By Mitzi Oxford

When Sarah Coffee Burks learned she was named the Year in Walking Horses Owner of the Year she was overwhelmed and cried tears of joy. Her reaction reflected the very beginning of her love of horses and her commitment to the Tennessee Walking Horse.

At the tender age of two, the highlight of Sarah’s weekends was spent riding at a nearby pony farm where she lived in Jacksonville, Florida. When you grow up watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and get your first pony at the age of five years old, it’s no surprise you name him Trigger. Riding and owning that pony was just the beginning of a lifelong impact in the horse world.

A few years later, Sarah graduated from ponies to horses. She got her first show horse in 1966 and faced tough competition from the likes of Judy Tillett and Kim Lovett. But winning isn’t everything. As magical as it can be to enter the Big Oval at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and walk out with a blue, one of her favorite early memories was from Gadsden, Alabama, in 1969. 

“It was a huge show, 35 entries in my Juvenile 13-17 group, five or six horses deep on the rail, and three workouts,” recalls Sarah. “The ring was full of champion-caliber horses. I didn’t win that class. I came in 5th on Moonglow’s Gal, but the excitement for me was like winning The Celebration.”

When Sarah moved up to the Amateur division, the competition was still fierce, but she was determined to own and show winners. The horses may have changed over the years, but memories and winning rides were still being made at shows across the south with My Fair Lady, Ebony’s Pegasus, The Silver Streak and Pride’s Leading Lady, among many others.

Another career highlight was winning the Southern Championship in 1971 with Mr. Toppit and guiding Master’s Shadowette to the International Three-year-Old Mares & Geldings Championship.


In between riding and showing, Sarah graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in Animal Sciences. In 1976, David Howard hired her to work for The Walking Horse Report. It was the perfect marriage of her skills and knowledge to forge a path about the breed she loved and the trainers and owners she had met along the way. She eventually moved into the position of Editor.

“From 1976 until 1984, WHR was my life, and I loved every minute of it,” said Sarah. “Also, during that time, I fulfilled a lifetime goal when I rode Senator Delight R&R to a win by unanimous decision the 15.2 & Under Amateur class and world grand championship at the 1982 Celebration. I will forever be grateful to trainer Steve Aymett and to David Howard who was among the first to congratulate me.”

Like everything else she has accomplished in the walking horse industry, Sarah aimed to excel by pouring herself into writing about shows and selling advertising. As Howard surmised when he appointed her as the first Editor for WHR, she was successful in and out of the show ring. His belief in Sarah helped seal the deal for her future.

Looking back to her very beginning, it was her adoptive dad, Fred Coffee, who introduced her to what became a passion when he bought her a pony.

“My stepfather told me then that you become a better rider every time you get thrown from a horse because it teaches you what to do or what NOT to do,” said Sarah.

Those words of wisdom would lead to the next chapter of her life.


Sometimes life throws a shoe or two smack in the middle of a world championship performance. Before Sarah left the WHR, Fred Coffee had been in declining health. Before he died, he told Sarah about her biological father, that he had been a talented horseman, had seen her show several times, and that he had been an alcoholic suicide.

Sarah would follow in his footsteps with both horses and addiction. Her father, Fred, died in 1984 followed by her mom in 1997, and her sister in 2002. All of those life events became reasons to embrace everything negative.

“I was hiding from the world, living my life in a grainy blackand-white blur, mired in self-pity. I didn’t have a single sober day for 20 years. I took refuge in cats and dogs, lots of them because they gave me purpose. My house was a mess.”

Then in 2004, Sarah met her second husband, Albert Burks. Her life changed and suddenly, “I was
living in vivid color,” said Sarah. She and Albert were married on Christmas Eve in Vermont with two feet of snow blanketing the way for their horse-drawn sleigh. It was like a Hallmark movie for someone who had lived a tragedy for so long, but their story wasn’t quite complete. Albert had also battled addiction and had been sober for three and a half years.

“Albert gave me the hope and encouragement to focus on the positive and together we helped many others struggling with addiction.” Sadly, their fairytale romance came to an end in 2017 when Albert passed away. What could have been another reason to drift away into the abyss because “he was my everything” instead ended up being the catalyst to get Sarah back into the show ring after a 35-year absence.


“Albert had a customized 1953 Corvette and before he died, he made me promise I would drive it. When I did, I could hear his words of encouragement, telling me ‘Honey you did good. Now do something you love,’” said Sarah.

Aside from Albert’s encouragement to “move forward no matter what”, three other people impacted Sarah’s return to the show ring. One was her childhood friend Molly Walker who prompted a trip to Shelbyville and the TWHNC.

A lot had changed since her last visit to The Celebration when owners’ and trainers’ wives wore high heels to the show and furs on chilly nights, entertaining customers in box seats, close enough to the ring that sometimes dirt and horse sweat hit you in the face. That was also back when you returned to the showgrounds after the “big night” to see the result cards stapled to the walls of the barn office. By then, most everyone had loaded up and left.

“I came to the Celebration in 2017 to watch my friend Molly’s mare, A Beeline,” recalls Sarah.
“Bee ended up with a reserve world title and I was there to cheer them on. After the show, she introduced me
to trainer Alan Price.”

Alan and Nick Price also influenced her in immeasurable ways. They told Sarah they would like to be the ones to get her back in the ring. She laughed at the suggestion. But about a month later, she was back in the saddle again when she bought Seahawk. The Prices and Sarah have since enjoyed winning rides with other top contenders including The Jazz Player, He’s Cool Blue, Ruby Lipstick, The Iron Door, He’s Shady In Black, Thanks For Cash, A Cowboy Casanova, The Royal Dollar, Walkin’ Miss Charlie, A Classic Action, Mountain Voodoo and My Rockstar.

“When I got back in the saddle, I told myself winning is great, but I just wanted to do my best and I’ve had a blast,” said Sarah.

Her first time back in The Celebration ring since 1982 was in 2018. It was like history repeating itself when Sarah won the Three-Year-Old Amateur WGC on Dobie Gray. One of the first people to congratulate her was Jeffrey Howard. He shared her joy the same way his father had for one of her first big wins. 

“When loved ones die, relationships don’t end. Memories and stories last forever. My life has had big changes and I’m here for all those who have guided my path back to the show ring, but mostly for the horses,” said Sarah.

It’s symbolic that Sarah’s most recent championship ride came on Dobie Gray. That name is synonymous with a famous singer whose lyrics from Drift Away, with a slight adjustment, could have been written about her.

And when my mind is free
You know a walking horse can
move me
And when I’m feelin’ blue
My trainers and friends are
comin’ through to soothe me
Thanks for the joy that you’ve
given me
I want you to know I believe in
your support
And rhythm and rhyme and
harmony for our breed.

The walking horse industry is happy Sarah Coffee Burks didn’t drift away forever and that she is back in the saddle again where she belongs.