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Nothing compares to Holcomb's love for the horses




By Sadie Fowler

Forty years ago, something happened at the Celebration that’s never happened since. Gayle Holcomb was 15 at the time … She brought the crowd to its feet by capturing the Amateur World Grand Championship (Canter) class aboard Threat’s Tornado, becoming the youngest rider to ever accomplish such a feat. 

This year, anticipation once again lingers about the amateur class at the upcoming 80th Celebration as Gayle Holcomb is set to return for another shot at the same title from four decades ago.

This year, however, she’ll be riding a different contender for the amateur title, and she’s got her game face on — which is nothing unusual for this focused and determined woman who’s never settled for anything but the best in all facets of life. 

“Right now, I ride every night in my dreams as I prepare for the Celebration,” said Holcomb, a resident of Marino del Rey, California, in the days leading up to the show. “When I’m in L.A., it’s all work, but when I get to Shelbyville it will be all horses … I just looked at my master calendar of my schedule during the horse show, and it’s insane.”

Gayle has acquired quite a string of amateur champions since returning to the industry in 2008. Going into this year’s Celebration, she has several contenders showing, and as of press time questions still lingered as to which of those contenders will be the chosen one for the shot at that coveted amateur canter championship, the same one from 40 years ago. 

It all boils down to two of her horses; Border Run or Reservation On Line (RES), her newest acquisition that she purchased from Amanda Odom earlier this summer. Now, just days before the qualifying class, Gayle explains the decision as to who she will show in that division is one that’s well thought out and at the end of the day is up to her trainers.

“There are a lot of factors that go into it,” Gayle said. In speaking about how she came to own RES, Gayle continued, “I have loved this horse for a long time and had been watching him for quite some time … Thankfully, the timing was just right and we were able to purchase him. I’m very excited about the potential in store for him and us as a team.” 

Rest assured, by the time Gayle, who enjoys life in the L.A. fast-lane alongside husband Nick Masters, gets in the saddle come show time, her focus will be on the task at hand. 

Being able to shift gears is something at which Gayle’s become a seasoned pro. She’s had a long and prized career in the music and entertainment business, as an agent of many famous people, having only re-entered the horse industry a decade ago after spending many years away while building that amazing career.

In addition to representing music industry icons from the likes of Alanis Morissette to Barry Manilow and many in between, Gayle has served as an icon herself in the music industry, having served on the board of the Academy of Country Music for eight years (she chaired the board for one of those eight years). She is also a founding board member of the Academy of Country Music’s philanthropic arm, Lifting Lives. In addition, she started the Dianne Holcomb Emergency Relief Fund, which helps people in need within the country music industry.

Gayle has herself won awards within the music industry such as the Crystal Milestone Award, an award that’s also been won by legendary musician Garth Brooks, as well as the prestigious Mae Boren Axton Award, an award named in memory of “The Queen of Nashville” who co-wrote the Elvis Presley hit song Heartbreak Hotel. 

Yes, Gayle is big time when it comes to excelling at her passions in life. She has seen and done it all, and she can attribute many lessons she learned as a horse loving little girl who experienced great success at an early age to what’s helped her succeed at a massive level in business as well. 

“I have amazing friends in both business and in the horse industry,” said Gayle, as she reflected on her journey to success. “All of my clients are incredible people that I consider dear friends … It’s the same in the horse world. I always joke with my friends Eric Lackey and Mike and Lee McGartland about how there’s a dome that comes down when we get to Shelbyville and are able to put business aside and just relax with our horse friends. It’s like, ‘What happens in Shelbyville stays in Shelbyville.’”

Of course, she jokes as she uses that phrase, which is a spin-off of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” just another city where Gayle has spent countless time as the coordinator of many music awards venues, concerts, etc. A quick Google image search of Gayle reveals her power-house reputation in her world, ranging from photos that include Gayle posed with celebrity after celebrity.

But again, when Gayle’s in Shelbyville, the horses become the true celebrities in her world, and it’s a connection that’s rooted back to that record-setting ride 40 years ago. Gayle remembers it as if it were just yesterday. In fact, she never forgot anything about the horse world during her hiatus from the industry. 

Gayle’s journey into the walking horse world began, really, in 1971, when she competed in the juvenile 11 and under division with her first horse, B. Major’s Annie. A native of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Gayle was raised in a family that had a love for the Tennessee Walking Horse. Her grandfather, Lindsay Holcomb, Sr., passed his passion for the sport along to his granddaughter. 

“When Mom and Dad realized I wasn’t going to give up they went to Ronald Mosely and said, ‘Get her a pleasure horse,’” laughed Gayle, saying she soon had a horse named Ace’s Image E. “The next weekend we showed in the 11 and under class in Dobson, North Carolina. It was so competitive back then. We all had to canter, and just to get a ribbon was a big deal. I got 10th and you would have thought we all had won a blue ribbon.”

Before she knew it, alongside her father Lindsay Holcomb, Jr., Gayle was a rising star in the show horse industry in both the Carolina and Middle Tennessee show circuits. 

Shelbyville became Gayle’s second home, and in 1976 she became the owner of Delight’s Shady Lady, a horse that was kept in training with Judy and Joe Martin, where Gayle spent all her summers accumulating memories that will last a lifetime. The Martins will forever hold an incredibly special place in Gayle’s heart as they shaped and influenced her greatly as a young girl. 

The same year her family purchased Delight’s Shady Lady, Gayle won the Juvenile 12-14 Riders World Championship.

Next up, Gayle found another winner in Threat’s Tornado, the horse on which she broke the record by winning the Amateur (Canter) World Grand Championship at 15 years young, in 1978. 

“I’ll never forget that night,” she said. “The grandstands were packed and the fans were cheering. That memory will stay with me for the rest of my life … I was undefeated that year and I’ll never forget that class. Back then, they made you canter, even in the workout. I remember Joe Martin telling Dad she had won it when we cantered the reverse way … I’ll never forget David Howard giving me the front cover of the Walking Horse Report’s Celebration edition that year.”

Gayle showed Threat’s Tornado for several more years, even during the years she attended boarding school in Richmond, Virginia.  

“I said, sure, I’ll go to school there, but the deal is I have to spend summers with Joe and Judy,” she laughed. 

COMING BACK HOME

College and a career in the entertainment business interrupted Gayle’s participation in the horse business, but in 2008 a chance visit to Shelbyville, where she visited old friends during the Celebration that year, had her right back in the game, this time with the support of her husband. She fell back in love with the sport and still remembers calling Nick to tell him she’d found a horse and wanted to get back in the saddle.

“I think Nick said something like, ‘OK, let’s buy the horse and see what happens!’ Neither one of us have looked back,” she said. 

Since her return, she’s been connected to notable greats including He’s Vida Blue and The Golden Sovereign. 

Vida Blue was at one time a contender for the World Grand Championship under Gayle and Nick’s ownership. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago and it’s something Gayle will never truly get over.  

“Virginia (Stewart) and I became good friends at David Landrum’s,” Gayle said. “Virginia had horses with David when his barn closed she took her horses to Chad Williams. I went to Tim Smith. Once day, Virginia called me and said ‘Come out to Chad’s … Vida Blue might be for sale.’”

There, a love affair was formed between Gayle and Vida Blue, a horse she never dreamed she could possibly own.

“Vida Blue was my baby,” she said. “He was unlike any horse I had ever dreamed of … He collicked and we couldn’t save him. I was heartbroken and stayed in bed a week and I’m thankful for all my friends who helped me get through that. Everyone loved that horse … He was a gentle giant. After he passed away, we had him cremated. The day this was done I’ll never forget there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Then all of the sudden a clap of thunder that roared in. I called Nick and said, ‘If that isn’t Vida telling us he’s in Heaven I don’t know what is.’”

In speaking about The Golden Sovereign, another great with which Gayle’s had the honor of showing, Gayle summarized Sovereign as being another off-the charts caliber horse with which she’s grateful to have ridden. Beyond that, she feels blessed to have developed such a close friendship with the horse’s owner, Ms. Virginia and Gene. 

“I had been looking for an amateur horse and David Landrum knew this so he approached Virginia about it,” Gayle said. “We developed a great friendship from there and I now consider her one of my dearest friends.”

Fast forward from her monumental victory from 40 years ago, this year, Gayle’s got a handful of champions competing at the Celebration, including Border Run, Sisko Kid, Ruby Skyline and her newest champion, Reservation On Line.

Regardless of who shows in what division, Gayle is ready for the week, having put her masterful music calendar aside with her eyes set on walking aboard her champions to a different tune.

WHERE WAS GAYLE?

During her college years, Gayle looks back at another memory that she’ll never forget. One day, she was able to ride her famed horse, Threat’s Tornado, at the University of Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt football game. Initially, Gayle thought she’d be living in Knoxville for the long-term as she planned to go to school to be a veterinarian.

She quickly realized, however, that was not the field of interest for her. She craved the big city and felt like another type of career was calling her name, although she didn’t exactly have the details worked out at that point in time. 

She knew she loved people, having developed a great knack of people skills through the years as a result of her horse hobby as well as her father’s influence, with whom she traveled to many board meetings over the years as he led the family’s textile business. 

In time, Gayle had traded in Knoxville for Atlanta, where she landed her associates of arts degree in advertising, and then headed for Nashville, Tennessee. 

A volunteer position led to a permanent position at the Association of Country Music in Nashville where she served as an over-qualified receptionist, thanks to her mentor and horse friend’s mother Mary Alice Goldberg, who helped Gayle land the volunteer position when she couldn’t find a job initially. 

“One day the director looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you go get a real job?’” Gayle said. “Of course, they’d never fire me, but … I started putting feelers out.”

She eventually found a job at the William Morris Agency, where she became a secretary. Three years later she was a club agent where she was working her tail off to the point of one day impressing someone very important. 

“I will never forget a call I got one day from a gentleman who said, ‘Who are you and why are you not handling my account? … To which I replied, ‘They don’t think I’m seasoned enough.’ He then said, ‘Give me 24 hours and that will be changed.’ Twenty-four hours later it was.”

This began the deep-rooted and loving partnership between Gayle and another icon of the entertainment business, Nick Masters, who was living in Los Angeles at the time. Gayle and Nick grew their partnership with a long-distance relationship for a while, commuting back and forth to see each other between Nashville and L.A. until one day Gayle instinctively knew what her next move would be. 

“I was at one of the ACM Awards Shows and we were staying at the Four Seasons and I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to live here one day,’” she said. “I was 26 and just ready … When I got back to Nashville I told my boss I wanted to move, then told my dad. I loved California right away.”

Between Nick’s connections and her own outgoing personality, Gayle was able to quickly make lots of great friends.

“I credit the walking horse industry for helping me succeed there,” she said. “Growing up showing horses, you learn to win and lose … I applied all that to business.”

Today, Gayle and Nick still work hard and play hard, juggling life between Shelbyville and L.A. — and beyond. Earlier this summer, during one of her quick trips to Tennessee for a horse show, a quick glimpse at Gayle’s calendar was enough to overwhelm even the most seasoned of travelers. Italy, San Antonio, back to L.A., then Vegas, followed by Palm Springs, London and Spain, then back to Tennessee, where she’d compete for the Fourth of July shows. 

“When we are in California we are in total business mode,” she said. “Still, all of my clients are incredible people and I consider them friends. Tennessee is business for me, too, but it is also pleasure. We are so grateful to be able to come here and do this.”

A GOLDEN FRIENDSHIP

“Gayle and I first met when Gene and I had horses at Landrum Stables.  She was getting back in to the business and had brought several horses to the Landrum barn.

We hit it off right away and soon became really good friends … almost like sisters, but I older than her. Thankfully, she likes me, even if I am older.

Around that time, I had an accident and had quit riding. I asked Gayle if she would ride Sovereign in some of the amateur classes in my place. She did and did a great job winning numerous blues with him. They got along very well. She loves my Sovereign almost as much as I do and should something happen to me, I am leaving him to her. I am very confident she would take very good and loving care of him.

Gayle and a friend of mine from the New Orleans area joke (I hope) that they are going to buy a food truck. I said great … just don’t ask me to work in it! They can buy all the food trucks they want but I am not working in them. It is kind of a running joke. 

But Gayle is a sincere, down to earth person and really enjoys being back in the industry and the industry is very fortunate to have her active in it again. I love her dearly and appreciate her very, very much.
This is the 40th year since she won the Amateur Class so I am wishing her the very best of luck and will be right there cheering her on to win this year.”

— VIRGINIA STEWART, 
FRIEND AND OWNER OF THE GOLDEN SOVEREIGN


GAYLE AT A GLANCE

From an early age, Gayle learned much about business from her father, a prominent businessman in the textile industry. They are super close, and she credits him for passing along many of his business skills, whether knowingly or not.

“He would take me with him on a lot of trips, and I’d sit with him, and listen, in the board rooms,” she said. 
Through a great foundation, and her own experience in the music industry as an agent to some of the biggest names of all time, Gayle has always lived by a desire to live life to the fullest while working hard.

“If I had to share anything I’ve learned about success with anyone starting out, I guess I’d say the important things are not to be scared, to be true to who you are, and always be thoughtful and honest … Also, I tell my clients who are just starting out, ‘Don’t ever give in, and always remember that, the world we live in now, everything ends up online,” she laughed. 

Taking a more serious turn, Gayle pauses when asked if she has any regrets in life. 

“We all make mistakes in life, but I don’t dwell on regrets,” she said. “I learn from them.” 

Applying all she’s learned over the years and with laser sharp focus on the next task at hand, Gayle Holcomb indeed has her reservation made for this year’s Celebration, and hopefully it’s one that makes another memory that will last a lifetime.

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