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TN Walking Horse runs deep in Johnson-Cartwright families



By Sadie Fowler

Growing up the youngest of three children, there was never a time that Suzy Cartwright Johnson can recall that horses were not a vital part of her family — with the horse of choice being the smooth-going Tennessee Walking Horse. Centering around it all of course is the Celebration, and Suzy Johnson can remember her first memory vividly.

“My personal first memory of the Celebration, other than the horses, is coming into the arena through a turn-style at gate C and the sights and smells of it all,” she said, fondly reminiscing. “And of course Dewey Arnold on the white flag horse … People were literally everywhere and I always remember the Band Booster booth and how Mr. William Dixon was making cotton candy while his wife Ruby was making real candied apples.”

Starting nearly a century ago with Suzy’s greatgrandfather, George Moody Arnold, walking horses were a way of life and, in one way or another, they have remained a part of life ever since.

In reminiscing about how it all began, Suzy says her great-grandfather had a fondness for horses, especially a nice plantation horse. He passed his love down to his son George and together they enjoyed the horse hobby, which included raising colts, for many years.

“That would have been in the late 1920s and 1930s,” Suzy said. “I remember them always talking about a mare named Maude that was one of their favorites. There were many tales over the years of them having the horses and showing colts at the ‘big horse show.’ My great grandfather always enjoyed going to the Celebration and he held reserve seats in the west grandstand.”

The walking horse continued to impact generations of this family as time went on; Suzy remembers her father Bobby Cartwright Sr. sharing stories about being at the horse show back when it was held on the high school football field in Shelbyville, just down the road from where it now takes place on the Celebration grounds. In fact, his parents, Thomas and Alberta Cartwright, ran a food booth selling hamburgers at the very first Celebration. In later years, her father would show his beloved Leroy in the carriage driving classes at as many local shows as he could as well as the International and the Celebration.

Once again, her father passed his love for the horse down to his children and Suzy vividly recalls she and her siblings enjoying their horses growing up.

“We gathered with lots of friends every Sunday for a trail ride at a predetermined location in the community,” Suzy said. “Back then, trail rides were riding on dirt and gravel roads. For several miles making a loop back to the starting point. There was always a potluck meal to follow with a little picking and grinning for added entertainment.”

Although she says they never owned any horses, Suzy says her family would load up every weekend and go to the nearest walking horse show they could find. She remembers household names being the likes of Steve Hill, Vic Thompson, Mary Ann Leech, Judy Martin, Wallace Brandon and Toby Green. The Cartwrights would follow the circuit all the way through the fall and always attended the show in Montgomery, Alabama.

Married to Keith Johnson, Suzy did what her father and grandfather did before her and passed her love for the horse community on to future generations. Now, six generations have been influenced by the horse, including Moody Arnold, George Arnold, Bobby Cartwright, Suzy and Keith Johnson, Adam and Joel Johnson and Tanner and Tucker Johnson.

“We are excited that our grandchildren are showing and loving the walking horse,” Suzy said. “We are looking forward to Grady Hoss and Weston showing in the future!”

Taking a closer look at Suzy’s life and how her family actually got started in the walking horse business, Suzy points to the early 1980s, when she acquired her first show horse, a Prides Generator colt she had in training with Joe and Preach Fleming. Her show ring debut came at the Trainers’ Show in Decatur, Alabama.

“Showing under the direction of J and P Stables was such a fun time,” Suzy said. “Close friendships developed quickly among those folks. So close, in fact, that Joe and Debbie were in our wedding.”

Keith also loved horses and, after the two married, the snowball effect of the horse really kicked in. Soon enough Keith was showing as well. They always had a horse in training and found themselves showing all the time.

“I took a sabbatical from showing while we were raising our two sons, Adam and Joel,” she said.

But like the others who came before them, Joel and Adam too fell in love with the horses and loved going to shows as soon as they were introduced. Their first horses were Lightfoot’s Candy and Royal Enchanter, thanks to Allan Callaway, who paired the boys with the great mounts, mounts Suzy said were a perfect fit for them. Later on, the boys owned and showed I’m Cruella DeVil and Buford Pusher and both had great success.

In addition to raising boys who also loved the horse industry, Suzy and Keith are local business owners and as a result of both of those things they have been motivated to stay well-connected to the world of walking horses, which maintains its center in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Of course, the friendships they’ve made over the years have been a major factor as well.

The memories the family has made are countless; making it difficult to narrow them down to just a few. Suzy says the ones where she’s watched her husband and children succeed in the show ring rank at the top of her list.

One of Suzy’s favorite memories came when Keith won the Men’s Amateur Show Pleasure class at the 1993 Celebration.

“It was boiling hot in the Calsonic Arena and our son Adam’s class had walked from Thomas School to the show that morning,” she said. “I was sitting on the rail and looked in the distance to see my dad, Bobby Cartwright, sitting at his usual place top row near the door, just in time to see the class with Keith and Doc Hollywood. He was part owner. I made my way to that end of the arena to be with him during the class. It was so exciting to watch Keith ride to the first place award, but even greater to see my dad in his bigger than life personality smile in disbelief that Keith had actually won, because we were definitely the underdogs.”

Later on, Keith and Doc Hollywood won the next year and Keith got his spotlight ride in the Amateur Show Pleasure World Grand Championship.

Another one of Suzy’s favorite memories came when Joel, their youngest son, won the Juvenile 12-14 class aboard his brother’s horse, Royal Enchanter, the horse that also happened to be Suzy’s favorite. A bit down the road, Adam won with his brother’s horse, I’m Cruella DeVil.

“I think of it as a bit funny that they won on each other’s horse and not their own,” Suzy laughed. “She was one of the walkingest little mares on the planet. She made so many great shows with Joel in the saddle under the Mickey McCormick Stables banner.”

Suzy spent many years as cheerleader and enjoyed every bit of it, but of course she was due her own personal success as well, and that came thanks to the help of trainer Mickey McCormick, who Suzy says put every effort he could into finding the perfect horse for her to show.

Mr. Kamikaze was the chosen equine partner for Suzy, and he lived up to his name. Together, he and Suzy paired up for a successful season and wound up winning the Ladies Novice class at the 2007 Celebration and also finished with a reserve world grand championship title that same year.

“The best part of that night was that my daddy was there to see it, while my mama was sitting by the phone at home anxious to hear how I did,” Suzy said.

It was a family goal for all of the Keith Johnson family to win a blue at the Celebration. Keith had won numerous times with Doc Hollywood under the direction of Harrell Jones and with Insomnia under the direction of Mickey McCormick.

“We all can say that we were champions under Mickey’s guidance,” Suzy said. “I believe that is quite a feat to have accomplished. Mickey was an outstanding trainer, and received great support from his wife Dru. Many friends were made while we were customers at McCormick Stables.”

In addition to these fond memories, Suzy says there are many memories with all of the trainers the Johnsons have had, especially with Callaway Stables. They all still remain close to this day.

When a family’s connection to the horse and the Celebration spans as many generations as this family’s it is hard to pick out only a few favorite memories, because they are countless. But after digging deep, Suzy shared a few random memories that come to mind frequently when she takes a trip down memory lane.

“The year of the flood and Betty Sain with Shaker’s Shocker always comes to my mind as well as Billy Gray on Delight’s Bummin’ Around,” Suzy said. “Billy wore a beautiful blueish green suit. Also, my all-time favorite will forever be The Super Stock with David Mason. He rode with such a show ring presence through all three workouts … A show ring moment I’ll never forget was the retirement of Moonglow Jr. It was the most beautiful  retirement ceremony. My best friend, Clara Warren and I just cried our eyes out.”

Other memories include Suzy’s grandmother Cartwight’s shoebox filled with homemade fried peach pies and her mom’s silver stackable canister filled with her famous chicken salad sandwiches, country ham biscuits and chocolate cake.

“All the folks in the south turn knew when those containers showed up there would be plenty of hospitality at the Cartwright boxes sharing their samplings of good southern food,” Suzy laughed.

But the Celebration goes far beyond the simple memories from the show ring, and Suzy easily points to why the legendary horse show holds so much meaning to the Johnson family in terms of pageantry as well.

In short, the Celebration is an exciting time for both Suzy and her family and it always has been. It always will be.

“It means folks coming to town and floods of memories rush over me, sometimes to the point it almost makes me sad,” Suzy said. “My family has always held box seats in the south turn, and of course I think those are the best seats in the house. My grandparents were there every night and also my family.”

Being the little sister, Suzy always got to tag along with her older brothers. She remembers going to the local sawmill and loading up the pickup truck with sawdust, then driving through the showgrounds selling to all of the trainers.

“We thought we were rich!” she laughed. “My dad would always hitch up our pony to the cart and we would drive to town and ride around the showgrounds, making new friends and shooting the breeze.”

Suzy’s parents would rent out all five bedrooms of her childhood home to different horse show visitors and all five of them would stay in one room the whole time. They wouldn’t dream of leaving town because they wanted to go to the show!

“One of those horse show houseguests gave me my first big horse,” Suzy recalled. “He shipped him to me and told me to enjoy. His name was Rhoda Dan. I loved him for a very long time.”

Suzy remembers lying in bed with the windows open, before air conditioners existed, and hearing the organ music bring the event to life.

“There is nothing like being there to see Old Glory carried in on the white horse,” she said. “It stirs a true patriotic emotion down deep.”

All in all, Suzy says the friendships that have blossomed over the years are treasures to her and her family. She considers each person that has crossed her path over the years a friend, and although some have gone on, they still are special to Suzy.

THROUGH THE YEARS

Through the years, the Celebration has experienced many changes, some good and some not. Suzy says most of the changes that have taken place have happened as a result of the world changing as well.

One of the biggest changes or challenges for the Celebration over the years results from declining numbers, whether that be in the show ring or in the stands.

“There is so much to compete for our attention these days as compared to then, when times were slower and more relaxed,” Suzy said. “In years past, families had one car and participated in events as a family. Now, most families have multiple cars and each family member goes in a different direction.”

Also, there is the financial factor that’s different between now and back then. Box seats, back in the day, were $150 or less, a big difference from costs today.

“Unfortunately, the Celebration isn’t as important as it used to be in the eyes of today’s generation,” Suzy said.

As a local business owner and member of the local community as well as horse community, Suzy reflects on what the event is like now, compared to the good old days. For her personally, today, a typical Celebration evening consists of rushing to get home from work and getting there on time to see the flag horse.

“As the night goes on, the family trickles in a few at a time and we all enjoy the show,” she said. “As past exhibitors, we sort of know what and who to look for and we always have our own ideas as to who the winner is … Folks ask me ‘Are you going to the show tonight?’ and my answer is always ‘We have to eat supper somewhere!’”

Above all, Suzy says she wants all four of her grandsons to hold the Celebration and the walking horse industry in high regard.

“I want them to know it is a big deal and I want them to understand its importance to Bedford County,” she said.

LOCAL BUSINESS

The Johnsons want their grandsons to realize the importance of the Celebration and horse industry to the local community and economy, because that is the reality. As a local business owner, Suzy knows this first hand.

“The Celebration is very important,” Suzy said. “I strive to give the best customer service possible. I know how important it is to be able to have their riding suits ready to go when they need them.”

As the owner of the Corner Cleaners, Suzy says she truly enjoys all of the customers who come in for the horse show. She looks forward to seeing everyone and chatting about their family, their shows, and anything else going on in their lives. As tiring as her job can be during those 10 days, she loves her customers dearly.

“Sadly, I feel as though the community doesn’t support the Celebration as it should,” she said. “I understand that folks go on vacation during that time and don’t want to be here to fight through the extra folks in town. I see it as if they are our guests and we should roll out the red carpet and make them feel as welcome as possible. If it weren’t for these horse folks we would sure miss them and their dollars flowing into town.”

Furthermore, Suzy says she wishes the city and county would embrace the Celebration and make it visible that visitors are indeed welcome.

“There should be signs and banners on every bridge and light pole throughout town and special events to light a fire of excitement to let them know we want them,” she said. “Maybe a strategic planning team between the local government and the Celebration to innovate ideas would make it appealing for locals to support the show?”

Also, Suzy understands the relationship works both ways and says perhaps the Celebration could make it more affordable for the average family to own a box seat in order for them to start teaching their children the importance of the show.

“I really don’t have the answer other than to make our community more aware of the show and the importance of coming and supporting the local civic clubs and the Celebration,” she said. “A large percentage of the money made is put right back into the people of Bedford County.”

WOULDN'T TRADE A MEMORY

In summarizing it all, Suzy says she wouldn’t take anything for all the memories she and her family have made over many years of being exhibitors, owners and simply a part of the Celebration community and the great breed of Tennessee Walking Horses.

“I suppose that I just love it too much and feel as though everyone else should feel the same,” she said. “Hopefully as time goes on we can begin to regain the support this great industry deserves.”

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