by Ann Bullard

Growing up in Bristol, Tenn., Mary Beth Blessing rode as most of her neighbors did – over fences. “Too dangerous,” her parents, Herschell and Mary Ann of What A Blessing! Farms, thought. Mary Beth had learned to post and sit a horse as one is supposed to, but her parents decided they would pursue walking horses instead.

“I loved my jumper,” the 15-year-old high school sophomore said. “She was a show horse a lady didn’t want any more. It’s totally different; it’s fun to ride a jumping horse, but Mom and Dad couldn’t handle it. I thought my mom was going to have a conniption every time we showed.”

The jumper is at home as a pleasure mount for Mary Beth. The move into Tennessee Walking Horses is one none of the family ever has regretted.

Actually, walking horses are a logical choice for Mary Beth and her parents. Herschell’s grandfather was “always in the horse business,” he said, “with a 400-acre farm in Virginia.

“As soon as I was able to drive, he had me haul him to horse shows every Saturday night. We enjoyed the Tennessee Walking Horses – he’s the one who got me into it. When Mary Ann and I were married, we bought one,then another,” Herschell said, explaining that their oldest son had ridden until business demands required their stepping back from the horses.

When Mary Beth was 10, her parents’ will prevailed; she began riding with Phil and Mark Snodgrass in Mount Carmel, Tenn. Herschell and Mary Ann credit both for the way Mary Beth sits a horse today. A year after Mary Beth had been riding a plantation horse, Snodgrass put her up on one with pads.

She earned a blue at the Kentucky Celebration. A year later, Snodgrass and her parents teamed her with Gold Commander.

“Mary Beth learned to ride on him,” her father said. “They won numerous blues in east Tennessee and the North Carolina Celebration. He is the perfect mount to teach someone how to ride a padded horse.”

The 16-year-old gelding still was winning amateur-owner specialty classes this season. v “I’ll bury him on this farm,” Herschell said. “He got us back in the walking horse business.”

Currently, the family has “a couple” of stallions, 17 brood mares, and several babies at home. They all work with the youngsters. Herschell and Mary Ann, their son, Ben, and Lori Thomas show the babies in halter. Mary Beth also helps in getting them started.

Onward and upward

It wasn’t long before Mary Beth was ready to take the next step. “We really and truly did a lot of homework,” Herschell said. “We were given several names, but saw Knox [Blackburn] first. He said he wanted a good juvenile rider, someone to take to the next level. And he operates a family-oriented business.”

One visit was all it took – the Blessings joined the Knox Blackburn barn.

“We thought the change might blow up in her face – you never know with teenage girls,” Herschell said.

This first year with Knox was a good one; their first Celebration was more than they ever could have anticipated. On Sunday night, Mary Beth rode Miss Carolina Sky to reserve in the Owner/Amateur Four-Year-Old Mare and Gelding class and she earned her first Celebration blue aboard the striking Prism Sky in the Amateur/Owner Youth Riders 12-14 class.

Making the transition from the Snodgrass’ barn to Knox Blackburn has been an interesting one, according to the teenager. “Knox and I have the weirdest relationship I’ve ever had with a trainer. He doesn’t say anything, just moves his hands and I understand. He talks with his hands.”

The Blessings first brought Miss Carolina Sky to the Tennessee trainer, then began looking for Mary Beth’s next step. In the spring of 2004, Knox helped them select Prism Sky. The first order of business was to geld the young horse Ellen Sale had shown the previous year.

Mary Beth spoke of her world champion, reserve world champion mare and the gelding that brought them into the ‘big-lick’ business. While she enjoys Miss Carolina Sky, Mary Beth said Gold Commander is her true baby. I love that horse; he’s the main reason we got into the business,” she said.

And she spoke of Prism Sky. “He’s a horse that can steal your heart away. At horse shows, things happen; he gets serious, it’s hard for him to relax. At home he’s like one of the stuffed animals that lay on my bed.”

Knox insisted that Mary Beth wear a radio. “For a man who doesn’t talk a lot to your face, he talks a lot around the whole ring,” she said with a laugh. “He never shuts up. If you think you can feel something before it happens … he knows the horse so well, he can tell me what’s going on before I can even feel it.

The usually laconic Blackburn was complimentary of his young rider. He knew her by reputation, but he’d never seen her show.

In April, the new team headed to Panama City.“I was about as nervous as she was probably,” Knox said, looking back with a smile in his voice. “She had a little trouble there – me with the horse and her riding the horse. It was a learning experience. After that it was top three ribbons everywhere they went - and a world championship.

Knox describes Mary Beth as a “nice young lady and a very good rider-pretty aggressive and very competitive. She has a lot of fun.”

As for her comment that he doesn’t talk much to your face, but rarely hushes on the rail, he laughed and said in his Tennessee drawl, “I try to help as best I can on the radio.”

“Horse show boys don’t like cheerleaders;

Cheerleader boys don’t like horses.”

Yes, Mary Beth has a life away from the horses. In that setting she describes herself as a “giggly teenager” who is a cheerleader for Tennessee High and on the dance team.

“I’ve been doing them both since I started riding – my heart is stuck in two places and can’t let them go,” she said, adding she does some cheering for football but that isn’t as busy as basketball season.

“I do okay in school. Daddy has always told me I go to school for the social aspect, then the schoolwork,” she said, admitting she doesn’t make straight As.

The demands of moving between the cheerleading and the horse show worlds make parts of her ‘normal teenager’ life challenging. “Horse show boys don’t like cheerleaders – and cheerleader boys don’t like horses,” she said with a smile in her voice. “I don’t think Daddy will let me get married until I’m 35 anyway.”

Her dream is to go to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

“My cheerleading coach is there now. Knox is nearby in Franklin. I think God’s plan is for me to go there,” Mary Beth said, quietly emphasizing the faith that is the basis of her and her family’s lives.

As for tomorrow – and the tomorrows after that: Mary Beth has three more seasons to compete as a juvenile. She has become active in the TWHBEA Youth Programs. The roads between Bristol and Franklin were busy this year – rest assured, next will be more of the same.