By Mark McGee | Photos by Shane Shiflet

In what has become a tradition, the five-person judging panel for the 84th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is a combination of veterans and newcomers.

Since 2018 the panel has consisted of three experienced Celebration judges and two newcomers. Last year was an exception with four veterans and one first-time Celebration judge.

Sam Sorrell, from Lexington, Kentucky, leads the way in experience. He will be marking the cards for the eighth time. He previously was a judge at the 2005, 2007, 2009, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Celebrations.
Jamie Bradshaw, from Arab, Alabama, is next in line in experience as he will be judging his sixth Celebration. He previously stood in the big oval in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2019. 

Sorrell and Bradshaw are working together again after being part of the 2009 judging panel.

Paul Robbins will be judging the Celebration for the second time. From Shiloh, North Carolina, he also was a judge for the biggest Tennessee Walking Horse Show in the world in 2014. In 2020 he was an alternate as two more judges were added due to the possible loss of a judge due to COVID-19. 

Shelbyville’s John Puckett, along with Amy Trimble from Pulaski, Tennessee, will both be in the center ring for the first time as Celebration judges.

Jamie Bradshaw

Bradshaw was only 29 when he was first selected to be a Celebration judge. He is still the youngest person to ever receive the honor. He was joined in the 2006 judging panel by Wink Groover, Tommy Loid, Huck Moss and Ronnie Spears.

“It was a lot of fun, but I had a really good group that I judged with,” Bradshaw said. “They had a lot of experience.

“I really enjoyed it. It was prestigious to be named.”

Bradshaw worked for Randall Ferguson at Ferguson Farms in Union Grove, Alabama, which is just outside of Arab for 20 years.

When Ferguson decided to sell his horses Bradshaw switched careers. He has eight poultry barns on his 41-acre farm.

“I was 38 years old, and I wanted to do something for myself, so I went and bought a farm,” Bradshaw said. “I am enjoying that right now.”

But, he also still keeps close ties with many of the people he has known in the walking horse business.

“I don’t train horses anymore full-time,” Bradshaw said. “I love the judging part of it because it keeps me connected with a lot of friends.

“It was a big part of my life. It is not just a job. It was who you are. I love walking horses. I love being around it.”

In 2022 he judged two other major industry shows, the Celebration Spring Fun Show and the Money Tree Classic.

Bradshaw is just as excited about his sixth stint as a Celebration judge as he was the first time.

“The horses are always different,” Bradshaw said. “This year there are some classes that stick out in my head. There are going to be some really good horses and good competition.

“There are going to be some fun classes. Entries are up. Classes will be full. I love it. It speaks volumes for our industry.”

Like all judges Bradshaw has definite ideas of what he is looking for in a walking horse.

“Whether it is a performance class or a flat shod class I like a horse that represents what a walking horse is supposed to be,” Bradshaw said. “I want one that shakes his head and walks.

“I want one that can elevate and really stride good behind and not just represent our horse, but to represent the class it is in. That is what I think about anytime I watch a horse in a class.”

Bradshaw jogs to keep in shape and face the physical demands of the show. But, the mental part can be equally as challenging. He knows everyone who doesn’t win a blue is frustrated and he shares their disappointment, but Bradshaw tries to focus on the positives of judging. 

“It is a mixed bag,” Bradshaw said. “I love the feeling that you get when you see someone that has never won a blue ribbon and you see them ride out of the ring with tears in their eyes after winning that first blue.
“That is why you do it. You love to see the excitement it can bring at times.”

One of the additions of interest to Bradshaw is the Two-Year-Old Mares World Grand Championship class.
“Adding the Two-Year-Old Mares World Grand Championship is one of the smartest things the Celebration has done,” Bradshaw said. “It gives a filly a good chance to win a set of roses.”

John Puckett

The first time Puckett judged a Celebration event was in 2018, and it was the Celebration Spring Fun Show. He has an extensive and impressive list of previous shows that he has judged including the North Carolina Championships, Belfast Lions Club, Fayetteville Blue Ribbon, National Trainers’ Show, FAST Spring Showcase and the Money Tree Classic.

This year he was one of the judges at the three-day Christmas In July show along with Robbins.

“It seems like I have judged the other shows two or three times, but never the big one,” Puckett said. “This is going to be an honor. I am looking forward to it. It is something I have always wanted to do.

“I couldn’t do it for a long time because I trained and showed horses professionally for more than 30 years. I was working between 50 and 60 horses. When I slowed down this is something I wanted.”

Puckett stopped training full-time in 2012, but he still works with colts and some horses.

Judging is something he has been interested in since his teenage years.

“I have been judging since I was 17 years old,” Puckett said. “I got my AAA judge’s license when I was 18. I am 55 now. It has been quite a few years.”

He has talked with several people who have judged the show in the past like Sam Sorrell, Jennifer Bingham and Rollie Beard.

“They told me to be sure and wear comfortable shoes,” Puckett said. “The morning shows can be really long. I bought an athletic-type dress shoe by Cole-Haan. They are definitely worth it.”

Puckett has also been working to get in shape for the mental and physical grind of the show with the help of his wife of 26 years, Holly.

“We have been walking three or four miles in the evening,” Puckett said. “She is a jogger. She has me in boot camp. I feel like I am in pretty good shape.”

As a judge he wants to look at the overall picture of a horse.

“I think a world champion not only needs to be exhibiting the right gait, but also the right overall look in the way they are presented,” Puckett said. “I can only judge what I see in front of me. “I try to judge the whole class and not just one pass. I have always tried to do that. It is not as easy as it looks.”

Paul Robbins
Being named to the judging panel for the second time has been twice as nice for Robbins.

“It is huge honor,” Robbins said. “It is the Super Bowl event for our breed. 

“The best of the best show at the Celebration. The first time was great, but being asked back is even better.”
During his first time to judge the Celebration he was impressed by the quality of the horses in the show ring.
“There were great competitive classes,” Robbins said. “You had to make a quick decision to tie the class when you have 10 horses in there who are former world champions.”

Robbins was two months old in 1983 when he attended his first Celebration with his parents. He doesn’t remember anything about that first show, but would soon discover how important the show is to the walking horse industry. The pageantry of the Celebration stands out for him, but when he is judging the only thing he is concerned about is what is happening in front of him. There can be no distractions.

“You have to be 100% mentally and physically capable of doing it,” Robbins said. “You have to stay focused.
“It is pretty tough only having a brief time to look at a horse. It is a challenge, but it is a challenge I look forward to as a judge.”

The Celebration is the show of shows for the walking horse industry. Robbins likes to see a horse that knows it is show time.

“I like a horse that has that `look at me look’ from head to tail,” Robbins said. “He has to be the total package with a great back end and a great front end and shaking his head. I look for a well-rounded show horse. I want the best horse to win each class.”

Robbins is a police officer in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, and has proudly served for the past 18 years. He has attended the Celebration every year since 1997. He doesn’t train horses professionally, but he has competed in the amateur owned and trained division, with two Celebration world championships to his credit.

In 2015 he won the novice class and in 2017 he won the show pleasure class, both times riding Sophisticated. 

“I know how hard it is to get a horse in the ring,” Robbins said. “You work your horse all week to bring him to a horse show. There is also the cost of it. I make sure every horse gets a fair opinion from me.”

In 2021 he was part of the judging panel for the Celebration Fall Classic. This year he worked the Christmas In July show.

“I love the tradition of the Celebration…the prestige,” Robbins said. “We are crowning the world grand champions. 

“I am looking forward to getting to judge one of the best Celebrations they have had in years. I am looking forward to doing it with a great judging panel. It is pretty awesome on that first Thursday night to get to go out there and sit on that grass. It is an awesome feeling.”

Sam Sorrell
Sorrell may be marking the cards for the Celebration for the eighth time, but he is just as excited about this opportunity as he was the first time.

“Absolutely,” Sorrell said. “It is the biggest thrill and honor.

“It is the greatest challenge you can have in judging horse shows. People don’t realize how really difficult it is. These folks have worked hard, and they are riding for world championships. You want to do your best to give your best judgment and attention to the classes. That is what makes it so great.”

It is hard to find a Tennessee Walking Horse Show Sorrell has not judged in his career. This year he judged the FAST Spring Showcase.

He is expecting great things from this year’s Celebration.

“For the first time since 2012 we have more than 2,500 entries,” Sorrel said. “That is wonderful. It is really going to make us work harder.”

The intensity of the level of competition keeps Sorrell on his toes as he sorts out the classes.

“It has been so competitive the last several years,” Sorrell said. “There are so many good horses. A minor, minor mistake can make a horse go from first to third or fourth.

“There are so many horses that are capable of winning a class. You have to scrutinize the class and the horses so hard. The concentration level is so hard. You really have to stay on it as a judge.”

Sorrell doesn’t want to overlook any horse in a class no matter what the talent level.

“Everybody in the class deserves your respect,” Sorrell said. “With big classes you only have a short segment to judge in. You are judging in a short amount of time and a short distance in making a decision on first through 10th.

“It makes it tough. But, that is part of the fun of it and the challenge of it. People don’t realize how hard it is to get a ribbon at the Celebration. It is the best of the best.”

In his experience as a Celebration judge he knows what works best for him to be at the top of his game.
“You have to go in there with a clear mind,” Sorrell said. “You know what type of horse you like. You tie the type of horse you like. That is the best that you can do.

“Judges have different opinions as to who wins a class because there are so many horses that are so closely related in talent. As a judge you have to take a deep breath. You have to watch everything, and you have to make a quick decision.”

Sorrell is looking for riders who know their horses and what they can do in the ring.

“What is great about our breed is the horse can do the gaits in different ways,” Sorrell said. “Some have a showy gait. Some walk more like old time walking horses. What you like is what you go with.

“Riders need to show their horse to the best of its ability. Riding hard means riding smart. You have to know your horse, its best way of going and its best gait. You have to show your horse and not be concerned with what else is in the ring with you.”

Amy Trimble
Trimble has been around Tennessee Walking Horses for most of her life. She remembers attending the Celebration for the first time in 1986. She was six years old.

“I am originally from Kentucky,” Trimble said. “My family had walking and racking horses all through my childhood.”

Trimble has extensive judging experience. She judged the Columbia Spring Jubilee this year and the Celebration Fall Classic in both 2010 and 2021. She shared the judging duties with Robbins in 2021 at the Fall Classic. Her resume also includes the Marshall County Horsemen’s Association Show, the Mississippi Charity Show and the Money Tree Classic.

“I am very excited to judge the Celebration,” Trimble said. “I am looking forward to it. I have always wanted to be a part of the panel.

“I have been in the industry my entire life. It is absolutely an honor to get to do it.”

As one of two first time judges, she has asked people for pointers.

“They say, ‘oh you’ll be fine,’” Trimble said. “At the end of the day they have told me to tie the best horse in front of me.

Trimble has a stressful job working for the State of Tennessee as an intergovernmental child support specialist. She has also been active with the judges committee and helped with the class changes and additions at the Celebration this year.

She has definite ideas of what a rider has to do to get her attention.

“I watch for the rider to ride the horse from the time they come into the ring to the time they leave,” Trimble said. “First impressions are always good.

“I like a rider to sit up and ride their horse. I am looking at the overall presentation of the horse. The first thing I am going to pick out is the back end. I want them to walk hard. I want them to shake.”

The number of horses in each class, the time allotted to tie the class and the quality of the entries all combine to make it difficult for judges.

“You have to make such a quick decision and pick a horse apart when you have three or four really good ones,” Trimble said. “The Celebration attracts that kind of caliber of horse.

“That is why the first impression is important. There are a lot of times you could easily have three or four winners in a class. It will be difficult to look at the little things which make a horse tie above another.”