At 27 years old, Justin Harris is one of the youngest to receive the Trainer of the Year Award on the final Saturday night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. His list of accomplishments in the show ring is by far impressive, especially for one so young. However, his entry into the show horse world started out in a humble manner.

Harris’s parents didn’t own any horses, but his grandfather, Paul Harris, raised and trained bird dogs. It was on his grandfather’s pleasure horses Harris had his first riding lessons. It wasn’t until he came across a copy of the Voice magazine in his great-grandmother’s house that Harris became fascinated with the Tennessee Walking Horse and dreamed of becoming a horse trainer.

To help fuel his son’s passion, Randy Harris bought him a broodmare, and eight-year-old Harris went right to work. He transformed that mare into a lite-shod show horse and took her to shows surrounding his hometown of Raleigh, N.C. Yet, Harris craved to learn more.

When he met local walking horse trainer Don Lomimac, Harris was determined to work for the man. After begging his parents to allow him to live with Lomimac at the farm, Harris spent every summer there until his high school graduation.

During that time, Harris’s father built a five-stall barn. Harris quickly filled it with five customer horses. When Harris was 16, his father expanded onto that barn to make 10 stalls. Harris brought in five more horses for training. At the horse shows it wasn’t unusual to find Harris showing in juvenile, amateur and stake classes all on the same night.

“When I was young I loved [He’s Puttin’ On The] Ritz. When Gary [Edwards] rode him to the Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship, I thought he was the greatest thing to ever take a breath of air,” Harris said, talking about his early influences. 

After graduating from high school, Eddie Tuck offered Harris a job. Harris took him up on it and brought his customer horses with him. Eventually, Tuck moved his training operation to Shelbyville, Tenn. Harris had a decision to make: to stay in North Carolina or go to Shelbyville.

“I didn’t tell my parents [I was leaving for Shelbyville] until the day I left,” Harris said. “My grandma gave me a $100 bill and that’s all I had. It was tough at first; I didn’t have a place to live. I spent some time living in my truck.”

While it was difficult at first, Harris learned and improved in his knowledge of training horses. With a big smile and a hard work ethic, he did everything from cleaning stalls to breaking colts. It wasn’t long before his reputation as a horseman grew. He went on to work with Dick Peebles and then Brock Tillman. For the last six years, Harris has called Joe Fleming Stables home. It has been a successful relationship for both established and up and coming trainer who were voted Best Overall Stables in 2008.

In those six years, Harris has earned 14 world championships and three world grand championships. His first “big” win came on Gen On The Run when they claimed the Two-Year-Old World Grand Championship in 2005. They returned the next year to win the Three-Year-Old World Grand Championship. The night before the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association named Harris its Trainer of the Year, he captured the Four-Year-Old World Grand Championship with Lined Walkin. At this year’s Celebration he also picked up reserve world championships with Jose’s Pretty Pusher in the Two-Year-Old Mares Section B and Texas Joe Black in the 15.2 & Under Canter World Grand Championship.

Other horses Harris has ridden or coached to top ribbons include Moonstruck Dollar, Aristotle Onassis, Major Frivolous, Get Ready, José Who, Good Time Freddie, Miss Silver Masterpiece, Dangerous Dollar, Bold Reaction, among many others. 

“I hate to pick a favorite,” Harris said about his past champions. “To me, they’re like my children. You can’t pick a favorite. I treat them all like individuals.” That philosophy may also be a part of Harris’s success in the show ring.

While winning those world grand championships in addition to the other world championships he’s accumulated, Harris says his biggest achievement is being named the Trainer of the Year.

“This is something I’ve always wanted. Since I was a kid, I’ve dreamt of this,” Harris said. “It’s very exciting for me.”

Harris attributes much of his success to Don Lomimac, father-in-law Joe Fleming, his role model and grandfather, Paul Harris, and the rest of his family, including parents Randy and Cecilia Harris and step-mother Evelyn Harris. Harris also credits his wife, Slayden, in his accomplishment on earning Trainer of the Year.

“I really want to thank my wife for keeping me straight,” Harris said. “It’s not easy being married to a horse trainer.”

Married now for five years, Harris and Slayden met while he worked for Tillman. He just started working at his future father-in-law’s farm when they decided to marry. The couple has two children, four-year-old Joe and three-year-old Addison, who also help keep him on the right track and focused on his goals as a horse trainer.

The Walking Horse Trainers’ Association introduced the Trainer of the Year Award in 1968 to recognize excellence in horse trainers who have a positive attitude, are a team player, goal oriented, dedicated and motivated. No better words could be used to describe Justin Harris. Always willing to help out a fellow horseman while striving to better himself and his horses are a few of the qualities that made his peers vote him as their 2009 Trainer of the Year.

Congratulations, Justin!