The 2021 Year In Walking Horses is Dedicated to 
Trainer – Robert Nelms

By Mark McGee

Whenever you start a new venture someone has to step up to give you a boost. Robert Nelms’ Tennessee Walking Horse training success began with one customer and one horse. The fact the horse was successful formed the basis for his training businesses.

When Robert, who was known as a Spotted Saddle Horse trainer and rider, opened his barn in 1999 Judy and Paul Gambill from Shelbyville, Tennessee, asked him to train their solid black yearling, Got Spirit. “I want to give them a lot of credit," Robert said.

“They brought me an outstanding colt. I won the Futurity with him in 2000. There were 39 yearling studs in that class and three workouts.

“He ended up being a great colt. The Gambills are great people. They are some of the best people I have met in this business.”

Paul and Judy were familiar with Robert’s success with Spotted Saddle Horses. Judy decided to move the colt to him.

“He was always a hard worker,” Paul said. “We knew his dad, Bob, and his brother, Jesse. He always had our horse ready to go.

“The thing about showing colts is there is a lot of walking, and that guy can certainly walk. I don’t see how he does it. I have seen him come out of the ring solid wet like he had just taken a shower.”

The pairing was a successful start for Robert. Since then, there have been hundreds of young horses to pass through Robert’s training barn in College Grove, Tennessee. And since that first success, Robert has led weanlings, yearlings and model horses to a plethora of blue ribbons and world titles. There is no way to measure the gallons of sweat he has produced while guiding his string of colts and model horses.

He started with 12 stalls and with expansion of his present facility and the addition of another barn, he can house 50 horses. He also has a string of 11 broodmares who pair well with Jose’ and Lester H. Burns.

This year was another filled with top performances for Robert and his halter contenders at The Celebration. He walked away with four victory passes; three by weanling Tee Martin, the world grand championship and another in model competition with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

One of the most exciting blues for Robert was watching his daughter, Peyton, win the Youth Weanling class with Tee Martin.

“That makes Tee Martin even more special because my daughter won with him this year at The Celebration,” Robert said. “That was big. She has been interested in showing horses, so I let her show Tee Martin and Catherine Zeta-Jones this year.


Robert admits he has seen a lot of weanlings walking in the fields with their mothers over the years. But, when Ricky Atnip sent him a video of Tee Martin in the field it was all he needed to see. Robert bought the youngster, by Lester H. Burns, when he was seven-days old. Robert, an enthusiastic fan of University of Tennessee athletics, tagged him after one of the Vols top quarterbacks ever. Plus, his mother was I’m Pat Summitt, named for the Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach at Tennessee.

“Ricky called me and said `I have the man’,” Robert said. “When I saw the video, I told him he was right.

“Ricky and I are big buddies. He has a good eye. He has raised some outstanding colts. He also raised Lester H. Burns and Lester H. Burns’ mama. It is pretty cool.”

The first horses sired by Lester H. Burns are under saddle this year. Robert thinks the future is unlimited for the stallion.

“He is new,” Robert said. “There are a lot of weanlings by him. His colts look really good. He is a beautiful animal. I think he is really going to make a top breeding horse.”

Robert ranks Tee Martin as the best weanling he has ever shown, which speaks volumes based on the number of champions he has placed in the ring.

“I have probably won the weanling class at The Celebration five times,” Robert said. “Tee Martin is so freaky moving. He has a big back end, big front end and he shakes his head."

Robert drove to Smithville, Tennessee, to get a firsthand glimpse. He was even more amazed by what he saw up close and personal.

“He was just born gifted,” Robert said. “I still have him as a yearling, and I think he is going to be just as good. He still has that deep back end and he still has that big front end.

“He just stood out. I have looked at weanlings for 22 years. He has a different gear. Weanlings usually don’t pick their front legs up, but that is something he did. The first time I showed him at the Belfast Lions Club show people said he is the one.”


Catherine Zeta-Jones is a beautiful actress, but her namesake looks even better to Robert. The mare is named for the actress who starred in “The Mask of Zorro” and many other films. She was sired by El Zorro’s Star, so the name was a natural.

Just this year alone, she won the Model Mares class at The Celebration and the National Futurity Model Two & Three-YearOld class for owner Ed Lukacevic.

“She is a big, beautiful bay filly,” Robert said. “She has a lot of head shake and a lot of tail swish. She has a lot of everything. She is complete.

“I love a pretty bay, they are hard to beat. They just stand out in the ring and there are not many of them.”

Carrie and Spencer Benedict raised Catherine Zeta-Jones. “The Benedicts sent her to me,” Robert said. “I showed her at Columbia and won and after the Fourth of July weekend shows she was sold to Dr. Roger Richards and Bobby Jones. Their goal was to win The Celebration.” Which, is exactly what she did on the way to nine blues in nine classes during the 2020 show season.

“She has won four blue ribbons at The Celebration,” Robert said. “She was never beaten as a yearling, in fact, she was just outstanding in the world grand championship in 2020. All five judges tied her first.”

While model horses are judged solely on conformation, Robert expects Catherine ZetaJones to continue her success under saddle.

“She is big and high-headed with a long neck,” Robert said. “She is going to be a really good show pleasure mare.”


For Robert, every day at the barn is similar to what a teacher experiences when he or she walks into a daycare filled with toddlers. And, like those teachers, Robert relishes the opportunity to be the first to instruct a weanling how to behave in the show ring.

“With a weanling you never know what you are going to get,” Robert said. “You might bring him out one time and he or she will be perfect. Then they might come out and rear up and throw a fit. They are just like dealing with a two-year-old. It is like a new day every day until you get them polished and finished.

“I just love fooling with baby colts and breaking them. You are starting from nothing. 

You have this horse that hasn’t been touched. You put a halter on him and start teaching him to lead and park out.”

Just like dealing with a young child, the attention span is a short one for a weanling.

“You can’t work a weanling hard,” Robert said. “I will get them out and walk them about 10 minutes. I might work with a weanling three or four times a day.

“After that first 30 or 40 minutes you have kind of lost them. I will put them up with their mother and bring them back later. I might not do anything more than leading them down the hallway before putting them back up.”

He admits halter competition preparation is much more difficult than training a horse under saddle.

“These colts take a lot of work,” Robert said. “With a padded horse you can be done in 20 minutes. These colts are not like that.”


“Paul Nelms, my great-uncle, got me into leading colts,” Robert said. “ I was six or seven the first time I showed at The Celebration. It was a big deal to me to show in my first Celebration.

“We went and practiced every day for two weeks. I showed a bay] weanling stud by Pride’s Main Man. I was sixth. That was pretty good for my first time. Ever since then I was hooked.”

His dad, Bob, and his grandfather, J.T. Nelms, got Robert started with Spotted Saddle Horses. Robert was at a show almost every weekend of the season.

“My dad and my granddad bought me my first Spotted Saddle Horse,” Robert said. “I started showing pretty heavy at 8 or 9. I won my first spotted horse national championship in 1989 when I was 11. My dad and mom were really involved in showing and in the spotted saddle horse organization.”

Robert may have been a success as a rider, but training halter colts became his love.

“My uncle Paul and my dad taught me their way and what to look for and how to park them out,” continued Robert. “I would spend time with my uncle in Belfast, Tennessee. He told me to be patient. They are like kids. Patience is important.”

Robert’s dad told him how to properly park a colt and he takes pride in that part of his showmanship.

“When they do it for me they don’t move,” Robert said. “They are like a statue. It takes me about a week to get them from nothing to perfect.”

Uncle Paul told Robert what to look for in a weanling in the field. “You have to have a good eye and be able to pick them right,” Robert said. “I look at the back end. I look at how they lead. Everything is all about a big back end.

“I love halter. I am pretty good at it too. Halter is my niche.”


Every year is filled with new challenges for Robert. He has to be certain he is making the right selections, but mistakes are going to be made.

“We will work 32 to 40 each year,” Robert said. “We usually have 10 model horses, 15 yearlings and 15 weanlings. We work through them, and if that group doesn’t work, I will bring another group in.

“A lot of people send them to me for training, but I also buy them. I have already bought 10 for next year and we will likely buy eight or 10 more. It is a roll of the dice. When you buy them, you hope they are going to be good and you can resale them, but that is not always the case.”


The 11 broodmares are located on 400 acres left to Robert and his brother Jesse by their father. The land, in Petersburg, Tennessee, has been in the family since 1904.

“Dad was my biggest supporter,” Robert said. “Without my dad and my wife, Amanda, I wouldn’t be who I am.”