By Sadie Fowler

She was the kind of lady you noticed whenever you walked in a room. Bright, happy, quirky, fun, generous and kind — those are just a quick few top of mind words that serve as common denominators as the Tennessee Walking Horse industry describes one of its own, Kathy Zeis, who sadly passed away Tuesday, Sept. 24 at the age of 73 after a brief illness. 

A celebration of life for Kathy, whose formal name was Katherine Peebles Zeis, will take place at 1 p.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church with a gathering to follow, starting at 2 p.m., at the Blue Ribbon Circle on the Celebration grounds in Shelbyville, Tennessee. (Feldhaus Memorial Chapel is assisting the family; click here for a formal obituary). 

One of the harder aspects of this hugely great loss, Kathy passed away after a very brief illness, of which she learned about only a short time before this year’s Celebration. Still, she fought with great strength and dignity until the bitter end, as did her horses — in her honor. While Kathy watched from home, her horses and their special riders made sure Kathy was proud and this was a storyline that served as one of the most emotional highlights of the entire show.

Whether it be her horses, her grand hats, big smile or infectious laugh, Kathy was a charismatic figure in the walking horse world who made a serious impact. Most recently, Kathy was known as the driving force behind FAST, the non-profit organization charged with promoting, preserving and protecting the Tennessee Walking Horse. 

Not only can she be credited as being one of the founders of this important and successful organization, but more importantly, all would agree she served as the wind beneath its wings. She was passionate about fundraising to ensure the breed thrived; she was behind many grants that helped horse shows get started or ones that were struggling to get back on their feet.

"More than 10 years ago, Kathy and I huddled in my conference room over the course of many hours and created FAST, a legacy over which Kathy deserves much credit,” said Kasey Kesselring, president of FAST. “Not only was she instrumental in creating FAST, she dedicated the past 10 years of her life volunteering on behalf of the foundation and for the walking horse industry she loved so much.  

“The fruits of her efforts yielded many positive outcomes for our industry and Kathy found purpose and meaning in that work. Most importantly, Kathy was a dear friend whose friendship I deeply treasured."

In addition to FAST, Kathy contributed in many capacities and in several key positions over the years with various walking horse organizations, including GWHEA and TWHBEA, where it would be hard to count the number of clinics, events and other major projects she spearheaded. To name just a few, Kathy, while serving on TWHBEA’s Executive Board, put horse shows on in Europe and also wrote the SHOW International Rulebook.

As the news of Kathy’s passing spread, her countless friends mourned — some privately and others publicly, with social media being flooded with hundreds of comments that echoed Kesselring’s accurate depiction of Kathy’s impact on the horse industry. 

Kathy was not above doing the grunt work to make sure a good horse show went on to benefit FAST, nor was she below going all glitz and glam for the galas she organized. Through both sweat equity and personal sponsorships of classes at horse shows of all kinds, it was evident that Kathy was fiercely passionate about the breed she loved, which rooted back to her childhood and a sweet horse she met, while visiting her grandparent’s farm in Camden, Tennessee, named Flicka. 

In a 2012 Year In Walking Horses dedication written in honor of Kathy’s dedication to the industry, Kathy described her love for the breed, one she saw as a symbol of American heritage, a national treasure and a significant part of Southern heritage. 

During the interview for that dedication, Kathy lit up as she said her first ride into the Big Oval was one that was filled with great emotion. She said she wanted to make sure that future generations could experience that magical moment, which she cited as reasons for her tireless efforts on behalf of the horse and industry.
While her impact was seen at a leadership level, on a friendship level and everywhere in between, let’s not forget the horses, which served as the number one genuine driving force that fueled her fire. Kathy had several great ones and loved them all; but in recent years she had a few special equine companions that took her to world titles while stacking up among the best of the industry’s elite amateur riders.  

Over the past several years, Kathy accumulated six world grand championships and 21 world championships with an incredible four different horses. Of course you can’t be in the walking horse industry and not know Kathy and her many winning performances with Texas Joe Black, a horse she literally described as her beloved once-in-a-lifetime kind of companion. “Joe” carried Kathy to many great world championship titles, the last being in the Classic Horse class at the 2018 Celebration.

Etta James By TJB, equally as special, won her first world championship in trail pleasure with Kathy in 2014 and several in between before earning the last one — not with Kathy, but certainly for Kathy — in 2019.
Blacklist was the third horse that represented Kathy well at the Celebration on more than one occasion in the pleasure division. 

Perhaps just as much fun for Kathy, she also loved cheering on her horses. She cheered A Pink Floyd and trainer Bill Callaway on to Celebration victories, which they captured in 2015, 2016, and 2017, which was the epitome of A Pink Floyd’s career when he earned the Four-Year-Old World Grand Championship. 

Though the titles were great, make no mistake — Kathy made it clear any chance she had to refer to her horses as her beloved companions. Her love for them was dependent on nothing more than their presence. 
This year’s Celebration was especially meaningful to Kathy and her large camp of cheering fans. While Kathy’s battle was nearing an end, she celebrated their victories as she did any other — with great pride and joy. Several friends rode like heroes to ensure Kathy’s horses shined — and shine they did. 

Many wins came in honor of Kathy inside the Big Oval this year, and they all were special. But there was one in particular that served as one of the show’s overall highlights and that is when Lisa Baum rode Texas Joe Black to a victory that retired a trophy in which Baum donated that trophy in memory of her own beloved horse, Network.

Baum has plenty of her own champions and there’s no telling how many blues she’s one, but anyone who saw the class knew this one had extra meaning on more levels than one as tears flowed down Baum’s face when Texas Joe Black was called out of the lineup as the winner.

“That was truly one of the most important classes at the Celebration,” Baum said. “It was a ride I shall never forget … and an honor to win and hand over the trophy to my friend Kathy.”

Horses, friends, and a loyal devotion to each of those things were big in Kathy’s book, as was her family. A loving mother and wife, Kathy is survived by her husband Steve and their son Zack. 

A native of Memphis, Kathy spent many years in Atlanta but ultimately ended up in Shelbyville, Tennessee, also known as the cradle of the walking horse. It is a place she found peace, solace and joy with her family, friends and equine partners — living happily each and every day until the very end. 

As it goes without saying … Kathy Zeis will no doubt be missed for her friendship, spirit and endless contributions and the Walking Horse Report extends its deepest sympathies to her family and friends during this difficult time.