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Walking Horses Show Their Fancy Hoofwork

Charles Hillinger's America

April 13, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BELFAST, Tenn. — "Look at that chestnut stallion throwing those feet up in the air," shouted barn hand Johnny Cole as the high-stepping Tennessee walking horse gracefully glided by.

"Woo-eee, look at that horse's head nodding in rhythm with the rise and fall of them hoofs," said Cole, 25. He was talking to a half-dozen rail birds who were leaning on a fence, eyeballing in awe the "rocking chair" canter of a horse named Ebony's Bold Courier.

This was no ordinary horse. Ebony's Bold Courier, owned by Dr. and Mrs. Roger Bates of Waycross, Ga., won the world's grand championship for walking horses in 1983. The stallion is standing at stud here at the S. W. Beech & Sons 800-acre Tennessee Walking Horse breeding farm.

Belfast is a backwoods hamlet in the bluegrass country of middle Tennessee, heartland of the Tennessee walking horse, the only horse to bear a state's name. The breed dates back to 1886, with bloodlines reaching further back to other breeds including Copperbottoms, Stone Walls, Mountain Slashers, Hals, Brooks, Bulletts, Grey Johns and Morgans.

But it wasn't until 1935 that the horse officially was recognized as a separate breed with the formation of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders Assn. in nearby Lewisburg.

There were 115 horses in the original stock. Fifteen years later, 30,000 Tennessee walking horses from 40 states had been registered. Today more than 265,000 horses around the world are registered in Lewisburg.

Growing in Numbers

The popularity of the horse for work, for pleasure and for show has increased dramatically. Once primarily a regional horse, it is growing in numbers nationwide. California has become one of the major centers for the breed outside the South.

Ebony's Bold Courier is one of 42 horses selected as top of breed since the first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration was held in 1939 at Shelbyville, 30 miles east of here.

At the end of each August, owners of outstanding show horses bring their steeds to Shelbyville, a small town 53 miles south of Nashville, for the 10-day celebration which is highlighted by the judging for the world's grand champion walking horse.

Jessie Cole, 63, for 31 years manager of the breeding operation at the S. W. Beech Tennessee Walking Horse farm, said 700 to 800 mares will be shipped to the big Beech barn at Belfast this year to be bred by Ebony's Bold Courier and four other champion stallions through artificial insemination.

Various Stud Fees

Stud fees at the breeding farm range from $1,500 for services by 30-year-old Ebony's Masterpiece, 1962 world's grand champion; $1,000 for My Magic Marker (recently purchased for $350,000) and Pride's Generator, and $500 for Ebony's Bold Courier and Ebony's Excalibur.

The tiny town of Wartrace, Tenn., is called the cradle of the Tennessee walking horse. It was here on the Wartrace square that the earliest contests were held to determine which walkers had the smoothest gait.

And it was here, in the pasture behind the Walking Horse Hotel, that the late Floyd Carothers trained a chestnut sorrel gelding named Strolling Jim, the first world-champion Tennessee walking horse. The horse is buried behind the old hotel, beneath the bluegrass sod where the 1939 grand champion spent his last years.

The Walking Horse Hotel, owned by George Wright, has on exhibit the largest collection of Tennessee walking horse photos and memorabilia. There are stained-glass walking horse windows and hundreds of historic and contemporary photos in rooms throughout the hotel, a hub of activity for Tennessee walking horse enthusiasts since World War I.

The high-stepping horses can be seen grazing in the green pastures almost everywhere within a 50-mile radius of Shelbyville, population 14,000.

The countryside is dotted with 80 breeding stables and 50 training farms, where men, women and children ride the quiet, even-tempered walkers, skimming along on horseback minus all the usual jars and jolts.

One-fourth of all walking horses are in Tennessee. Half of the breed's show horses are in Bedford County, Tenn.

'Finest Animal'

"By anybody's standard, this is probably the finest animal known to man for its disposition, temperament, ease of gait and versatility," said Ron Thomas, 43, executive secretary of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.

The gait--flatfoot walk, running walk and "rocking chair" canter--is distinctive to the breed, inherited from the sire and dam. The animals exhibit the animated, exaggerated high step from birth.

In judging it isn't the beauty of the beast or the animal's conformation that counts. It's how the horse moves.

Show horses perform on "high heels," built-up shoes with leather or plastic tabs between the hoof and the shoe. To emphasize the high step, show horses wear 10-ounce action devices (chains) above the hoofs, "like a watchband to a human," Thomas said.

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