By TIM THORNBERRY
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The Thoroughbred gets much attention when it comes to state’s equine industry, but Kentucky’s “Horse Capital of the World” status has been created by many different breeds. The American Saddlebred is one often just as visible as its Thoroughbred cousin, with a beauty and uniqueness all its own.
That is how Todd and Alison Walker see it. They, along with their son, Tyler, own and operate Spring Hill Stables, a 16-acre family farm nestled in the heart of racehorse country. The main part of the business involves boarding and training horses for others to either show or sell. They also train riders of all ages and different riding styles.
There are a host of other chores involved in caring for the animals and the farm. That means the Walkers wear several different hats. In addition to his training duties, Todd also serves as the truck driver who gets all the horses from show to show. The farm is home to 30 horses in training and seven or eight lesson horses, along with a few others.
The Walkers also cut their own hay, clean the barns, exercise the horses, make repairs to anything that breaks down; the list goes on including, occasionally, judging horse shows. But doing it all and then some is just what farm families do in order to stay on the land and provide a solid backbone to the industry.
Todd, a native of Lancaster, Ohio, grew up on a horse farm but decided to come to Kentucky after working with a horse here for one week. That’s all it took to fall in love with the state and know he had to move. He actually opened his first public barn at the age of 16 and worked with Thoroughbreds.
“My first passion has always been Saddlebreds, but whatever walked in the door was what you worked just to pay the bills,” he explained.
Alison, who is from Ashland, did not grow up on a horse farm but lived down the road from one and loved the animals. So, she made a bet with her parents that if she got straight As in school she could have one. She of course won the bet, and it was her involvement that would later lead her parents into the business.
It was after a trip to the World Championship Horse Show, held each year at the Kentucky State Fair, she said she fell in love with the grace of the Saddlebred.
She and Todd met while attending a show. Both admit it was love at first sight and since they married 17 years ago, the horse industry has been their livelihood, working them very much as a team.
Alison works with many young riders and said coming to the barn to ride is a good place for them to be.
‘They learn responsibility and how to be a good person and socialize with other people. We encourage them to support each other. They learn to care for the horses and the focus it takes to ride and being involved,” she said. “The youngest kids I work with start at three years old and go up to adult.”
Each week 35-40 of those students make their way to Spring Hill; some for the pure pleasure of riding, others with hopes of riding in a show someday. When the Walkers travel to the multitude of shows each year, they are followed by students. Alison refers to them as the “barn family.” Making everyone feel like family is something she said is the key to the success of their operation.
“There’s nothing like being in Kentucky. If you’re going to have a horse business, it’s here in Kentucky,” she added.
She said the state could make things a little easier on the horse industry in order to keep it here and thriving, however, such as eliminating the taxes horse owners pay on necessities like feed.
That help couldn’t come too soon, as the economy has had an impact on all aspects of the equine industry. But those in the business are learning to adjust.
“The horse industry is in trouble right now, with the economy. I don’t think it matters what breed you’re in, but Saddlebreds are holding their own,” Todd said. “Owners have learned how to manage their money so it’s easier to go to horse shows or take riding lessons, and there are enough horse shows in the state that we don’t have to go out of state to a lot of shows.”
Those owners can stay home and be at a show within an hour of where they live, from the smallest of county fairs to the best show in the world, added Walker. That show, the World’s Championship, features Saddlebreds from all over the country.
Karen Winn, executive director of the American Saddlebred Horse Assoc., which has offices at the Kentucky Horse Park, said the state fair show is the plateau all Saddlebred trainers strive to reach.
“The ultimate goal of any Saddlebred trainer is to win the championship at the World’s Championship Horse Show. This year, 1,848 horses were entered in the week-long show, with over $1.2 million dollars in prize money at stake,” she said. “Horses in many divisions had to qualify to compete at the fair though 330 preliminary competitions all over the U.S.”
Many of those qualifying events happen at the numerous county fair shows, as well as at other competitions.
While there are those outside the business who think the horse industry is for people with money to burn, the Walkers have built their business by making the dream of owning and showing a horse a reality for anyone who wants it.
“There’s no reason why anyone can’t have a horse or have the opportunity to show or just be a part of this,” Todd said. “There are a lot of different levels of it. We can have just as much fun at the county fair as at the World’s Championship. You have to learn what a person can afford and enjoy. You have to be able to enjoy the business from either end.”
Alison said besides the animals, she loves the social aspect of what they do. “I like the people; the people you meet and the people whose lives you touch,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know you have had a positive influence on them and their love for the horses.”
She thinks creating a family atmosphere contributes to the sustainability of the farm. Todd feels the same way. “We love what we do.
It’s very challenging at times if the tractor breaks down or one of your helpers doesn’t show up that day, or you just don’t feel good,” he said. “But it is something special when you get attached to this industry.
“If you go to a horse show and your rider comes out last but still smiling, that’s why you do this. Our ultimate goal is to win, but we try to teach our adults and our kids, it’s all about the ride. Everything you do is about the ride and there’s nothing like it.”