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Waterfall Farms Builds on Storied History


by Ann Bullard

The slightly rolling country remains green most of the year around. Lost in the mists of time are the Cherokee Indians who hunted this land. Listen carefully. On a windless night you may hear the jingle of bridles, the slap of a rifle-holding scabbard against a saddle. Listen. There’s the trumpet call, bringing the soldiers – brothers all – to fight and die. People credit the limestone base that runs through Bedford County, Tenn., for its lush pastures. Many are stained with the blood of young men wearing blue and gray, fighting for a cause, a land in which they believed.

Like the soldiers, the horses from those by-gone days are lost in history. Early American Saddlebreds, Morgans, Thoroughbreds, Narragansett and Canadian Pacers were the cavalry mounts-of-choice. Listen closely. On a dark and quiet night, you may hear these horses calling to their descendents who roam the pastures along Shelbyville’s Highway 64.

The land lay open for pasture until the late Buddy Hugh built the first barn on the property and opened his Buddy Hugh Stables in the late 1960s. Later Forest King bought the farm and changed its name to Continental Farms. King added a new barn to replace the previous one and brought in such trainers as Albert Lee Roland to man the helm.

In 1976, Joe Tillett Sr. purchased the land for his daughter, Judy, and her husband, Sammy Day. Horses such as 1980 World’s Grand Champion Ebony’s Mountain Man, Pride’s Dark Mist, Sun’s Star Wars, Ebony’s Midnight Bomb, Deal Me Aces, Dan’s Five Star, Bum’s Legend and Black Santana walked the arena. Buddy Kirby and Dude Crowder and eventually John Peels also had their names associated with the farm.

In 1983, Barbara Summers acquired the farm, bringing in Mack Motes as trainer. When Summers moved to Utah, Bob Kilgore became the next owner. Kilgore ran a breeding and sales operation at Continental Farm until it finally, in 1994, William and Sandra Johnson purchased the land, renaming it Waterfall Farms for their facility in Georgia.

The Johnsons were comparative newcomers to the industry when they purchased the land in the mid-1990s. Their introduction to walking horses came when they purchased two pleasure horses in November 1992.

“They made a fast rise after that. On Dec. 7, they purchased Our American Eagle and a mare they renamed She’s Puttin’ On The Ritz, to honor their Ritz-Carlton hotels,” said Waterfall Manager David Williams, explaining that the family who later purchased the mare changed her name to A Gen’s Misty Image. “That mare is the dam of World Champion Image Of Ritz.”

What Williams describes as the Johnsons’ “first major purchases” began in January 1993, when they acquired the stallion, Desert’s Storm Commander, changing his name to He’s Puttin’ On The Ritz. Two months later, they added JFK to their roster of top breeding horses. In his brief show career, JFK suffered but one defeat; he was never beaten at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. Ritz amassed an equally good show ring record, winning the World Grand Championship in 1996 before being retired to stud.

To say Waterfall has changed through the years would be the understatement of the century. The Johnsons acquired numerous adjacent farms, bringing the property to approximately 1,000 acres. Much of it is virtually undisturbed, a sanctuary for wildlife of all kinds.

“It goes back to the second highest point in Bedford County, a spot we call Johnson’s Mountain. The first 89 acres is what houses most of our horses,” Williams said. “On the back part we see fox, deer and probably every species of duck that comes through this flyway.”

Stone fences with iron gates border the property. Cobalt-blue signs with the farm name and pewter-colored walking-horse emblems welcome you. As you drive through the gates, you’ll curve around a carefully-manicured landscaped area, with the American and Tennessee flags waving in the breeze. In late spring and summer, the barn entrance almost is hidden by the trees. Offices, hospitality and guest houses are comparatively recent additions.

“We’ve totally remodeled the front barn, and added new broodmare care facilities,” Williams said, pointing out that there are 200 stalls on the front side of the farm. “Two more barns on the backside give us well over 300 stalls.”

A new, large, indoor riding arena with bleachers enables the farm to host everything from their annual colt preview to horse shows, clinics and other horse-related activities.

The emphasis at Waterfall Farms has changed through the years. Where it was one of the industry’s outstanding training operations, with breeding being part of the package, Waterfall now strictly concentrates on breeding operations. Training horses are sent to various individuals deemed best suited for that horse’s needs.

“We’re getting back to what we’re good at: matching up stallions with mares and getting mares in foal. We breed high-quality stallions to great mares,” Williams said. “Offspring from Waterfall Farms’s stallions have won more world championships than any others out there. We have good stallions to begin with and know their strengths and weaknesses. We match them with mares that complement them. We keep a lot of data about different crosses and have a huge video library of the colts we’ve produced. We’re into analyzing what we get from a certain horse and share that with all our customers.”

A full-time staff of 12 runs year-round operations. “That expands during the summer season when our mare population increases,” Williams explained. “Last year, we bred approximately 1,500 mares either through shipped semen or here at the farm.

“Most of our horse operations are at the farm,” Williams said. “We have state-of-the-art breeding facilities with both research and daily work labs. Two local vets, Dr. Richard Wilhelm and Dr. Krista Gilliam, are on call and check the mares regularly.”

Williams says Waterfall also is concentrating on promoting the Tennessee Walking Horse. Those ideas include making the arena more ‘user friendly’ and available to events of all kinds. The Feb. 23 colt preview will be followed by an Academy Show on March 8. They tentatively have planned a versatility fun day at the farm.

“We’re going to be more open – anything to help the Tennessee Walking Horse,” he said.

The land once sacred to Indian warriors and brothers-in-war is serene now. The horses that roam the bright green fields no longer fear the trumpet or drum, the sound of rifle-fire. And if, on some dark and rainy night, they hear the pounding of racing hooves, the yell of soldiers, they can tell one another – and those unseen – fear no longer. All is well.

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