by Mitzi Oxford

If you are a trainer, rider, owner or a walking horse fan, this is your time! The feeling of excitement, admiration and witnessing history being made isn’t lost on the five distinguished judges for the 85th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

Each performance in every one of the 200 classes, from the Lead Line competition to Fine Harness, Park Pleasure, Aged Stallions and everything in between, is special. The 11 days and nights of performances lead up to that first Saturday night in September when a World Grand Champion will be crowned. Truth be told, the judges are just as excited about champions being made as the fans who fill the stands.

The task at hand may seem daunting, but there are more than 100 years of experience in the walking horse industry between judges Derek Bonner, Leah Boyd, Nathan Clark, David Sisk and Kenny Smith.

You might be doing armchair judging from the grandstands, but their perspective is a bit different. They’re standing in the Big Oval with the focus on each exhibitor and horse that passes by their view.

Like those they are judging, their experience fulfills a dream, it’s the pinnacle of their chosen profession, and just like The Masters at Augusta National, The Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee, is a tradition like no other.

Derek Bonner

Derek Bonner has judged the Celebration four times. For him it’s still exciting and it stems from his early interest in walking horses.

“I had a 16-year-old cousin who had Tennessee Walkers. At the age of six, I went to see him show. He won two classes, and I was hooked,” explained Derek.

When Derek was 14-years-old, his dad bought him a horse and a couple of years later he went to work for David Polk Stables right out of high school. 

“Derek was eager to learn about training horses. He was smart and honest. He is well deserving of the opportunity to judge the Celebration,” said David Polk.

Beyond the reputation he was building in the walking horse business and his experience with Polk, Derek had a dream that he would one day have a stable of his own. 

“After that venture, I met my future wife and together we started Bonner Stables in 1988 in Mooresboro, North Carolina. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living out of it and I’ve won nine world championships.”

Even though it’s the fourth time to judge the Celebration, every single time is engraved in his mind. Derek recalls exactly where he stood for every great performance he has ever judged. How about that for making memories?

“Actually, it’s more exciting each time. I don’t take the honor lightly. The experience is overwhelming. It comes at you when the horses come through the gate. As a judge, you are pretty confined to your area, but I know what I am looking for and that is a good front end, a good back end and a great head shake.”

Derek grew up in the small town of Mayo, South Carolina. It was a mill town started in 1885. Some of his family members worked at the local mills. Eventually the Mayo Mill was bought out by another mill that produced the famous gold satin curtain at Radio City Music Hall.

When the curtain drops on the final night of the largest walking horse show in the world, Derek will have relished the honor of being asked to judge again and again.

Lest we forget, aside from training world champions, Derek also shoes his own horses. It’s inevitable during 200 classes that at least one horse will throw a shoe.

Mike Umberger, better known to most in the horse business as “Red,” will be handling those duties as the Official Farrier for the TWHNC so that Derek can concentrate on picking winners.

“Judging the Celebration is an honor, a diamond and a gold curtain call,” said Derek.

Leah Boyd

Leah Boyd was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to a father who trained walking horses, Billy Boyd. Her brother Tracy worked for Walking Horse Report and TWHBEA, and both he and her other brother Brett have trained horses.

It was inevitable that Leah would eventually end up in the walking horse business, but sometimes the business takes us down different roads. 

“Growing up in the industry, I lived in four different states in four years time including New York, Virginia and Florida, but we ended up back in Middle Tennessee,” Leah explained.

She first sat on a horse at six months old, but her first show was at the ripe old age of nine. Right out of college, she worked for WHOA. She is now a Human Resources Business Partner for an HR company. Leah still enters the ring as an exhibitor every chance she gets. 

This year will be different. This year she will be marking the cards as a judge for the 2023 Celebration.

“It’s hard to put into words what this means to me. I’m thrilled and honored. I believe it’s what anyone in the walking horse industry aspires to accomplish,” said Leah.

Several women have judged the TWHNC since its inception in 1939. The first was Vicki Self in 1982. Since that time others have included Diane Gueck, Judy Martin, Laura Brandon, Dee Dee Sale, Carol Smithson, Connie Waldo, Robbie Spiller, Amy Trimble, Terri Mosley (two times), Carol Wakefield (two times), Leigh Stuart (five times) and Jennifer Bingham (a whopping seven times).

Leah will be the rookie on this year’s panel, making her first appearance in the Big Oval for the Celebration. She has previously judged at the 2022 Spring Fun Show, The International and for the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association at the 2020 Summer Sizzler.

Like her fellow judges she will be looking in front of her position in the ring.

“I will focus on my section of the ring. That’s why you have other judges, which should produce the best outcome.”

The Celebration’s pageantry includes a flag horse and the singing of the National Anthem to kick off each show. Another of Leah’s passions is singing and she has done that for many shows. You can ask anyone from Carrie Underwood to Lady Gaga or Beyonce, they will all tell you the most difficult song to sing is the National Anthem.

“It is a challenge because the range is large, but I look forward to it,” Leah said.

So, it will be another first for the 85th TWHNC, a Celebration judge will be singing the Star-Spangled Banner.

“It’s all a challenge from singing the National Anthem to judging the Celebration, but it’s also the pinnacle for me.”

Nathan Clark

Tradition speaks volumes for Nathan Clark. Hailing from Arab, Alabama, he still lives in the house he grew up in. 
“I went to my first Celebration when I was two weeks old. The year was 1977 and The Super Stock with David Mason won the World Grand Championship,” Nathan said.

Even though he might not have remembered all the details at that age, it was the beginning of a lifelong love of the Tennessee Walking Horse. He’s been to every Celebration since then. If you are counting, that’s 46 years of magical walking horse memories.

Nathan has also been involved in supporting the Arab Summer Classic horse show. But, as a six-time judge of the TWHNC and a five-time judge of the Fun Show, serving in that capacity has established another tradition for him.

“It’s an honor to judge the Celebration. When you walk into that ring, it’s something special. I love it!”
What is Nathan looking for when he is calling a class? Probably the same traits as the other judges and thousands of fans watching from the box seats and grandstands.

“I’m looking for lots of good walking action, lots of rhythm and lots of head shaking. If they aren’t doing that, they’re not doing it right.”

Unlike the fans looking down from the grandstands which surround the Big Oval, judging from the center ring is a much different perspective.

“I’ve got a narrow window, like a bunch of quick snapshots passing in front of me. You can’t look around the entire ring when you are judging.”

Nathan trail rides and breaks colts with his family including wife Anna and sons Frank and John Winston when he isn’t working his other job as a site contractor is Decatur, Alabama. 

In general terms, a contractor is responsible for planning, leading, executing, supervising and inspecting a building construction project. The responsibility extends from the beginning to the end of the project, regardless of its scope.

Based on his experience inside and outside of the showring, Nathan is well suited for the task at hand. From executing a strategy to select the winner of each class, he is building the walking horse champions of the future.

The tradition continues.

David Sisk

The snapshots in the life of David Sisk are filled with unforgettable horse moments. His dad bought the family’s first horse in 1980. David’s first Celebration memory was four years later when Delight Of Pride was crowned World Grand Champion. In 1988, David made his own showring debut.

He grew up smack in the Mule Capital of the World, in Columbia, Tennessee. But, in Middle Tennessee, there’s plenty of room for mule and horse lovers. Often you find both on the same farm. 

David has broodmares and a few other horses. He’s also active in the Maury County Horseman’s Association, which supports various non-profits.

“It’s important to give back to our community, especially scholarships for young people. That involvement often expands the walking horse business outside of Middle Tennessee,” David said.

He and his wife, Kim, are also involved with the sports activities of their own three children, Lainey, Ethan and Brady, including some coaching duties on David’s part for volleyball and baseball.

As active as he is with his kid’s sports, he finds time to judge shows, many shows. David has judged the TWHNC four times, most recently in 2021. He has also served as a judge for the Spring Fun Show, the Celebration Fall Classic, and earlier this year, the National Trainers’ Show.

“At the Celebration, judging might be hard for fans to understand, but there is a position for each judge for each class. Basically, you are looking at a span of about 100 feet. All the judges are probably looking for what I’m looking for, which is a high head, long stride and a horse rolling out of the shoulders and reaching, whether it’s Flat Shod, Park Pleasure or Performance classes.”

David loves judging because he considers it a privilege. When he isn’t in the center ring marking the cards, you might find him sitting in the stands with friends.

“I always ask them who they are tying for seventh place. For the exhibitors who may be picked for the purple ribbon it can mean just as much for them as the blue. It puts everything in perspective.”

David and his wife have been in the winner’s circle several times. But, he understands and appreciates every ribbon from blue to green and every color in between. A win is a win.

Aside from mules and Tennessee Walking Horses, Columbia is acknowledged as the capital of antebellum homes in the state. The city is home to one of the last two surviving residences of James Knox Polk, the 11th President of the United States; the other is the White House.

Columbia is also home to a native son, David Sisk, who once again will be giving back his time when he judges the 85th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and perhaps making some history of his own as he chooses the next world champions.

Kenny Smith

Kenny Smith is a lifelong resident of Manchester, Kentucky, where he met his wife, Renee Finley Smith. During his childhood, Kenny was first introduced to Tennessee Walking Horses through his uncle, Calvin Hacker, who owned and trained horses throughout his life. “I got the bug and started riding and training walking horses in the 1970s, and continue this tradition today,” Kenny said.

His passion for Tennessee Walking Horses is shared with his eldest daughter, Dr. Dalia Smith-Harr, who is a graduate of Auburn University’s vet school. Dr. Smith-Harr has a long history of showing horses, and continues that tradition with her husband, Dr. Shannon Harr. Kenny’s other daughter, Molly Smith, is a CPA in Lexington, Kentucky, and his daughter, Annabelle Holt, is a medical librarian at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, Tennessee.  

Kenny will be judging the Celebration for the second time; his last appearance in center ring was in 2019. He has marked the cards for other major horse shows, including the Alabama Jubilee in 2017 and 2018, the National Trainers’ Show in 2018 and the Spring Fun Show in 2019. According to Kenny, judging the Celebration is a whole different ballgame. “There is nothing else like walking out into the center ring that first night to judge at the world’s largest walking horse show.”

Kenny shared that it’s a huge responsibility and an honor. “It’s very rewarding to know your opinion matters. You have to think quickly on your feet. It seems the horses are going by almost as quickly as a thoroughbred down the final stretch at Churchill Downs. I counted down about five seconds as I saw each horse pass by. Even though your vantage point is limited, with five judges spread around the ring, that is why the system works. It’s balanced and the final decision works itself out.”

For many years, Kenny showed in Kentucky and Tennessee, but he recalls the first time he got a ribbon at the Celebration in 1988. “I still remember what it was like to win a ribbon. I showed horses 20 times before I got my first blue. Perseverance pays off.” Smith says that 10th place ribbon might be just as meaningful as a 1st place ribbon when you are showing at the Celebration or any other arena.  

In the upcoming 85th Annual Celebration, world champions will leave with a floral horseshoe, other exhibitors will leave with a 10th place ribbon, and others will leave empty handed. Remember Kenny Smith’s experience and his words, “Perseverance pays off.”