By Sadie Fowler

There’s a first for everything, and change is a good thing, right? Yes, that’s right and that’s also why the 2019 edition of the Year In Walking Horses is being dedicated to not one, but two trainers, and very special trainers at that.

This is the first time in the history of this book’s publication that two trainers hold the space of these pages and to further add to the meaning of this unique nod, the two sharing the pages are a husband and wife team — really, they are the head of a family affair in the horse industry. Better yet, representing both the pleasure and performance sectors of the breed.

In case you haven’t guessed, we are talking about Jennifer and Jamie Hankins. Representing the Bluegrass State, the Hankins were chosen for this honor as a result of their steadfast efforts in capacities ranging from leadership roles, impact and outreach efforts and so many more contributions they’ve made to the walking horse.

While there are many things that have kept both Jennifer and Jamie motivated over the years, both agree it is the show horse quality of the walking horse that serve  as the driving force behind their desire to compete year after year. Quite simply, it’s fun and it’s exciting.

“I definitely like the show horse quality of the walking horse,” she said. “The power and excitement of the performance horse is fun. The all-day smoothness and gentle nature of the pleasure horse is easy.

“There are so many great aspects of the walking horse, but what we love most about our breed is the fact that they are the most perfect horse for the greenest beginner rider or the oldest show ring competitor.”

Jamie and Jennifer Hankins have been married for 36 years and between the two of them they have six children and seven grandchildren. Many in the industry know their daughter Claire Hankins, who does more than her fair share at the family’s stomping grounds, Hankins Stables.

Jamie was born and raised in Providence, Kentucky. His father, Luther Hankins, a walking horse trainer,moved his family to Shelbyville, Kentucky in 1975. As a young boy, he became familiar with many of the trainers and horses by attending mixed breed shows in Louisville.

“Back then, Saddlebreds, Hackneys and Walking horses were all shown together in these mixed breed shows,” Jennifer said. “He won the last Walking Horse championship held at Louisville … Jamie has always had an appreciation for all breeds of horses.”

In 1979 Jamie took a job in Columbia City, Indiana training for Denzil and Betty Schrader. In the fall of 1981, Mrs. Schrader purchased a new Ladies Gelding, Shadow’s Playboy.

Wanting to show her new horse, but also wanting her old horse to win the high point category in the Indiana Show Horse Association Year End Awards, they needed a rider for Mrs. Schrader's old horse. The Schrader's grandson had a classmate he thought we be perfect. Jennifer was that classmate. She came to the stables for a test run – a test run she passed with flying colors. It was here she first met Jamie.

“A few days later, I was in the show ring, showing the first Tennessee Walking Horse that I had ever ridden, placing second to Mrs. Schrader’s new horse,” Jennifer said.

After her first ride, she was invited to show several horses. Eventually, weekly rides turned into daily rides and as they say, the rest is history. However in this case, it had only just begun.

Jennifer got her start like most kids in the horse industry do, with her sister’s hand me down Shetland pony, which she rode from sun up to sun down. Once a little bigger, she got a spotted pony, which was her official first 4-H project.

Her parents saved up and felt lucky when they were able to get her a very well trained pony through 4-H. As a result, she was given the opportunity to try almost every division including western, hunt seat, saddleseat equitation, halter, showmanship and even contesting.

She learned a lot from that one pony and one very important lesson that she keeps in her thoughts even to this day.

“If you have a good horse people are willing to give you extra attention,” she said. “That pony was the reason I was introduced to the Saddlebred world,” she said. “The owner of the local Saddlebred barn would allow me to tag along to many shows, where I learned about grooming and driving and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for horses.”

Later on, upon marrying Jamie, Jennifer says she would ride whatever Jamie did not want to ride. Those were usually the pleasure horses, and back then those were often an after thought.

“Worse yet, shows might only offer a couple of pleasure classes, back when shows were divided by age and gender,” she said. “Pleasure horses back then were simply called plantation pleasure, unlike today, where many divisions exist.”

If a horse was not suitable for the performance division, Jennifer would always give it a try as a pleasure horse, where she felt the most comfortable and knowledgeable.

Those were the early days, and things have changed quite a bit since then; so much so that Jennifer laughs when asked to describe what advice she might offer herself if she could go back 20 years.

It all ties back to the age old question of whether or not she and Jamie would still choose to be trainers if they could go back in time and do it all again.

“We actually have a running joke about it,” she said. "When I married Jamie my dad asked when he was going to get a ‘real job.’ We laugh about that, a lot.” Jennifer says she asks herself every day if she’d choose training again if given the chance to redo her career. Would she tell herself not to pursue her passion because it’s too hard?

“It’s too many hours, not enough financial stability, and the list goes on,” she said. “Then I think what’s more important, money or having a job you love, which allows you to be with your family all the time. How many people can say their kids never had a babysitter? I think my 20-year-old self did OK.”

Jamie echoed Jennifer’s thoughts, confirming he too is happy with his choices and the course of his life that puts both family and horses at the forefront.

While in the earlier years of their marriage Jennifer focused on the pleasure horses and Jamie the performance, as the years went by Jamie taught his wife more about the padded horses. Eventually they began to share training duties on those, but Jennifer still continued to do the majority of the pleasure horses.

Jamie and Jennifer’s partnership is one that has worked well for them and their family — and the horses. As for the horses, it allows them to be able to place each horse where they are best suited.

“It’s even better now, with all the added pleasure divisions,” she said. “With all the added pleasure divisions, we have more options to make each horse a viable show horse.”

Looking back to one of their most monumental times together, it was in 1995 that the Hankins purchased their farm, started breeding a few mares, and again, over the years, that has opened up their business to yet another division, the halter division.

Looking back over a life well lived, the Hankins all agree there are too many great memories to count or determine which ones are the best, but most of them are in some form or fashion tied to the Celebration.

“When you’re 65, there are a lot of memories to look back upon,” Jamie said. “Most are connected to the Celebration. The awe of the Celebration venue itself is hard to describe or top.

“Just off the top of my head I think back to memories like driving around and around a packed barn area  looking at all the people and horses trying to get a chance to talk to some of my idols — Billy Gray, C.A. Bobo and Wink Groover, to name a few.”

The list is long, really long, for Jamie Hankins, but it’s a good one. And if the riders’ names aren’t impressive enough the horses he mentions while taking a trip down memory lane will get anyone’s attention.

“Watching Sun’s Delight, Triple Threat, and getting a ribbon from Ebony’s Mountain Man’s mane after he won the big stake … man, what I wouldn’t do to still have that,” Jamie said.

Bob McQuerry and The Pusher also stand out to Jamie for being riders he looked up to. Jamie elaborated by sharing his first impression of McQuerry and Bobo.

“They were two of the most humble horsemen I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” he said. “They were good role models for a young hopeful.”

The early memories can be replayed in Jamie’s mind as though they took place not long ago, but there are plenty more inside his file of meaningful moments that took place in his adulthood. Jamie’s first world champion Dark Spirit’s Replay, owned by the Schraders, will forever have his place in history among Jamie’s most prized memories.

“One of my best memories ever was watching Jennifer win her first world grand championship aboard A Greater Generator,” he said. “I can still remember where I was standing … But one thing I am certain of is that my proudest memories come from watching my own children achieve their goals.”

Logan, his son, was wearing red chaps when he won on his little mare Hallelujah In The Sky and Claire won on that same mare later.

“Her courage was impressive; just her knowing she could be a handful,” he said. “Then in later years, seeing the pure joy on Claire’s face when she won her first of many equitation classes was special. There are so many great memories. They are all special.”

After Jamie shared some of his most special memories, Jennifer added her own splash of favorites and together it is evident they have enjoyed quite a collective ride together.

“My favorite memory as a spectator has to be from my first Celebration, which was in 1982,” she said. “Watching Billy Gray and Pride’s Secret Threat win the big stake was so impressive. Billy Gray was the epitome of a master showman.”

Speaking in regards to her years as an exhibitor, Jennifer said it was harder to pick a favorite out of the stash of memories. But Jennifer echoed her husband’s comments about her most special memories of all came from times when one of the kids succeeded.

“Seeing that is always special,” she said. “There’s their first show, then their first blue ribbon, their first championship, their first set of roses … Each one is always special.”

Working together to accomplish their family’s goals as well as those of their barn family has meant the world to both Jamie and Jennifer. It all comes relatively easy; they compliment each other well.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Jennifer says. “We each have things we don’t like to do and it just happens to work out that the other one likes those jobs. After 36 years, I can’t imagine life any other way.”

Life is sweet and it is equally busy for the Hankins, especially life at the barn. Though each has their own hobbies outside of horses, both Jennifer and Jamie admit that at the end of the day simply relaxing and spending quiet time with each other and family is what they prefer.

“I have tried almost every craft there is out there and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but horses are the only thing I have found that I enjoy doing day in and day out, year after year,” she said.

Anyone with horses knows there are no two days alike, besides the regular routine of feeding, cleaning, working horses, giving lessons and feeding again.

Beyond the regular duties, there are always extras that make their way into the day. Whether the fence needs to be fixed, mowing needs to be done or mares need to be checked, there is also an endless list of chores that need to be tended to ensure things move along smoothing at the Hankins’ operation.

Jamie joked about his age a bit when reflecting about his favorite hobbies outside the barn. In his younger days, he says he liked to rabbit hunt with his brother and their Beagles.

“Now it’s more like sitting on the couch and watching UK basketball or professional football,” he laughed. “I also enjoy watching my great nephew bull ride.”

Enjoying the simple pleasures in life and staying focused on the mission at hand, one of the biggest blessings of Jamie and Jennifer’s lives has been the blessing of pursing their passions alongside each other, and family.

From the beginning it has always been a family affair for the Hankins. Jennifer joked about how their kids learned the important skill of patience.

 “All three of our kids spent their preschool days at the barn with us,” she said.

“There’s nothing that will teach a kid patience better than having to spend all day at the barn with your parents … It definitely took major team work to pull that off.

We couldn’t have made it through the horses shows without never ending help from our families.”

In looking toward the future, the sky is indeed bright, with one of their kids appearing particularly interested in leading the Hankins pack through the next phase.

“As the boys grew older we would see less of them at the barn after school, but not Claire,” she said. “If we were at the barn, she was at the barn. It was apparent she was as devoted to the horses as we are.

“I envision her stepping up as we start to step back. She has a great work ethic and a real knack with the kids she gives lessons to and we loving watching her future unfold.”

As for the horse, the Hankins are also optimistic, and the horse is something about which Jamie speaks with great confidence. As a leader within the WHTA for many years, Jamie knows his stuff.

“Our breed is a survivor,” said Jamie. “I don’t know that people realize the amount of effort and money that goes into this; that has gone into this in order to get the breeding and the training where it is today. We are in a completely different place and I am honestly not sure if people realize that … but they should.”