In the heart of walking horse country as the breed association is celebrating its 75th anniversary, the organization's executive director is cautiously optimistic about the future.
Stan Butt says that numbers of memberships, registrations and transfers are down, but this is true of all breed associations across the nation.
"The walking horse has fared reasonably well," Butt says. Falling membership numbers have leveled off in the last year and a half, and the remaining members are "dedicated to the breed and to participation in the programs," he says.
Part of Butt's job is establishing the association's budget, and he cautions, "We have to be fiscally responsible." He and his staff have worked really hard to maintain the members' benefits, which include impressive discounts from John Deere, UPS, Sherwin-Williams, Toshiba and Office Depot, and even include a prescription discount card.
On another positive note, Butt says more horses than ever have been nominated to the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association Futurity that kicks off the night shows on the Celebration grounds tonight in Shelbyville.
"It promises to be an exciting event," Butt said. The futurity showcases the younger horses, which will be competing for $100,000 in prize money.
Butt is also encouraged by the success of the World Versatility Show, held July 23-25 at Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro.
"It was a huge show," he said. "The best one to date."
From an afternoon of classes at the first show in 1998, the versatility show has grown to a full three-day program, with more entries every year. There were 361 this year. For the first time, Manna Pro, the feed and supplement manufacturer, sponsored a $2,500 jackpot in basic reining, and this class drew 18 competitors.
Butt came to his present job as executive director in December 2007, moving over from the editorship of The Voice, the magazine of the TWHBEA. The former executive director, Charles Halsey hired him for that job in 2004.
"I wear lots of hats," Butt said. Sometimes it's even a riding hat, as he takes one of his walking horse geldings on a trail ride. The horses are at his home in Maury County, where he's lived since 1985.
Right now the TWHBEA is gearing up for the Celebration. The Association opened a satellite office on the Celebration grounds, and have a booth on the mezzanine of Calsonic arena.
"It looks to be a promising and exciting time for the Celebration," Butt said. Entries are down by 200, but there are enough in some classes to require a split. In fact, there are so many entered in two-year-old walking stallions that class required a three-way split.
One thing visitors will be able to see and buy is the new coffee-table book, "Tennessee Walking Horse: An American Tradition." The full-color book highlights walking horses past and present, with some unique photos of horses and people who shaped the early days of the breed.
Portraits of famous horses adorn the walls of Butt's office, and in the adjoining vault the original paper pedigrees are preserved, including those of the 115 horses designated "F" for "foundation."
"We are the international breed registry," Butt explained. There are walking horses in all 50 states and 20 foreign countries, with sizeable numbers in Germany and Canada.
"We'll soon recognize our 500,000th horse," he said.
He points out that the Association headquarters on North Ellington Parkway draws visitors from around the world. There is plenty to see, from portraits of World Grand Champions, to plaques commemorating Hall of Fame trainers.
For the future, Butt wants to do more with the annual Sire Summary, giving importance to stallions whose offspring excel. He also intends to encourage expansion of the breed, and part of this is active participation at major equine trade fairs and events all over the world. This year they're even assessing the feasibility of exporting walking horses to China.