Skip to content

A Profile of the Celebration Judges



Laura Brandon

Laura Moreton Brandon was born in Brookhaven, Miss., to a walking horse family. Her father, David E. Moreton, owned, among many other top horses, the WGC Black Angel. At the tender age of four, Laura’s father passed away and she and her mother moved to Shelbyville, Tenn. Her mother married trainer Toby Green and they lived at the Walking Horse Hotel for a time.

Laura enjoyed showing as a child in amateur classes as there were no juvenile classes available. The classes were large, similar to Celebration classes today. Her first world champion was aboard the mare Go Boy’s Rocket when she was 16. Unheard of today, this juvenile class went through three workouts before she claimed the title. After being crowned Celebration Queen in 1957, Laura turned her attention to her education.

She attended the University of Alabama for a short time, but left to marry her first husband. It was then that she became involved with Saddlebred horses and owned world champion walk-trot mare Melinda Stonewall and Nashville Cat. The couple then moved to New Jersey, but Laura felt the tug on her heart for walking horses. When she moved to Houston, Texas, her fate was sealed. In 1966 at the Pin Oak Horse Show she married Wallace Brandon. Her dream had come true.

During that first year she claimed the blue ribbon in the Amateur Ladies on Walking Mares class with Mint Julep. The pair made another victory pass claiming top honors in the Owner Amateur Ladies Championship Stake. In 1968 Laura again captured the Owner Amateur Ladies on Geldings class with Moneytree’s Shadow. The next year this duo again claimed the same title. Laura presented Nashville Cat the same year to the Amateur Five-Gaited Stake.

The winner’s circle became a familiar destination for this talented lady. In 1974 Laura claimed the Owner Amateur Stallions class on Delight’s Rock and Roll. Three was a magic number as she endured three workouts, just as she had at 16, and defeated 78 entries. Laura is best known for her association with the great Ebony’s Darling Lady. This dynamic duo won the Four-Year-Old Mares class in 1977 and the Owner Amateur Ladies on Mares class in 1978. But the 1980’s proved to be her decade.

Laura now began to ride plantation horses in addition to her performance mounts. Red Warrior B, under Laura’s direction, won the Park Pleasure preliminary and Stake classes for two years in a row, 1983 and 1984. During the three year period, 1983 to 1985, she again claimed the Celebration blue on Ebony’s Lady K in the Owner Amateur Ladies on Mares class and another Park Pleasure class in 1985 on Mark Of Irish. Laura Brandon has been associated with the greats of the industry, Magic Spell, WC Star Of The Show as a two-year-old, WC Braveheart, WC Millennium Sky, Senator’s Loaded Dice and WC Hickory’s Ambiance. That was quite a record for a remarkable rider.

The walking horse industry recognized Laura’s achievements, when in 1993 she was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Laura did not return to the show ring until 1996 when she made that familiar ride under the spotlight to claim the Plantation Pleasure Two and Three-Year-Old Driving class with Hickory’s Ambiance. That same year her husband, Wallace, won with Braveheart in the Plantation Pleasure Driving class with Laura and her dog, Mr. Bojangles as passengers. Mr. Bojangles became the first dog to show at the Celebration!

The best was yet to come. Laura burst into the 21st century with impressive wins at the Celebration. Silver Sundance Lady carried her to the title in the Lite-Shod Driving class in 2001 and she rode Millennium Sky to the Park Pleasure Three-Year-Old honors in 2002. The story didn’t end there.

Laura Brandon, in addition to her showing achievements, is also acknowledged as a fine judge. In 1979, Laura joined Wallace in center ring at the Celebration to judge the Equitation classes. The Walking Horse Auxiliary Equitation Medal class was implemented with her assistance. The International chose her to judge there twice as well as judging for 25 years at major shows across the country. She has been involved with the Walking Horse Trainers Association and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeder’s and Exhibitor’s Association.

It might seem that her life was full, but she didn’t stop there. Wallace and Laura Brandon have bred and raised fine horses including Command Performance, sire of He’s Puttin’ On The Ritz and I’m In Command, and One Golden Moment and Simoleon’s Snow Flake dam and grand dam of multi-world champion Trip My Trigger. How could she fit anything else into this busy schedule? Well, she just does.

Laura has been a devotee of scuba diving for 20 years. She has participated in dives from Cocoa Island in the Pacific and dived with sharks and manta rays in Indonesia and Tahiti. Recently she went to the Bahamas on a live aboard cruise with the Peter Hughes dive. She loves hiking and adventure traveling and hopes to travel to Papua, New Guinea in the future. Laura built her new home with gourmet cooking in mind. Her love of France and French cuisine was evident as she recounted the number of times she has traveled there. Last year she and Wallace, along with friends, spent time in Paris, drove to Normandy on the Atlantic coast and then on to the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees mountains.

Laura has attended every Celebration since she was 5, except the year that Sun’s Delight won. With such vast knowledge and experience and showing prowess, Laura offers a bit of advise to exhibitors. “I like a pretty animated horse, well-groomed and the rider looking good…a total picture. A horse that walks and shakes it head will get my attention. If it’s not shaking, it’s not walking,” she remarked. “Always be in a spot where you can be seen. Plan your strategy, be smart when you ride and ride your horse. In equitation, I like to see a clear change in gaits.” Her favorite place to stand is at one end where she can see three-fourths of the ring. “A judge one time told me that the last ribbon is just as important so judge everyone as you would judge that first place horse,” Laura added.

Laura Brandon addressed her Celebration duties with her usual fervor. She is going to a health spa and walking six to eight miles a day in preparation. “I want to give it my best and I want to be able to give the exhibitors my full attention,” she said. Spoken like the true professional she is and continues to be.

Mike Carpenter

This year Celebration judge Mike Carpenter will officiate his tenth year with the Celebration. Although walking horses are not his vocation, his involvement with them and his extensive knowledge of the breed join together to provide Carpenter with all that is needed to hold the weighty obligation of crowning the 2003 World Champions and World Grand Champions.

Born in Pulaski, Tenn., and brought up on the famous Milky Way Farm in Giles County, Carpenter was introduced to walking horses by his parents, the late Campbell Carpenter and Monte Claire Carpenter. His father managed MHM Herford Farms and his mother was a sales clerk for the Murray Farm Sales and many other shows and sales in the Middle Tennessee area. It was only natural that he show his walking horses. At the tender age of five, Mike began showing horses and he continued doing so through his high school years.

Upon graduating from Jones High School in Lynnville, Tenn., in 1965, Carpenter pursued an education while putting his activities with walking horses on hold. He attended Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn., where he earned an Associate of Arts degree in business. He then attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing.

After graduation, Carpenter used his education to obtain a position in the sales industry. He is currently a sales representative for Hobbs Equipment Company in Nashville, Tenn. He is a member of the Spring Hill Lions Club, TWHBEA and WHOA.

The Tennessee Walking Horse was in Carpenter’s blood and giving them up just was not in his plan. He quickly found that breeding and raising colts would be his passion. He proudly recounts the horses that he had a part in raising, Pride’s Final Edition, Pride’s Velvet Lady, Invasion’s Rocket, Holiday’s Rocket, Ebony’s C.C., Ebony’s Operator and The Pride Fighter.

This seasoned veteran of the show ring holds a Master Judges license, presiding over such shows as Baton Rouge Dixie Jubilee, the Jackson Mississippi Charity Horse Show, Columbia Horse Show, the Texas State Fair, the Celebration Fun Show, North Carolina State Championship Show and the Georgia Jamboree to name only a few. His inaugural year as a Celebration judge occurred in 1988, the Celebration’s Golden Anniversary.

Carpenter’s memories of past Celebrations were vivid. “When I first saw Generator’s Elegance, I thought she was the most thrilling show horse I had seen,” he said. Other memories include the enthusiasm the spectators displayed for Dark Spirit’s Rebel and the unequaled Bud Dunn. The muddy stake class in 1988 when Doc’s High Tribute won and the first Thursday flood in 1992 when Benny Johnson was writing down numbers and they disappeared from the paper as soon as they were written also made the top of his memorable moments list. He’s Puttin’ on the Ritz was a different kind of horse and as a three-year-old they almost missed him in the line up as he was the last horse to make that famous last pass, Carpenter recalls. He also remember that two years ago, the three-year-old class was spectacular when the Black Night Shade, Johnny Walker Red, Chicago and Miracle at the Ritz performed.

His own experience in 1988 when the first class of the show entered the ring provided one of his most vivid memories. “I wanted to run but didn’t know where to go! I thought what have I got myself into? This is an awesome responsibility. But I settled down after that and enjoyed myself. The view from the center ring is so different from the view in the stands.”

What is the judge looking for? That’s the perennial question. How does a judge pick out that special horse from among 30+ horses in the ring? “I look for a focused and open presentation. I look for horses that are within Federal law. I want to see a horse that has an over striding backend and flowing gait, not square and cramped,” Carpenter remarked.

What can a rider do to be noticed by you? Carpenter added, “I like to see a horse on the rail where I can see exactly what he is doing. I want to see correct posture and a professional looking overall appearance. I want to see a rider that is riding and not merely going along for the ride. I like a rider to appear to be ring smart, being aware of everything around them.”

Having attended every Celebration since 1954 when White Star was crowned World Grand Champion, Carpenter has seen many improvements in the Celebration, its classes and the grounds. He recognized the fine job Ron Thomas has done in improving the facilities and financial condition as well as the judge’s pay. He is especially appreciative of the new presentation of classes entering the ring since 2001. The announcer informs the riders of the judge’s intention to have a workout, thereby making the workout a separate class. This, he believes, helps the horses and riders when they calculate their horse’s endurance and the manner in which they will ride to present their mount in the most advantageous way.

Mike Carpenter would like to address the many owners, exhibitors and spectators to this year’s Celebration. “We know you’re coming to enjoy yourself at the Celebration. Relax and enjoy and be aware that we as judges will look at every entry and give our honest opinion on his or her abilities as compared with the other entries in the class.”

Gene “Smokey” Carswell

As the 65th Celebration begins Gene “Smokey” Carswell will enter the big oval for the third time. No stranger to walking horses, he and his wife, Nicole, and their son, Luke Austin, operate a successful breeding farm located in Morehead, Ky. Smokey, who is originally from Valdese, N.C., remembered that his granddaddy always kept horses and mules around. At a young age, Smokey’s parents gave him a pony and his path was clear.

He started working in training barns in high school and later decided to break horses on his own. With an innate love for the walking horse, he furthered his knowledge by attending Middle Tennessee State University in the pre-vet program where he graduated with a degree in Animal Science.

Armed with his degree he moved to Kentucky where he trained for Hobert Potter of Pikeville, Ky., for several years. One of his horses, Copyrite received the blue in the Juvenile 12-24 class with Mr. Potter’s daughter, Paula, in the irons. He was recognized for his knowledge of the walking horse and breeding expertise by Morehead University and a job offer to manage their equine program was accepted. There he had the opportunity to work with many great stallions: Pride Of Merry Gold, Delight’s Double Clutch, Triple Threat and The Super Stock. Although his association with Morehead University continued, he put the experience and training he acquired to good use.

Five years ago, Smokey and Nicole started their own business, Seventh Heaven Farms. Smokey did the breeding and Nicole, an integral part of the business, taught equitation. As Smokey acquired more stallions and serviced more than 250 mares, Nicole took over the training of 12 to 15 horses and taught clinics around the country. They stood Esau by Hacksaw (now deceased), WC Ebony’s Cut Above, Stormy’s John Mack and Gone To Glory.

Starstruck by JFK, Clutch’s Red Raider, She’s A Double Major, I’m Bond James Bond and NY NY are just some of the other notable horses he started and sold or took part in their show ring career. He also worked and rode The Super Stock during his college years.

Smokey’s skills as a horseman, breeder and seasoned judge should well equip him to take on the task at hand, judging the Celebration. “The first year I judged the Celebration, I thought ‘Am I deserving of this, it’s a great responsibility.’” He was amazed at the organization behind the Celebration and their focus on helping the judges with their job. “The Celebration was very professional and always asking how they could help us or improve their services,” he said.

This judge will be looking for a rider who is ring smart and positions themselves to be noticed, a rider who watches ahead and knows what is happening behind. He will watch a rider who can make that “look at me” pass. Proper attire is important, he said. The position of the rider makes all the difference for a balanced horse and all over presentation. A good rider can take an average horse and many times beat the better horse that is not a good-looking package. Be aware of any changes in class or class format, he said.

This happened in 2001 when the announcer gave notice to each class entering the ring as to the judge’s intention to have a workout. “It’s quite a good idea,” Smokey said, “It prepares the riders to present their horse in the best way. They will know how much to make the horse perform rather than wear him out and reduce his performance for the workout. Remember, when the workout begins, it’s a new class,” Smokey added, “Class size does not necessarily determine whether a workout is called, it is determined also by the caliber of horses in that class.”

The criteria for presenting the horse to the judge are simple. He must stride well and have a headshake because that is the standard for the breed; that’s what makes a walking horse a walking horse. Consistency will win a class over a horse that enters well and then becomes a different horse later in the class.

Smokey greets the 2003 spectators, exhibitors and trainers with this statement, “It is my honor to judge the 65th annual Celebration, to have been selected by my peers and to crown the best in the industry. I take this responsibility seriously and I assure each one of my intentions to look at and judge each entry to the best of my ability. Enjoy the Celebration and join in the festivities.”

Jamie Hankins

Celebration judge Jamie Hankins is a seasoned veteran of the show ring. As he prepares to judge his fourth Celebration, he will again be joined by Master Judge Mike Carpenter. This year will mark the fourth time they have judged together at the Celebration.

A native of Providence, Ky., Jamie Hankins was born into the walking horse business. His father, Luther Hankins, was a horse trainer and instilled the love of the walking horse into his son. Luther Hankins, now 78, has attended every Celebration. After he attended two years of college Jamie made the decision to move to Louisville, Ky., and join his father. They trained there as a team from 1975 through 1978.

He then moved to Paris, Ky., to Golden Chance Farm where he trained Pride’s Grand Finale to the blue ribbon in the Juvenile 12-14 and then in the championship class with a unanimous decision. He also trained 1990 World Champion Dark Spirit’s Replay, owned by Denzil and Betty Schrader of Indiana. After showing at the Celebration, Mr. Schrader passed away suddenly from a heart attack coming out of the ring. His wife, Betty, continued to show her late husband’s horses and won a Celebration blue in 1992. She made her final show at the Celebration in 1993.

Change was at hand when in 1995 Jamie, his wife Jennifer and their six children bought a farm and began their own training and breeding operation. Jamie and his wife Jennifer have accumulated nine world championships between them. Other great show ring performers were Mike’s My Delight (second to Delights Bummin Around), who Jamie started as a two-year-old, Ebony’s Ideal, Evil’s Ace, Delight Of The Woods, Greater Generator and Major’s Royal Babe to name a few.

Jamie ‘s first experience judging “The Greatest Show On Earth” came in 1994; the year Generator’s Armed and Dangerous won the World Grand Championship. “It was a big responsibility and honor to be selected by my peers,” Jamie reflected.

When asked about memorable Celebration moments, Hankins quickly answered that judging the Futurity plantation classes were a challenge when he first accepted his judging assignment. He remembered the crowd’s excitement when Lester’s Memory Maker, a spotted Tennessee Walking Horse brought the crowd to its feet. He’s Puttin’ On The Ritz was in his three-year-old year when Billy Gray made his now famous last pass before the judges. The class was nearly called before he lined up. The great Pride’s Clutch and the four year-old amateur win for Generator’s Santana were exciting. Then there were the duels between Major League and Pusher Busting Loose and between The Specialist and Electrifying. All were great moments from legendary performers, he recalled.

When asked about his preferences in horses, Hankins explained that a good backend and flowing motion with a good headshake would catch his eye. His advise to exhibitors was, “Ride to win, not to lose.” He added that you must be seen and position yourself to catch the judge’s eye. You cannot be seen if you are buried in a cluster of horses. Most of all, ride like you want to win, he said.

Jamie Hankins would like to invite everyone to come and enjoy. As a spectator, try to look at every horse and imagine yourself as a judge with a lot of good horses to critique. But most of all enjoy!

Paul Watlington

This year the Celebration center ring will have a new face in the person of Paul Watlington. A veteran of the show ring, a trainer of world champions and a well-versed judge, Watlington will now assume the ultimate position of Celebration judge.

Paul Watlington and his wife, Vicki, have three children, Jessima, Paul II and Kay. Vicki has been a familiar figure by his side as he trains the horses in his care. Married for 15 years, Paul and Vicki have met challenges through the years with a positive attitude and have been a real success story. They now have their barn in Maryville, Tenn. Paul’s immediate family is also involved in the walking horse industry.

Sister Paulette Adkins and her husband, Henry, continue to show their walking horses primarily in Virginia and North Carolina. Another sister Patsy Hutcherson resides in Angier, N.C., and attends the shows.

Watlington has always been involved with the walking horse industry and began his career at the age of 14 in Gretna, Va., under the guidance of Otly Keely. Two years later he assumed a position in the training barn of Dudie Powell at Martinsville, Va. He trained under Benny Johnson of Virginia and Eddie Tuck of North Carolina. His talents did not go unnoticed and he moved to Tennessee to learn from the greats.

While in Tennessee he worked under Charlie Bobo, J.T. Leach, Ralph Hensley, David Landrum, Ramsey Bullington, Sonny Holt and Wallace Brandon. Watlington expressed his gratitude for their teachings, “I always learned something from everyone.” He learned his lessons well.

In 1983 he tied third in the Walking Stallions class with Countdown’s Scorpion. He followed the next year by riding under the spotlight with Coin’s Nugget of Gold in the Three-Year-Old Stallion class. The successful team then finished the 1984 Celebration with a Reserve World Grand Championship in the Three-Year-Old Stallion class. Floodlight and Watlington walked away with reserve in 1986 in the four-year-old class and in 1988 he directed WC Duke’s Timbrooke to a well-earned third place tie in the three-year-old class.

The 1990’s were good years for Watlington. He teamed up with WC Romeo’s Paradise to claim reserve in the 15.2 and under class and the following year tied third with him in the preliminary and championship classes. Now a World Grand Champion, The Lottery showed his talents with Watlington in the irons as they captured reserve in the Two-Year-Old Stallion class in 1997. Other talented horses under his guidance were Pride’s Super Sonic, Eb’s Bold Design, multi-world champion Pretty Please, Centennial Delight, Final’s Eb Tide and Generator’s Fantasia.

That’s quite a resume for this year’s newest judge. His enthusiasm is evident when he expresses his thought about this Celebration. “It will be great to see horses I haven’t seen before and I look forward to seeing the Celebration work from the inside.” Watlington’s mother, Sallye, now 92, resides in Lynchburg, Va. He sought her sage advice. She adamantly told him to judge the horse and show no favoritism.

What will this new judge look for in the horses that are presented to him? Watlington offered his opinion, “Horses must have a change in gait, hold their head up and shake. They should be walking all over and show themselves and have a show horse way-ears up, listening. The presence must be there.”

The advise to exhibitors reflects the judge’s overall feelings. Riders, he said, “be seen and show your horse at a proper gait. You must look ahead and behind and not interfere with another exhibitor. You must show smart. A rider’s posture matters to a judge and stirrups should be the correct length to prevent spurs from be hitting the horse’s stifles.”

Paul Watlington expressed his feeling that the greatest honor a judge can receive is to be called to judge the Celebration. “I’m not sure it has hit me yet, but I’m thankful for the experienced judges I’ll be working with and I feel confident that I will do the best job possible.”

To the spectators of this Celebration he said, “I still get excited about coming to the Celebration, from the time the first horse enters the ring until the last pass. I hope you will feel that same excitement. This is really the greatest show on earth and you and I are a part of it. There is so much more to the Celebration than judging and much goes on behind the scenes to make it the show it is today. Ask those around you or come to the Celebration office and the friendly people there will be very helpful.”

The Celebration has chosen well and Paul Watlington will undoubtedly rise to the challenge.

More Stories

  • Latest Issue September 24 18

    Read More
  • A Mighty Strong Finish

    Going into the coveted World Grand Championship class Saturday night, Sept. 1, the field was somewhat wide-open for contenders riding for the biggest prize of the show. The preliminaries had given several horses a chance to shine, a few surprises emerged, and the judges were spread out with their opinions throughout the week, as was the crowd, demonstrating stiff competition. Read More
  • Oxford, NC show rescheduled

    North Carolina's PPWHANC Show scheduled for Oxford,N.C. on September 15th has been rescheduled; the new show date is September 29th with the same class schedule as previously presented.  Read More
  • #900 never to return to Celebration competition

    At the 79th anniversary of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, Bill Callaway and Gen’s Black Maverick rode into the ring on the last Saturday night to a roar of applause and cheering, and they exited the ring in the same fashion as they claimed the title of 2017 Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion... Read More
  • Obituary – Pat Kirk

    Pat Kirk, 89, of Purdy, Missouri entered into eternal rest on Tuesday September 11, 2018 while at Cox South Hospital in Springfield, Missouri.  Read More
  • Obituary - Burl Dale

    The Report has recently learned of the sudden passing of Burl Dale on September 18, 2018. A Memorial Service will be held on Saturday, September 22 at 2:00 PM at Camp Yonahnoka in Linville, North Carolina. Read More
  • Allen honored with Evan Lloyd Adamson Humanitarian Award

    The Celebration and the Adamson family are proud to announce the 2018 winner of the Evan Lloyd Adamson award, Connie Allen, director of office operations for The Celebration. Read More
  • Stalls available for hurricane Florence evacuees

    The Celebration will make grounds and stalls available at NO CHARGE for horses evacuating the Carolina’s due to Hurricane Florence. To make arrangements to stall your horses please call 931-684-5915. Read More
  • Nelms becomes first to win all three model titles

    It didn’t take long for Robert Nelms to get noticed at this year’s Celebration. Right out of the gate he was busy leading his winning model entries into the Calsonic for both the morning classes of the show as well as the National Futurity, which serves as the first set of evening classes during Celebration week. Read More
  • Obituary – Noble Stout

    Noble Hooper Stout, Jr., 69, passed away Friday, September 7, 2018 at Cookeville Regional Medical Center. Noble was born in Jackson County on July 12, 1949 to the late Noble Hooper Stout and Mable Carter Stout... Read More