Beard is truly the veteran as he is set to judge his ninth Celebration. Beard, from Lewisburg, Tennessee, last judged the Celebration in 2014. He made his Celebration judging debut in 1988 and was asked to return in 1994, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2013.

“It is a big honor to judge the Celebration since they always have a great pool of judges to choose from,” Beard said. “It is always exciting to be one of the five.

“You have a front row seat to see the greatest horses this industry has to off er. It’s awesome.” Beard has judged most of the major shows in the walking horse industry. Earlier this year he judged the Columbia Spring Jubilee. In 2019 he was busy marking the cards at the Spring Fun Show, the Money Tree Classic and the North Carolina Championships.

Sam Sorrell
Sorrell is close behind Beard in terms of Celebration judging experience. This will be the seventh time Sorrell, from Lexington, Kentucky, has made decisions on Celebration winners. Sorrell has previously judged the Celebration in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2015, 2016 and 2018.

“People don’t realize how much of a challenge it is and that is why I like it so much,” Sorrell said. “It is really a lot of work. I am as excited about doing it this year as I was the very fi rst time in 2005.

“When you walk out on the grass in that big arena for the first time as a judge it will take your breath. It is really like that every night. You never lose that excitement.”

Sorrell brings a wide range of experience in the industry. He has been a rider, a trainer, an owner and a breeder. He knows firsthand what a Celebration ribbon means to a rider regardless of the color.

“It is your duty to watch every horse that comes before you,” Sorrell said. “The challenge is to make sure you give every horse your undivided attention. You have these big classes full of the best horses we have in our breed. You really have to concentrate.”

Sorrell’s first Celebration ribbon in 1979 was a seventh place.

“It was the greatest thing that ever was for me,” Sorrell said. “When you understand the importance of all 10 places you want to do your best to make sure you do the best you can in judging the horses. You have to be focused in on each class.”

Like Beard, he has judged his share of other major shows, including the Money Tree Classic this year. In 2005 and 2010 he was a member of the International Show judging panel. 

Leigh Stewart
Stuart is returning for her fi fth Celebration as a judge. Her previous stints were 1997, 2013, 2016 and 2018.
“It is such a prestigious show,” Stuart said. “Every time you are asked it is quite an honor. It is special each time.

“I started judging when I was in college at Western Kentucky in 1979. I was judging collegiately, and I fell in love with it. I still love it.”

She also worked for the Celebration as a judge at the Tunica Fall Classic in 2016 and 2019. In addition, she has experience as a judge at the International Grand Championships in Murfreesboro.

Stuart, from Alvaton, Kentucky, is well-respected for her work in the walking horse industry on many fronts including her assistance in drafting the SHOW rulebook as well as the rule book for the National Horse Show Commission.

“There are a lot of components that make it challenging to judge the Celebration,” Stuart said. “One of the things is there are different divisions with rules that go along with each division.

“It is highly important that I know all the rules of the different divisions, so they are judged appropriately. I am a stickler for the rules.”

Mike Hilley
Hilley, from Shelbyville, Tennessee, adds some local flavor to the judging panel. This is his second stint as a Celebration judge, having previously served in 2018.

“I learned a lot the first time,” Hilley said. “The competition is so close in a lot of those classes. You will have five or six horses capable of winning a class. You are trying to watch them, but you also have to try to watch everybody because they all paid an entry fee and deserve a look.

“The more competition you have means you have more responsibility as a judge. You have to make up your mind quickly. You are tying 10 horses instead of five at a one-night show or eight in some of the bigger shows. You have to adjust to that as well.”

He was a judge at the Money Tree Classic along with Sorrell in July of this year. He judged the Tunica Fall Classic in 2014 and 2019.

“It is really and truly a big honor that people think enough of you and respect your opinion enough to want you to judge the Celebration,” Hilley said. “You are excited, but at the same time you are humbled because you are going to judge the Celebration.”

Ross Campbell
This will also be the second time Campbell has judged the Celebration. He is reunited with Stuart and Hilley; all three having judged the 2018 Celebration. He also worked with Beard this year as one of the judges at the Columbia Spring Jubilee.

“It is an honor to get asked to judge the Celebration,” Campbell said. “I wasn’t looking to get back so quickly but I am glad that I did. “I enjoy judging. I always wanted to be a Celebration judge.”

Campbell, from Cullman, Alabama, has judged many of the major industry shows including the Tunica Fall Classic, the FAST Spring Showcase, the Gulf Coast Charity Show and the Money Tree Classic.

“I learned what a chore it was the first time I judged the Celebration,” Campbell said. “Overall, the horses are all really good. It is hard to pick one over the other.”