The latest edition to the Walking Horse industry is the recently formed Academy Program. Under this program, both youth and adult students have the opportunity to take riding lessons from TWHBEA certified instructors and compete on a level playing field with other academy students.

Sponsored by TWHBEA and WHOA, this exciting new program was created primarily as a way to introduce the performance show horse to a wider market, but it also features opportunities for new riders to experience flat shod horses as well. This diversity is especially important because the two divisions are interdependent upon each other for continued growth and expansion.

The Academy Program offers beginning riders the ability to experience the joys of showing at an affordable cost and encourages them to improve their riding skills. This will produce more competent riders that will perhaps be in the market to purchase a show horse of their own.

Faye Lynn Coffey, one of the top instructors from Murfreesboro, Tenn. expressed her sentiments regarding this program, “It has encouraged my students to set goals and achieve them by working harder. Their skills have increased and become more refined. It’s been great to see their confidence grow! This gives my newer students the same opportunity to show as the more advanced students that they admire.”

All TWHBEA certified instructors have passed both written and oral exams after attending clinics held by TWHBEA. Level I instructors are qualified candidates for teaching riding at a rudimentary level. There are currently three level I clinics scheduled for 2003 and two in 2004.

Level II instructors are qualified for teaching showmanship and equitation at a competitive level. A working knowledge of the show horse, including, but not limited to anatomy, health aid, training techniques, and horse welfare will be required. Certification in CPR is also a requirement at this level, and only one level II clinic will be held each year.

Along with increasing the number of qualified and certified riding instructors, the program hopes to encourage stables to offer lesson programs by explaining the short and long-term financial benefits it can offer. Faye Lynn Coffey, says “[the program] allows students that may never purchase a horse to experience the excitement of competition. That has been extremely positive for my business as my lesson program has increased along with the sale and leasing of show horses.”

Another enthusiastic academy instructor, Liz Gassaway of Shelbyville, Tenn. currently has approximately ten students involved in her Academy Program that range in age from 4 to 40. She adds, “I really love teaching new people about the thrill of riding and showing padded performance horses, and the Academy Program has created a brand new market for the under $25,000 performance show horse.”

Academy students are taught the fundamentals of riding and showing. Students take lessons on “school” horses and are charged an hourly rate. They are eligible to participate in academy shows or academy classes at NHSC sanctioned horse shows, and these events are strictly limited to students taking lessons on school horses.

Life-long Walking Horse exhibitor, Candy Whitehead Green recently began a lesson program at her family’s training barn in Shelbyville, Tenn., Victory Farm. She says, “It’s so fun to see new people learn to love the performance horse and enjoy them as much as we do. I love seeing the smiles on the kids faces after they experience the thrill of riding a performance horse.”

Although she started her program primarily to reach out to people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience riding Walking Horses, she has seen another wonderful result. “Several of the customers in our barn that own horses but have never ridden now want to learn to ride after watching some of my lessons,” Green shared.

One specific goal of the program was the development of a series of winter tournaments for academy students. These tournaments are scheduled in any given geographic area where three or more instructors are located. These instructors must offer programs that include both performance show horses and flat shod horses.

The first TWHBEA winter tournaments held during January and February were a tremendous success. Four shows were held; two in Bowling Green, Ky. and two in Shelbyville, Tenn. This program was developed out of the Performance Show Horse Division of TWHBEA. Both TWHBEA and WHOA have made a strong commitment to promoting academy shows and encouraging NHSC affiliated shows to include academy classes during the regular show season.

These tournaments gave many students the opportunity to ride in the show ring for the very first time. Liz Gassaway shared her feelings about this type of opportunity for her students, “It gave them a chance to show what they’ve learned and practice skills like maneuvering around other horses and reversing with their instructors in the ring for support.”

Perhaps the most impressive fact about the winter tournaments was the fact that the participants showed positive improvement after each event. 11 year old Casey Floyd, son of Mike and Jada Floyd of Columbia, Tenn., was no exception. His instructor, Rollie Beard of Lewisburg, Tenn., was very impressed with his progress since beginning lessons last September.

“He really improved after each show. He just got better and better, and became more interested in riding because of the tournaments. In fact his parents are now looking to buy a horse so that he can move up into the 11 and Under class later this year,” Beard said.

When asked about the need for and success of this program, former Vice President of Performance Show Horse Division for TWHBEA and current Chairperson of the Academy Sub-Committee for the Performance Show Horse Division and WHOA Director, Jane Meredith stated,” The idea for the Academy Program had been tossed around for a couple of years. Many people were aware of the success the Saddlebred industry has had with their Academy Program.”

“The biggest concern of TWHBEA’s Performance Show Horse Committee has been to create ways to increase the performance horse market and educate the public about our horse. We all know how successful the Versatility Program has been for the pleasure horse by introducing it to a new audience. The performance horse division needed something to stimulate growth,” Meredith continued.

“The Novice Program was thought to be the answer, and although quite successful it wasn’t increasing our market share. It’s interesting and positive that both TWHBEA and WHOA were on the same page at the same time and are working together to promote this program.”

Leigh Bennett of Bennett Stables, Bowling Green, KY, has been giving lessons for well over 20 years. Her lesson program is a benchmark for other instructors. When asked about the Winter Tournaments, she replied, “The excitement they have generated for my lesson riders is remarkable. The Winter Tournaments and Academy Classes give the students something to look forward to and a goal to accomplish. Competition is key to keeping them excited about riding.”

“One of my riders, Emily Prentice, who has won each of the 15-17 Winter Tournament Equitation Classes, is now moving into regular competition. Her entire family participated this winter,” Bennett continued. “My husband, Kim, and I have sold several horses because of this program.”

As with all new endeavors, a lot of hard work from many volunteers has contributed to the successful launch of the program. Jane Meredith states, “The hard work and dedication of the instructors, who have for years worked and promoted our breed through lesson programs without accolades from our industry, cannot be underestimated in the success of this program.”

Also instrumental in the prosperity of the tournaments were Roger and Laura Mauney of Midland Equestrian Center in Shelbyville, Tenn. and Charles and Betty Mosley of Highland Stables in Bowling Green, Ky. These individuals generously donated the use of their facilities as the locations for the winter tournaments.

With the addition of 26 academy classes on Saturday morning during the Trainer’s Show, the future of this program seems unlimited. The academy classes will continue throughout the year culminating in the inaugural Academy Championship to be held in October during the International Grand Championship in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

For more information regarding the Academy Program, please contact Jane Meredith, Chairperson for TWHBEA Academy Subcommittee at 770-518-1914, Joni Jenne’, TWHBEA Youth and Performance Show Horse Coordinator at 800-359-1574, or Mark Taylor, WHOA Director of Sponsorships and Promotions, 615-890-9120.