By Sadie Fowler

(Editor’s Note: The following feature recognizes horses 20 and older that are still showing strong. The Walking Horse Report appreciates the many readers who reached out to share photos and information about their horses for this feature. Only submissions that met necessary requirements — such as photos being a high enough resolution and submitted via email — have been included. As a result of not meeting these requirements or due to page limits, some may have been left out. We recognize that there are many great horses showing today that may not be pictured below.)

One of the most special aspects of the Tennessee Walking Horse is the longevity they demonstrate when it comes to their show ring careers. While in many breeds it’s not unusual for a horse to retire in his mid-teen years, the walking horse is known for standing the test of time. It’s not uncommon to hear of one competing at age 20.

As a salute to some of these tried and true champions, the Walking Horse Report reached out to its readers the last few months in an attempt to collect names and photos of some of our industry’s super classic stars. Featured below is a sample of some owners who shared the success stories of their special horses, ages 20 and older.

Whether it’s a stallion that once competed in the open stake division or an amateur horse that’s carried young riders in various divisions over the years, the one thing we frequently here about these super classic champions is that they mean the world to their owners.

“It is often thought of and asked by many, ‘Where is this horse now?’ or ‘Do you remember when this horse competed here at this show?’” said Allison Thorson, the owner of several super classic champions. “Somehow we often lose track of many of these greats. Many of them are probably outside enjoying the happy days in the pasture, and they have definitely earned that, but many of them, including several I have under my care, are still working hard day after day.”

To name a few, Thorson has Genius Master Plan, Heza Grey Ghost, Vigor’s Dixie Chick all in prime shape in their older age. Whether they are used as her beloved equine partners in a variety of divisions or at the barn serving as lesson horses for the many youngsters just started out in their riding careers, ThorSport Farm is a perfect haven and example of why we often associate the walking horse with timeless longevity.

After spending her entire childhood showing weekend after weekend at shows across the country, Thorson has now made it her mission to give back to the future generations of the walking horse industry. She believes in not only the fun of the sport of showing, but she knows first-hand the benefits the sport of riding Tennessee Walking Horses can teach anyone about many life lessons.

“After being in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry for almost 20 years now, I often think of how many experiences and goals I have been able to accomplish with some of my longtime horses that are still with me to this day,” said Thorson, who bought her first horses, Heza Grey Ghost and Vigor’s Dixie Chick, 20 years ago this coming June. “They, along with Genius Master Plan, were a part of a group of horses that I would travel to horse shows with almost 30 weeks out of the year from March to November across the country.”

Each horse has his own respective division to compete in, his niche, which was determined by each particular horse’s strength. In other words, they were all good at different things and it was important to Thorson that each of her horses were matched with the right division for them.

“By working with a particular horse, I could tell, for example, this horse enjoyed doing patterns on the ground but when I rode him he was always worked up due to his early start in field trials,” she said, explaining how she determined which division was right for each horse. “So, for this horse, I ended up showing him in the showmanship division because that suited him best.”

In speaking about Genius Master Plan, Thorson explains he had a rule book gait and carried her to many blue ribbons in the 11 and under division. But as they both aged, Thorson realized there was still yet another purpose for this horse, beyond the 11 and under performance division.

“I knew as a team we could be competitive each and every time in the equitation division because he had the right mindset and motor for the challenging task of performing both rail work and pattern work,” she said.

Her path with “Dixie” was a little different. A bit more challenging than Master, Thorson says Dixie wasn’t even broke to ride when they purchased her many years ago. As Dixie learned, so did Allison.

“She quickly turned me into the rider I am today, and she still teaches me,” Thorson said. “In fact, I just fell off her yesterday! Dixie not only had the look for all the promotional opportunities that would come for her down the road, but she also had a picturesque gait for the country and trail pleasure divisions in both English and western tack.”

Thorson says that by having Dixie home with her she was able to constantly challenge herself by trying new things with her. Ultimately, all the practice at home paid off as the pair went on to compete and win in super horse competitions where they were required to compete in several different classes — such as an English
rail class, western rail class, barrel racing, showmanship and more — to win the overall competition.

“All in all, these horses have seen me grow from a young girl to a young woman,” Thorson said. “Not only do I still enjoy competing with them on a schedule that fits them best but I also enjoy sharing them with others at exhibitions, meet and greets, promotional tours or even sharing them with other kids through riding lessons.”

Thorson credits the longevity of her horses lives and careers to the meticulous care they receive. They receive excellent nutrition and live a balanced lifestyle that has helped them thrive their entire lives. “Most of all, I listen to them,” she said. “The have always had a balanced life between working at the horse show and being able to be a horse in the pasture as well when they’re home. Horses are a lot like people. The mind is a powerful thing and if kept happy and content, the options are limitless.”

Interestingly, as Thorson reflects on her tried and true champions, she addresses the age-old question of just exactly how a horse that’s 20 years old can go into a ring and compete against horses that are young, fresh and just starting out. She has a simple strategy that explains the answer to that question quite well.

“Although, when I compete there may be another new and young ‘freak’ horse in the class, often, because I know my horses so well, and because they are sharp and consistent, we walk away a blue-ribbon winner,” she said. “After continuously winning the same division or class year after year for over a decade, sometimes it feels like there is a lot of pressure and expectations to hold up to. But, by working hard, the 'luck' often sides with these great horses.”

Thorson wholeheartedly believes that if her older horses were to stop showing or having a job to complete they would be depressed. By staying active, they’ve been able to thrive.

“I wouldn’t be the young woman I am today without these horses giving the once young girl a chance to fulfill her dreams,” she said. “I am very grateful to have these lifelong companions in my journey and encourage others to explore the avenue or options of continuing their horse’s career.”

Though Thorson is only a young woman today, she has already spent a lifetime it seems enjoying her Tennessee Walking Horses, and she’s not alone. Several other walking horse exhibitors shared stories about their beloved champions that have held a special place in their hearts for many years, including Virginia Stewart, owner of The Golden Sovereign.

“We refer to our boy as the quintessential Tennessee Walking Horse,” Stewart said. “He is now 21 years old and he still loves to show. He knows when it is time and his ears go up upon entering the ring, basically as if he’s saying ‘let’s go! I’m ready!’ I personally think, and many people tell me, he has one of the most beautiful canters of all.”

Having earned 79 or 80 blue ribbons, two world grand championships and three world championships, The Golden Sovereign has excelled in both amateur and open competition.

“Gene and I are so proud and thankful to have had the opportunity to own Sovereign,” she said. “We have spoiled him with his carrots and apples. He knows when we show up at the barn that he is going to get some treats, and he doesn’t mind asking for them!”

Just a year older than The Golden Sovereign, Alen’s Sunbeam is another super classic horse that is stilling showing strong at the ripe old age of 22. His proud owner Susan Steffan says she feels lucky to have purchased this special horse in 2013 after his previous owners retired him.

“Sunny,” as he’s called, went to Tibbs Highway Horse Farm after he was sold by his first owners, which is where Steffan found him. At the time, he was 16.

“No one wanted to buy him because they thought he was too old,” she said. “I saw a video of Mike Tibbs riding him and told his wife Leighanne I would buy him without ever seeing or riding him because Mike never rode anything so I knew this horse must have been a good one! Leighanne brought him to a show that weekend and I won every class we went in … He hasn’t stopped since!”

Active in three different breed registries, Sunny has showed at the Celebration, the International and earned more than 100 blue ribbons at some of the best horse shows in the country for Racking and Spotted Saddle Horses. He’s earned 12 world grand championships throughout his career, seven of which came with his current owner.

Though 21 and 22 years old may sound incredible and rare to most familiar with show horses, there’s another Tennessee Walking Horse that’s out there showing that is still older than both of the aforementioned super stars. Royal’s Sparkling Gen, owned by Patti Pollack, is an astonishing 23 years old. “She is still showing and winning classes in California,” Pollack said. “She trail rides on the beach, I give riding lessons on her, and over the years she has served as the first horse many kids have ridden in their show ring debuts. She is definitely the best horse I have ever owned.”

In addition to all these super classic champions, several others have been recognized by their beloved owners in the compilation of this special feature, some of which include Frankie Blue Eyes, Sky Jam, Royal Luck and Pusher’s Redemption. The Walking Horse Report appreciates all who participated in this and looks forward to continuing to see these amazing horses make their marks in the show ring for years to come.