Skip to content

My Memories of the Walking Horse Report



by Sarah Coffee Burks

I was so very honored when Jeffrey Howard invited me to to reminisce about the early years at the Walking Horse Report. From 1976 to 1984 WHR was my life and I loved every moment of it. I told Jeffrey from the very beginning this article would be partially about Walking Horse Report and partially about the man who created it, David L Howard. 

Like the chips in a kaleidoscope, DLH and the walking horse industry always came together in a never-ending series of amazing patterns, beginning a legacy that will hopefully never end in this newspaper. 
This publication has set standards since its inception as did the man who began it and as does his amazing family. 

It was a hot summer day in 1971 in Shelbyville, Tennessee when a newsprint publication called The Sunday Journal was being offered at public auction. The current owner Jack Short had died. The publication had begun a few years earlier and was edited by a man named Jewell Kearney. Kearny had invited me to write a column for the Journal titled “Coffee Break” when I was in my early teens, and I had gone to this auction with friends Sammy Day, Billy Morgan and the late Cissy Best. 

This is a day I will never forget because it is when I first met David Howard, who would become a major influence in countless lives including mine. 

After graduating UT with a journalism major, DLH had for some time been working at the Voice magazine, then owned by Bruce and Gloria Spencer. He was at the auction with a man who in hindsight I suspect was either Randall Rollins or Bob Gallagher, men who were two of his closest friends and eventual major stockholders. The parent company of WHR, Dabora Inc., arrived at its name from the first two letters in the names of David, Bob, and Randall.

I don’t recall the final bid on the Sunday Journal but I heard DLH declare to his friend “we can do this much better.” That he did and on August 16, 1971 the Walking Horse Report was born. 

That fall is when I began to learn from DLH. As a freshman at MTSU, I began working for him as a correspondent to cover horse shows and the following summer also helping with ad sales for the Blue Ribbon magazine which he was publishing for the TWHNC. 

I remember the first time I met his amazing wife Mary Howard whom he told me was the love of his life and that they had been together since junior high. I remember DLH telling me how much he loved sports journalism which he majored in at his beloved University of Tennessee. He also told me that had he been single he would have pursued a career as a sports reporter but he and Mary (who has the biggest kindest heart I’ve ever known) had been together since they were 12 years old and his life revolved around her and his family.

A few months after graduating from MTSU, DLH hired me as full-time staff for WHR. I don’t think he was really looking to hire someone else at the time, but he knew a couple of other jobs I was pursuing and he didn’t think they were a good fit. 

Back when I went to work for WHR I think the first thing any of us learned was to read upside down very very well. DLH was the most organized person I have ever met and he had lists, daily lists, for each publication and for each employee. Once something was on that list, it was written in stone that it was going to be done. Mornings began with a series of meetings for David and you sat on the other side of that desk trying to read upside down. The things you really really didn’t want to do remained on the lists until they were done no matter what. 

There was also a list for each horse show/event/special edition and we went over that daily in preparation for that week’s edition. DLH taught us to compare sales to what the Report had sold the previous year and this constantly encouraged us to do more and to do it better. For years I privately played a game called beat last year on each show.

During my first year at the WHR, Deedy Decker was also there. In addition to in depth coverage of shows, we had weekly feature articles. We proofed and approved every ad and every article – every page of WHR – in both paste up form and negative form each week. 

That first year at the Report was monumental and showed me exactly what visionary and entrepreneur meant. DLH was both. He asked a lot of his employees, but he never asked anyone to do anything that he couldn’t and wouldn’t do himself. You might not like some of the things he said, but you always knew he was right. 

DLH was an omnipotent presence who was always seeking to do the very best. And that’s what he taught us to do. If you made a mistake he called you on it, and that wasn’t always pretty, but he was also extremely quick to commend and praise a job well done and rewarded that with promotions. 

We continued to do Blue Ribbon magazine and for several years a fun show publication titled Showtime for TWHNC. I remember during my first year at WHR, David began to diversify and opened a Nashville office to begin his second publication - Saddle Horse Report. Before long he moved it to Shelbyville. Soon to follow was Horse World magazine and an aviation sales publication called Trade A Plane. And this happened in just the eight years I was privileged to be a Dabora employee. 

David Howard was involved in every aspect of our industry. He put on informational clinics. We went to trainers’ meetings, breeders’ meetings, owners’ meetings, all of the various auctions in the industry, and award banquets. There were barn storming trips across the country. 

He was always thinking of how to encourage and grow this industry. It was because of his input that the Celebration added an amateur specialty class, then two-, three-, and four-year-old amateur classes. I remember those things as being monumental and giving us so many more classes in which to show our horses. This in turn encouraged the growth of new classes at all shows and I can’t imagine going to a horse show now without such a wide array of classes. 

He never backed down from controversy and also backed up his employees when we were forced to take controversial positions.

My strongest memories are the unity and love the Howard family always reveled in for each other. They were quick to welcome us into their home and into their hearts. They taught you to set goals to aspire to and to then to improve upon. 

Mary has always been involved in the Walking Horse Report and supported the industry and for many years came into the office almost daily. 

Probably my favorite thing in watching DLH interact with his glorious family was when he would go to multi day shows - and there were lots of them - and Christy, Jennifer, and Jeffrey got to take turns going with him. 
One of my favorite and most indelible memories was the year the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association meeting was at Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, Arkansas. I think this was like 1979. I had driven out there the first of the week to cover the show but then Friday night DLH flew in and brought Jeffrey, who was probably about three years old. Saturday morning the only thing that could take Jeffrey‘s eyes off his daddy was being in center ring where horses were being worked. 

He spotted the incomparable pony Mud Slide Slim. As many of you will remember Mud was a tiny pony probably no more than 14 hands and was just about the cutest horse that ever lived. His ears were always up and he always looked like he wanted you to come give him a hug. I didn’t know a child’s eyes could get so big! 

Seeing the effect that Mud had on his son, DLH asked if I would see if Tim Gray would let him meet the pony up close. The answer was of course yes and after petting Mud for a while Tim picked Jeffrey up and put him on the legendary pony’s back. And then the big eyes full of love and pride were those of Jeffrey’s daddy.

DLH was a great businessman and an even greater family man. And what a great family he had! The Howard solidarity of love, friendship, and service has always been a given. As most of you all know I took a more than three-decade absence from the walking horse industry after my dad died in 1984 - I pretty much went missing. Years later in 2005, my late husband Albert and I came to The Celebration to see my lifelong friend Jane Meredith show her Hard Mountain Cash to the Amateur RWGC. Being with David and Mary while at the show was as if not a day had gone by without talking. And that’s how it is with the whole family.

Like David my husband was a diehard University of Tennessee football fan and David invited us to fly up and sit in the Dabora skybox and watch ironically the Tennessee versus Georgia game. He and Albert bonded immediately while I enjoyed swapping stories with Mary and their daughter Jennifer Connelly. And before the game we accompanied David and Mary on a river boat ride put together by Jeffrey and some of his fraternity brothers which played an endless loop of Ol’ Rocky Top. 

A few years after that Jane and Tom Meredith were renewing their wedding vows in Greece where they had met and the three people who came with them were Albert, myself, and Christy Howard. I had not been around Christy since she was in high school but that immediate connection was there. 

I remember she had just started dating a really special guy who was to became her husband - Rick Womack - whom I’d known years previously through the horse business as well as gone to college with. A family of strength and a family of heart. Jeffrey was one of the first people I talked to when I got back in the horse business in the fall of 2017. And this little memory pretty much tells you how much this family means to me.  I worked at WHR from 1976 through 1984. DLH was an amazing boss and mentor - he was very tough, but he was also very fair and very caring. He supported me from endless opportunities (promoting me through the ranks from advertising and editorial assistant to editor in chief) to my overwhelming love for our amazing horse. 

In 1982 a lifetime goal was fulfilled when Senator Delight R&R and I won the stallion preliminary and the 15.2 and Under Amateur WGC. The first person to grab and hug me when I dismounted was David Howard. I’ll never forget how happy he was. 

Fast forward to the 2018 TWHNC which was the first year I’d shown at the Celebration since that 1982 victory. It was like history repeating itself when I got off my Dobie Gray after we were privileged to win the Three-Year-Old Amateur WGC. One of the first people to congratulate me was Jeffrey Howard. He shared my joy the same way his father had and that’s what it’s all about. 

And to me that is what the Howard family and the Walking Horse Report are both all about. They have always been there in great times, and good times, and sad times. And encouraging all of us to share the joy our amazing breed gives us. 

More Stories