By Mark McGee

“Bet you can’t eat just one.” 

This became a classic slogan for Lay’s potato chips back in the 1960s. In the case of well-known Tennessee Walking Horse rider Sister Milligan, the slogan could easily be modified to “bet you can’t own and ride just one, or 10 or 20 or 30 horses.”

Milligan, an attorney from Panama City, Florida, reluctantly admits she has 33 horses in training spread out among several trainers including Jeff Laughlin, Clay Sanderson, Tanner Burks, Nathan Rymer and Jamie Lawrence. Before she enters the 84th Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration for her first class this year, she will have shown in almost 200 classes this show season.

“I don’t do anything halfway,” Milligan said. “I am all consumed or nothing.

“I have a very addictive nature. It’s a sickness. I know what I do is ridiculous. It is stupid financially and timewise. If it is something I love, I just go crazy. It is worth it for me.”

Her husband Tommy was active in watching Sister show through the early years, but she admits he doesn’t attend shows anymore and will not be happy if he reads how many horses she has in training.

She works hard to feed her passion. In her private legal practice, she is known as Martha “Sister” Blackmon Milligan. Prior to entering private practice, she served as an assistant United States attorney in the Northern District in Alabama and in Florida she was an assistant state attorney.

“I specialize in criminal and family law,” Milligan said. “I still help out at the state attorney’s office in Florida.
“I have to work to support my horse habit. I also have a lot of rental houses. I buy houses, renovate them and rent them out in Florida. I also do a little bit of it in Kentucky. I am obsessive about that as well. I guess I could survive if I quit practicing law.”

She is in Bedford County usually every other weekend during the show season. She travels from Panama City in her own private plane.

“I like to support the shows,” Milligan said. “I love the Celebration, but I love the one-night horse shows too. You can pull up a chair and have a drink when you want to. That is where you really get the opportunity to socialize with your friends.

“You have your favorite shows you like to go to. I would never miss Cornersville. I make out my schedule a year in advance. That way I can tell my pilot when we need to be somewhere and when I will be done. The judges in Florida even know when show season is.”

For love of the horse
Milligan was raised on a dairy farm in Eufaula, Alabama, where she still has a farm. She has been around horses all of her life.

“My mother used to be on the hunt team in college,” Milligan said. “My father had horses. My uncle used to have stockyards and he would buy me horses.

“I would play with them and ride them. I won my first horse show when I was five. I had no idea what I was doing. It was on a Shetland pony. When they called my name out, I just sat there. They called me to the center ring to get my ribbon and I asked what do I do now and they told me to take my picture pass. It got in my blood.”

Milligan started riding walking horses as a youngster, but she also rode Saddlebreds.

“That was so long ago,” Milligan said. “I started showing Saddlebreds when I was eight or nine, competing with the big boys. 

“I showed Saddlebreds until I was 12 or 14 years old. I then became interested in boys and became a cheerleader and stopped riding.”

Milligan never showed any of the walking horses purchased by her uncle.

“My uncle would buy me walking horses because they were good riding horses,” she said. “I never showed them. We just had them because they were good riding horses.”

The show horse bug bit her when she attended her first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
“I was fortunate enough to meet Robbie Spiller at a field trial and she asked `why don’t you come to the Celebration?’,” Milligan said. “I thought it was like the Masters (golf tournament). I wanted to go, but I didn’t think you could get tickets.

“Robbie said she had a box. That was back in 1998. I bought a box from her and brought three couples from Panama City. I went to every class. I loved it. My friends were so bored. They wanted to shop or play golf.”

Milligan was impressed by her first Celebration in many ways and her enthusiasm has never waned.

“I was amazed by the amount of horses and the amount of people,” Milligan said. “It was kind of like a football arena.

“Everybody was looking at the horses. There was so much hype and everything was just beautiful.”

She was on the board at Gulf Coast College at the time. The school was always looking for ways to raise money so Milligan suggested a horse show in Panama City.

“I told them I had just come back from a show with 2,500 horses,” Milligan said. “I didn’t know how to run a horse show, but we had a show the next year.”

“I didn’t really know anybody, but Frances Barnes called me. I was handing out little pamphlets for my horse show and was asking for sponsors. Frances said she and her husband Art had a place in Destin and she would like to bring me a check to help sponsor the show. She came to my door. I didn’t know her from Adam’s housecat, and here she gave me $2,500.”

Frances entered a horse at the first Gulf Coast Classic in Panama City. Here she asked Milligan if she would like to ride the horse in a show.

“It was Prime’s High Tribute, and I rode her in the Celebration Fun Show,” Milligan said. “Vicki Self gave me a fifty-cent fourth place ribbon and off I went. I said to myself I can do this.

“Frances asked me if I wanted to buy the mare and I co-owned it with them. I didn’t know people sold their horses. I won the first time down the chute with her in 1999 at the Celebration in the novice class. It messed me up because then I had to start playing with the big girls and boys.”

Milligan calls the broodmares on her farm “yard art.”

“I love to collect them,” Milligan said. “I love to look at them.”

Keeping friends close

Milligan loves to talk, but during a one-night show or the Celebration catching a few moments with her between classes is a challenge. In a one-night show she can show an average of five-to-eight times.

Adjusting to each horse she is riding is a challenge since every horse has a distinctive style.

“Sometimes I miss,” Milligan said. “Sometimes I will have my hands up when I should have them down.

“I show them so much. I do wear an earpiece and it does help. I could ride without an earpiece, but I wouldn’t ride as good.” 

But for Milligan, the hectic show pace she sets hinders her from socializing with her many friends in the horse show industry. For her, those relationships are as important to as her horses. Almost.

“The people in the horse business are my best friends,” Milligan said. “Anytime you have something in common with people you have a camaraderie with them.

“I have made some great, great friends. The relationships you find here you don’t find anywhere else.”
Milligan is popular with young and old in the business. 

She was selected by three-quarters of the youth members of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association as the person “they liked more, respected more and looked up to more.”

She admits she was touched by the voting results. It is a mutual respect between her and the youth.

“You never know who is watching,” Milligan said. “I speak to kids. I speak to old people. I was shocked when Dee Cantrell called me and told me.”

Milligan, like most people in the industry, is counting on the breed attracting more young riders and fans. 

“I like to see the kids show,” Milligan said. “For everybody I bring to watch a horse show, the kids classes are their favorites. They are kind of my favorite classes other than the classes I am in. That is why I like to let children show some of my horses. 

“It seems like we are having more children showing horses. I want them to get hooked. Showing horses is something you can do all of your life.”

Best season ever

Milligan rides into the 84th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration with high hopes, having 19 horses entered. She, along with her contenders are entered in 34 preliminary classes with plans to be back in the world grand championships classes.

Some of her top horses this year are Armed But Kid’N in western park pleasure; Hardtimes With Gin, a two-year-old mares & geldings contender; C’Me Walk And Shake in the amateur four-year-old mares & geldings class; Slim And Hot, another two-year-old amateur horse; Magnificent Gin, a winner this season in three-year-old mares & geldings classes this season and He’s Hot, an amateur three-year-old stallion. Also entered are Dixie Majorette, co-owned with Levi Parker; The American King; It’s High Maintenance; The Lonestar Legend; Risk It; I’m Naomi; Gen’s Not Kid’N; Paroled From Hardtime; I Am Jose Cuervo; Powerstroked By Jose’; Dixie’s Legacy, co-owned with Jackson Laughlin and The Night Crawler and A Stroke Of Jose, co-owned with Jason Joseph.

Most of her horses were bred on her farm in Vernon, Florida, outside of Panama City. It is something she takes special pride in.

“I’ve raised most of the horses I ride,” Milligan said. “I have raised them since they were babies. Winning with them means even more to me.

“My mares are primarily Jose’ mares, but I have one Pusher’s Powerstroke mare. They have obviously been good producers.”

In the 11 days of the Celebration, Milligan could be in the saddle over 50 times! 

It is a grueling schedule. She arrives at one barn around 7 a.m., the next one at 9 a.m. and the final stop at 11 a.m. She goes to eat lunch and take a nap, gets a bath and then gets ready for the nightly shows. She wakes up at 6:30 a.m. each day and goes to bed around 11 p.m.

“I have the best horses I have ever had,” Milligan said. “I am breeding my own show mares which makes a difference. I would rather show a horse I raised. It means so much more. It is neat to have a horse you have raised as a baby go into that ring and win.

“I have never won a set of roses at the Celebration.,” she continued. “I hope I can do it this year.”

Like the quality of the horses she shows, Milligan has also made positive transitions in the ring.

“Sometimes you don’t see yourself as others see you,” Milligan said. “I am a little more timid on a horse now because of my age and there are more physical limitations.

“But, my trainers tell me I am riding better than I ever have. Gosh, I hope so.”

Milligan is a competitor, but where she places in a show is secondary to why she rides.

“It is not about the ribbons,” she said. “It is about the experiences. It truly is.

“I love music. I love horses. I love people. It is a perfect mix for me.”

On the hunt
She is also an avid quail hunter. The two seasons don’t collide and that makes her happy.

“I am just as rabid about hunting as I am walking horses,” Milligan said. “I hunt every weekend with  friends of mine. It is so much fun.”

“I have about 14 hunting dogs and I have raised those too. That’s a lot, but if you like it, you like it. They are English Pointers. I have great dogs.”

The concentration level required for hunting allows her to clear her mind.

“I have several friends of mine I hunt with every Saturday and Sunday,” Milligan said. “It is all day long.”
“You are in the zone. You are watching those dogs and shooting birds. As you are doing it you are socializing at the same time. I am such a people person that it fits me.”

Showing walking horses provides a similar stress relief from her job for a few minutes each weekend.

“It recharges me,” Milligan said. “There is nothing like the experience of being on a horse in a show ring. People don’t get it if they have never experienced it.

“You are in your own world. Nothing else in the world matters and I love it. There is nothing like it.”