By Mark McGee | Photos by Shane Shiflet & Sandra Hall 

Four veterans and one rookie will be keeping a watch on the entries of the 83rd annual Tennessee Waking Horse National Celebration slated for August 25-September 4, 2021. David Sisk from Columbia, Tennessee, and Chris Bobo from Shelbyville, Tennessee, have marked the cards at three previous Celebrations. Sisk was a judge for the 2014, 2015 and 2018 Celebrations. Bobo judged the 2012, 2016 and 2017 Celebrations and served as an alternate last year in case one of the judges was infected with the COVID-19 virus.

Derek Bonner, from Moresboro, North Carolina, will be judging his third Celebration with previous service in 2013 and 2015. Brent Grider, from Columbia, Kentucky, is back for his second opportunity to judge The Celebration having been part of the 2012 judging team.

Dale Watts, from Summit, Mississippi, is part of The Celebration judging panel for the first time.

Chris Bobo

Challenge. Bobo says “challenge” is a good word to describe what it is like to judge the Tennessee Walking
Horse National Celebration.

“Whether it is The Celebration, or a one-night show, I accept those challenges,” Bobo said. “I am thankful
and blessed to be able to do it.

“I am thrilled, honored and blessed to be part of the conversation as a Celebration judge. The first time or the fourth time, it is a big task and one of the great accomplishments in my professional career.”

Last year he was an alternate judge prepared to take over if one of the five judges was exposed to COVID-19.

He has judged the Celebration Fun Show three times (2013, 2014 and 2020), Tunica in 2013 and the 2020 Celebration Fall Classic.

In addition to those shows, Bobo’s extensive judging resume includes the Gulf Coast Charity, International Pleasure & Colt Grand Championship, Mississippi Charity, Marshall County, Alabama Jubilee, Columbia Spring Jubilee, Red Carpet Show of the South and the North Carolina Championships. He is also a popular selection for judging many of the Fourth of July shows in Middle Tennessee including Christmas In July this year. The luster of being a part of The Celebration never dims for him.

“I have shown in all divisions – juvenile, amateur and professional,” Bobo said. “I still get chill bumps walking into that arena as I do riding down that chute into the ring.

“It is exciting when the lights come on and the first class is called each evening. It’s a thrill.”

Derek Bonner

Bonner has judged a lot of shows, but he puts The Celebration on a different level.

“It is the world championships,” Bonner said. “There is so much history and prestige behind it. It is so important, and you realize that going in. You are very conscious about being your best and doing your best.”

For Bonner the third time is a charm as a Celebration judge.

“It probably means more to me this time,” Bonner said. “If they ask you once it means they have a good opinion of you. If they ask you twice that tells you that you did a good enough job the first time to get asked again. And if they ask you the third time it pretty well solidifies your reputation as a judge.”

Aside from The Celebration, Bonner was a judge for the Celebration Fun Show in 2014. He was one of the judges for the Columbia Spring Jubilee this year, having previously judged the show in 2012 and 2017. In 2019 he was a judge for the National Trainers’ Show and the FAST Spring Showcase, and has been called upon several times to judge Fourth of July shows.

He and his wife, Debbie, raise Pointer bird dogs for field trials. He stresses judging dogs is very different than judging horses.

“Judging field trial dogs you are looking at two dogs at a time, and comparing them to previous dogs you have seen,” Bonner said. “It is easier than judging 15-to-30 horses in a Celebration class.”

Brent Grider

Grider, a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer, is looking forward to his second stint in The Celebration
center ring.

“You always have to be on your toes,” Grider said. “You have to be able to pick the best of the best.

“It is always an honor and exciting to get to do it. I have always enjoyed judging horses. You get to go to different places and see a variety of horses.”

Grider, like Bonner, has been a frequent judge for the Columbia Spring Jubilee. He worked the show in 2008,
2012, 2015 and 2018. He judged the Kentucky Celebration in 2005 and the Alabama Jubilee in 2006, 2010 and 2013. He has also judged the National Trainers’ Show in 2013, 2015 and 2019. Other shows on his extensive list are Fourth of July shows, the Gulf Coast Charity in 2012, Gallatin in 2016 and Marshall County in 2017.

As a trainer he knows what he wants to see from a walking horse in the show ring.

“I look for conformation,” Grider said. “I like for a horse to cover a lot of ground with free and easy movement.”

David Sisk

The fourth time around for Sisk means just as much to him as the first time.

“It’s a big deal for me to be asked to judge it,” Sisk said. “I take it seriously. It is a great honor and a bigger deal now than it was the first time.”

Sisk also has been involved with other shows under The Celebration banner marking the cards at the Fun
Show in 2018 and Tunica in 2013. His other judging experiences have been at the Gulf Coast Charity, North
Carolina Championships, Alabama Jubilee, Mississippi Charity, National Trainers’ Show, Marshall County, Wartrace and Christmas in July.

“There is a satisfaction in knowing that you are doing it right and they want you to come back and judge the
`grandaddy of them all’,” Sisk said.

“You have to be mentally prepared at all times.

“You are watching every horse that goes in ring. It is a different mindset. You have to be in the zone at all times.”

Dale Watts

Watts is thrilled to be a first-time judge for The Celebration.

“I’m excited,” Watts said. “I am looking forward to the good horses and the good competition.

“I am excited about being with the other judges who have been there and done it. I think the panel is very good. I think it is going to be great.”

Watts was a judge for the Celebration Fun Show earlier this year. He has also judged the Woodbury
Lions Club and Marshall County shows, as well as the Alabama Jubilee, the North Carolina Championships and the FAST Spring Showcase.

He owns and manages Pioneer Stables where he trains Tennessee Walking Horses. His wife, Lucy, and their sons Josh and Jonathan also work at the stables. Watts won seven Class AA State Basketball Championships in eight years at Brookhaven Academy, including a record six straight. Josh is carrying on the Watts coaching tradition at Brookhaven.

Watts is a member of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Coaches Athletic Hall of Fame. He still coaches at Columbia Academy, his fourth school.

He sees a strong similarity between training horses and coaching athletes.

“Every horse has a different attitude and a different talent level,” Watts said. “Every basketball player
has a different attitude and different talent levels.

“Both horses and athletes have strengths and weaknesses. My motto as a coach and a trainer is to not let your weaknesses beat you.