Putting the Show in Horse Show

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Trainer leads 2008 WGC Santana's El Nino from his retirement ceremony under the spotlight in front of a standing ovation
Trainer Link Webb leads 2008 WGC Santana's El Nino, aka "Snip," from his retirement ceremony under the spotlight in front of a standing ovation (Photo by Avalon Photography and courtesy of the TWH National Celebration)

One thing about the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration cannot be denied.

The Celebration, after 70 years, does a good job at putting the “show” in “horse show.”

Despite the recession and the controversies that shadow the breed’s shows, this year’s Celebration drew nearly 200,000 people over the eleven days of events.

Even noted horse blogger Fran Jurga noted the Celebration’s attendance figures, even in these times.

Despite my long association with walking horses, I’ve never been to the Celebration.

Middle Tennessee tends to be hot and humid toward the end of August.  I don’t deal well physically with heat and humidity. But I do watch the Celebration live video stream.

On the last night, the night when the major titles are awarded, 21,576 were on hand to see Watch It Now win the major title of the night, according to The Nashville Tennessean newspaper. Granted, attendance was said to be down.

As I watched the last night on internet pay-per-view, I noticed that only the top of the high upper decks of the stadium were empty. The stadium where the night classes are held can seat as many as 30,000.

And that doesn’t count the number watching on the pay-per-view, like me. Jerry Harris of What a Horse, producer of a cable TV program about the TWH and distributor of the PPV stream, said that viewership for each night ran about 1,000. Except, he added, that he knew of people who had bought the stream so that that friends could come over and watch the Celebration in a party setting.

The viewing parties make the Celebration sound like the breed’s Super Bowl, which is a comparison that winning trainer Jimmy McConnell made in a quote to The Tennessean.

Part competition, part convention and part family reunion

Traditions and activities may come and go, but history is beloved during those last two weeks of summer in Shelbyville, TN.

Classes are scheduled for both morning and evenings. The daytime classes are held in the indoor Calsonic Arena. The night-time classes are held outdoors in the 30,000 seat stadium often referred to as “The Big Oval.”

This year, attendees and exhibitors from the first Celebration in 1939 were asked to stand up to be honored. Historical videos of past Celebrations are played on the stadium’s big screen TV.  The judges’ cards also are shown on the big screen after each class.

Each evening begins with a rider and white horse carrying the US flag while a different musician each night sings the National Anthem. If you’ve clicked on some of the links above, you’ve seen photos of Counterfeit Dollar, the current flag horse

Top show horses can be honored in a retirement ceremonies at the Celebration. This year, last year’s World Grand Champion Santana’s El Nino retired from Celebration competition, as you can see in the photo that illustrates this article.

Other traditions include food and extra activities. Clinicians give demos.  Annual attendees look forward to the local Optimist Club’s donuts and the country ham for sale on the grounds. The first Saturday includes a dog show with fun classes like a costume competition. The indoor arena that’s the site of the daytime classes for most of the eleven days turns into a trade show during championship weekend. Clinicians give demos.


Both show organist Larry Bright and show announcer Bobby Sands keep the crowd entertained. Sands not only announces the gait changes and the gate calls for the classes, but he also gives scores for other sporting events.

Bright has established several musical traditions. He always plays a state song for the winner of each class during the winner’s ride up to claim the prize. Toward the end of each evening, to signal it’s about time to go home, he plays “Just the Way You Are.”

And then there’s the “Flat Walk Boogie,” a song you will only hear played at walking horse shows. To me, it sounds vaguely like “Rock Around the Clock.”

Bright always plays it as each competitor enters The Big Stake.

Traditions of The Big Stake

The title of “World Grand Champion” is awarded in many divisions, but the one that brings in the crowds is the final class on Saturday night, also known as “The Big Stake.”

“Flat Walk Boogie” is a big part o f the entrances of the contenders. All spectators rise to watch each horse enter. Bright plays “Flat Walk Boogie” and the announcer gives the name of each horse and trainer.

Spectators show their support for each contender. This year, when contender Cadillac’s Bum entered, blue and yellow balloons flew into the night sky. Some companies provide a booming business in horse hat and tee shirt production so that fans can wear tokens of their support. One year, when Main Power won, a fellow showed up in a black horse mascot costume.

Then, once all the horses are in the ring, the crowd sits down but not back as the competition begins. Each spectator has a favorite, and each has preference for what to expect of a horse’s way of going.

Just for the record, for the 2009 “Big Stake,” eleven horses ended up qualified to compete and all eleven passed a rigorous USDA inspection for possible cheating.

And, afterward, the winner passed an equally rigorous inspection after winning the title.

Getting folks to your show

I attend all sorts of horse shows. Hunter-jumper, saddlebred, Morgan, Arabian, quarter horse shows. I go to daytime competitions and I go to evening competitions.

Granted, many diversions compete for our free time these days. But I can’t help but think that, if show organizers considered adding other activities and considered the possibility that a horse show could be entertainment, more spectators might be in those stands.

Like they have at The Celebration.

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