By Sadie Fowler | Photography by Shane Shiflet

Chances are, if you’ve met Claudia Gribble in the past, or have even just been around her, you will remember it — she’s not one you can easily forget. The charismatic 18-year-old who is often described as being equal parts spunk and talent. These two traits combined have earned her spot in walking horse history as this year’s youth rider to which the 2019 Year In Walking Horse book is being dedicated.

Claudia is currently a freshman at Northwest Community College in Southaven, Mississippi, where she stays plenty busy balancing her workload at school with time spent pursuing her other passions, which by no surprise includes Tennessee Walking Horses.

A young woman marked by great energy and a tenacious spirit, Claudia is a spunky fireball and will admit she’s a bit head strong, which also makes her a very determined person who does not take no for an answer. “I do not take no for an answer and if it can be done I will find a way to do it,” she said.

In describing her journey into the walking horse world, Claudia explains her love for horses was not anything that came by chance. She is rooted to a large family with deep roots to the industry, with generations of involvement in the breed on both sides of the family.

“I have really had no choice about loving the Tennessee Walking Horse,” said Claudia. “I was born into a family who has deep roots that run deep in the industry. I have a mother who has shown walking horses since she was a child, a father who runs a successful training barn, and another father who used to ride and train walking horses.”

Additionally, Claudia has three sets of great grandparents and grandparents who all were involved in showing horses during the early days of the breed’s history. Add into that two uncles who are both successful farriers, so there’s an endless amount of love and experience that led to Claudia’s love and appreciation for the horse, the walking horse.

Even today, all of Claudia’s grandparents still attend the Celebration every year and can always be seen ringside whenever Claudia is showing. “So, to say I never really had a choice of loving the Tennessee Walking Horse is the truth,” she said.

Claudia started riding on her own when she was six years old. Before then she would ride in the lead line classes with her mother leading her as she proudly rode her horse, Popsicle, a horse they had for many years, until he died on their farm.

Some of Claudia’s other favorite horses over the years include Benelli, Miss Dixie Carter, Kinfoke, I’m Redeemed, Paroled From San Quenton, Olympic’s Godfather and, of course, The Country Lineman, which leads us to the story tale of her juvenile career.

Backing up to the beginning of the 2019 season, Claudia says she had made it her goal to show in as many classes as possible and to do her very best with 2019 being her last year in the juvenile division. “I wanted to go out  with a bang,” she said.

It was a lofty goal for someone who describes her first experience showing as being “terrible.” Claudia laughs as she shares the memory of that first attempt in the ring.

“I actually made a home video on the way to the show about how excited I was and how I was going to win,” she said. “When dad got my horse ready and mom got me dressed I had a bit of stage fright and decided I was not going to show.”

Chrystal Abernathy, her mom, became very upset and told her daughter to get undressed, which Claudia began doing. She took her tie and vest off and would have kept going if it weren’t for her father intervening. He calmed everyone down and talked Claudia into going into the ring. 

“I jumped on the horse and won fourth out of four with no tie or vest on,” she said. “It would be the last time that anyone had to talk me into showing.”

Her first world championship title was in 2013 on I’m Redeemed in the Novice Youth 6-11. She was shocked to death when they called her number.

“I had only showed him once before the Celebration that year so I was really surprised that I had won,” she said.

Trained the duration of her life exclusively by her father and his team, Claudia says it has not always been easy but she also appreciates what she has learned.

“It sometimes is a rough road but I know he only wants the best for me,” she said. “He has taught me
everything I know about a horse. Being a trainer’s daughter has definitely had its perks by providing me the opportunity to ride a variety of horses.

“There is a lot of hard work that goes into training and riding horses and dad has taught me the good and bad of all of it. This past year I also showed for Philip Trimble and his training staff. Although it was a different experience, both trainers coached and encouraged me to do my best and to get the most out of my horse inside the ring.”

The lessons Claudia has learned in the show ring indeed translate over into her real life. Several of them demonstrate her tenacious spirit. Among the lessons, she’s learned to never give up. 

“In the ring you might sometimes feel like you haven’t done your best but you still do good,” she said. “Life is a lot like that. I just try my best in life and in the ring. Sometime it works out good and sometimes it doesn’t. Like with anything you just have to take the good along with the bad.”

Claudia points to several memories when reminiscing about her last juvenile year, but her favorite of all include those from the Celebration.

“I went into the Celebration so very excited to have the opportunity to show Miss Dixie Carter and The Country Lineman,” she said. “I can’t thank Taylor Walters and Robert Deutsch enough for sharing their rides with me.

“I never dreamed I would have such talented horses to show this year. The last Thursday night of the Celebration I won my first set of roses as they called my name out as Youth Pony World Grand Champion on Th e Country Lineman, it is a thrill I will never forget.”

As Claudia looks back over her youth career, she explains that she did not have much of a choice about whether to be involved with horses or not, given she was born into a family so heavily rooted to the industry, but it was by chance that she connected so deeply with them.

“Every weekend we traveled all over the United States, showing and competing,” she said. “It left little time for anything else. I saw the excitement that our customers had at the shows and I wanted in the ring too!”

Although Claudia is content with her breed of choice, if she had to choose another breed it would be Hunter Jumpers, the main event at the Germantown Charity show, where they happen to live close to.

“I have always wanted to jump one of those horses,” she said. “I think it would be totally different and I would need lots of practice but it is something I have always wanted to do.”

While not showing on a Saturday night in May through August, Claudia could still be found on a horse, just not in a show. She loves to take long rides with her trail horse.

“If we were not showing every weekend we would be spending more time in the woods," she said. “I adore my trail horse, Ripley, and have actually owned him since he was a baby. We have spent lots of time together on the trails.”

Even though she is is now a world grand champion, Claudia still has to go to school every day, do homework, and study. And like most girls, she loves to shop.

After school, she often heads to the barn. Her family also owns a cow farm and she often helps with the feeding and caring for them. 

How does an 18-year-old girl manage all of the responsibilities, while trying to keep it all fun?

 “I don’t think you can ever have too many horses,” she said. “We do typically show a lot at the shows and sometimes it gets a little stressful but I try to keep everything organized for my dad so that I can make sure things run smoothly for our team. The most fun for me is helping my dad put horses in the ring for our customers and also showing horses. I also love just hanging out with my friends that I have known for many years.”

Over the course of last year, Claudia’s favorite memories are those tied to the Celebration. “There was nothing like winning a world championship and then coming back to win a world grand championship,” she said. “When I came out of the ring all of my family met me at the entry gate and everyone was so excited for me. It was a feeling I will never forget.

“Also, I had a wonderful memory at the North Carolina Championship this past year. I was able to fly in for the show and win the Youth Show Pleasure class on Benelli. The next night I put on an exhibition with The Country Lineman and many members of my family were able to attend and support me at this show. I will never forget that as well.”

In looking ahead, Claudia’s future is looking bright. She has grown up in the industry and knows its strengths and can already identify challenges, along with possible solutions for them.

“As a child, I used to run around the shows with my friends,” she recalls. “It’s like we are one big family. Everyone looks after each other. One challenge that our industry faces is changing the perception of the industry to the outside world. If people could take the time to come and see these horses and how much enjoyment they bring to kids, adults and families they would have a different view of things.”

In addition to industry representatives taking the initiative to educate folks on the horse, Claudia also says the industry needs more people getting involved and supporting the shows.

“There is no other hobby in the world where kids can come and have some freedom and just be kids,” she said. “I have always traveled and gone to shows with my parents and I wouldn’t change that at all. We have stayed very close by working and showing together and I think others love that too. Even for those who do not show. It is a family friendly event for all ages, young and old.”

Although she admits she doesn’t always agree with them, Claudia has been greatly influenced by her parents, Edgar and Chrystal Abernathy, along with Blair Gribble. She is forever grateful to all of them, and she understands that they will always have her back under any circumstance.

A wise young woman, Claudia says she always strives to do the best she can in life, no matter what the task at hand may be.

“Sometimes I am hesitant to try new things and I have to remind myself that it’s good to step out of my comfort zone and try new things,” she said, adding that hard work and experimentation are important factors in achieving success. “Success doesn’t come easy or come over night.”

While all of that can be applied to regular life or the show ring, Claudia offered a little more specific advice about riding for newcomers to the show ring. “I would tell newcomers to ride every and any horse that they have the opportunity to ride,” she said. “Riding different horses makes you a better rider and each ride teaches you something new.”

Meeting unique people and the experiences that she has had in the horse industry have prepared Claudia for the adulthood that awaits her.

“Being involved with them has just helped me to deal with all types of people that exist in the world,” she said. She believes team work and hard work will get you far in life.

“This past year has been about team work and the success that I had is all thanks to my family, friends and team that stood behind me,” she said.  

With her eyes on the future, Claudia says she is not really sure about what direction she is headed in terms of her career. One thing she knows for sure, however, is that she cannot imagine her life without the walking horse.

“I love everything about them and I love the excitement and thrill of going around the ring especially, when I win,” she said. “I don’t want to ever lose that feeling.