A Mississippian by birth and a basketball coach by trade, Dale Watts, 67, has had a unique path to becoming one of the judges for the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
But with what he calls a “natural eye” for horses, Watts says he’s excited to be one of the five judges for this year’s show.
Growing up in Summit, Miss., Watts’ family was into raiding racking horses in the early 70s. Then, through his many visits to the Celebration in Shelbyville, Watts remembers watching Billy Gray, C.A. Bobo, Allan Callaway, Jimmy McConnell—the legends of the industry—and found the walking horse gait to be “exciting.”
Today, along with his son Josh, he runs Pioneer Stables—named for a school Watts coached at for a couple decades—located in both Summit and Shelbyville.
Despite the differences in rules and application, Watts says he draws similarities between coaching basketball and training horses.
Much like coaching young students, trainers are going to find some horses to be more talented, more personable, and more rebellious than others.
And much like the best basketball players, horses can have off nights, so that “the best horse beats himself,” according to Watts.
“These people work hard to put horses in the rink...It’s about what they do that night.”
It’s one way he intends to ensure honest judging—through knowing the rules and prayer.
“The first thing I do is stick my nose in the rulebook and refresh, refresh, refresh to prepare. And I guess the second thing I do is...pray,” he said.
He said he remembered some of the best advice an “old timer” judge gave him many years ago: “Hey, son, just make sure you get the best one first and the first one last, and all the others will fall into place.” That was back nearly 40 years ago when Watts was a young apprentice in Milton, Fla.
Today, having judged the Fun Show last spring, Watts said he’s honored to take that advice and apply it to the Celebration.
“I’ll make mistakes. I’m human...But above all I want to tie—by tie I mean place the horse that is the best horse that night,” he said.
A horse that likes to shake its head and take a long stride and stay balanced—that’s what he says they look for. For that to happen, Watts said, your mind has to slow down and look at their feet—and not just look at the silhouette.
But most importantly, as you judge both friends and strangers alike, Watts said it’s important for a true judge to judge from the saddle down.
It’s also one way to keep the industry going, he said, as he remembers going to at least 30 shows a year in Mississippi. Now the number of shows has dropped to two.
“Keeping industry together is crucial...We’re in this because we love the horses.”