Betty Sain Shook the Walking Horse World:
By Sandy Lemons, with contributions from Nancy Brannon
PBS has recently aired a series of programs about remarkable women who have inspired a nation and made a lasting impact on opportunities for women: “Makers: Women Who Make America.” The six-part series examines the impact of women in six fields once largely closed to women: business, space, Hollywood, comedy, war, and politics. We suggest that the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Dyllan McGee consider adding another field to the series: equestrian sports. Among the many capable and pioneering women in equestrian sports, we suggest Betty Sain, the first woman to ride a horse to the Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship in 1966, and her famous horse Shaker’s Shocker (#621314).
Understandably, Betty and Shaker’s Shocker have already received much acclaim. There is a permanent display about them at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Museum in Wartrace, TN. There is a Bedford County Historical markeron the property where the Sain House and Sain Stables used to stand, which is now owned by the Webb School, commemorating the Sain family and the 1966 World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse, Shaker’s Shocker (#621314).
But in a world divided between those striving to eliminate the cruel practice of soring and those trying to keep alive the Tennessee Walking Horse “traditions,” Betty and Shaker’s Shocker remind the horse world of an earlier time, before the “stacks” and before the need for a Horse Protection Act (passed in 1970). The anniversary of Betty’s birth is a good time to remember this record-breaking woman and the remarkable horse she had the pleasure of training and riding.
Elizabeth Fay Sain, aka “Betty,” was born to love horses on November 20, 1942 in Manchester, Tennessee. She was the second child of Virginia Wright Sain and H. Pearl Sain, and the younger sister of two-year-old Parker Sain.
By the year of Betty’s birth, 1942, records show that only three Tennessee Walking Horses had been crowned Grand Champions of the World. Those were: Strolling Jim, in 1939; Haynes Peacock, in 1940 and 1941; and Melody Maid, in 1942. But 24 years later, September 3, 1966 was a Saturday night that changed the lives of a tremendous number of people. This particular Saturday night championship was remarkable for both the horse who won and the rider who rode the horse to the championship.
Shaker’s Shocker was bred by Tom Barham of Lewisburg, TN, who first named the colt Handshaker’s Nodder. Barham told Betty’s mother about the “big, strong, dandy colt” when she came in his store to pick up some riding clothes for her daughter. Mrs. Sain went with Tom Barham to see the colt and it wasn’t long before Mr. Sain went back to Lewisburg and bought the colt from Barham.
The colt went to his new home in Bell Buckle, TN in October 1962. Betty changed his name to Shaker’s Shocker, and the colt was raised from a weanling, trained, and ridden solely by Betty. In fact, Betty’s father was in the hospital when she first started Shocker under saddle late in the fall when he was coming two; she had no one to help her when she first started riding him. But the two formed a remarkable partnership.
Shocker was an outstanding animal. He was huge, gorgeous, but difficult to handle. Only Betty could handle Shocker. No one else could even get in his stall, but he adored Betty.
Betty’s approach to training was to “start with a good horse,” she explained. “Then it is patience and common sense. He was a big, powerful horse.” Shocker’s daily training consisted of an hour and a half workout on the farm “in a great big open field,” with Betty in the irons. He perfected his flat walk, canter and running walk through these fields at his home. Betty said that he was never trained inside an arena. Training in the open fields helped the stallion develop a powerful way of going and the stamina to produce his show gait far longer than other contenders, whose shorter workouts generally involved circles in a practice ring or trips up and down a barn aisle.
Shocker started his show season as a two-year-old in 1964, showing at Goodlettsville, Wartrace, and Geraldine, Alabama. Shocker had a very bright Junior show season in 1965, placing first at Lewisburg, fifth at Lafayette, and first at Belfast.
In 1966 the rules changed, making all 4-year-old horses Junior Horses. That year Shocker became a leader in the race to become the first Four Year Old Junior Champion.
As a four year old stallion, Betty knew Shocker “had the walk,” but Shocker was also working out for the endurance it would take to defeat the aged stallions he would be up against, should he make the final night championship stake class.
The 1966 Celebration began on Friday, August 26. When the class for Junior Stallions came on Wednesday August 31, Shaker’s Shocker entered the ring with the other four-year-old stallions, but emerged with the blue ribbon and the silver trophy! He was now the favored horse to win the Junior World Championship on Friday September 2.
But Betty had different plans; instead, she entered the World Grand Championship on Saturday, for which they had qualified by winning the Junior Stallion class. This move did not sit well with the other all-male contenders in the male-dominated show world of Tennessee Walking Horse Grand Champions. Betty was the only female and the youngest rider in the class, at only 23 years old. Horse-wise the competition was stiff, too: she competed against 12 accomplished walking horses includingthe winner of the Aged Stallion class Johnny Midnight.
The electricity in the air and vibrations from the stadium combined in anticipation of seeing the first young woman ride her big black stallion against the men and aged stallions in the final championship stake class. During this era, the flat walk was fun to watch; the canter was performed in a natural position for the equine body; and the horses were in their element at the running walk.
When the 13 horses and riders entered the gate and were introduced by Mr. Emmett Guy, in his smooth southern drawl, the crowd jumped from their seats, cheered, stomped their feet and clapped for over an hour and a half. The noise was deafening, but continued to grow even louder when Mr. Guy announced “Let’em go running walk.” The aged stallions were trying with all their might to stay with the young woman and her stallion. Some of the other riders tried to tire Shocker or “bump” him “accidentally” with their horses in an attempt to cause him to break gait. But the 17 hand black stallion flicked his ears back and forth towards Miss Betty, listening for instructions, as he “walked on” and left the competition in his dust. Shaker’s Shocker was raw power, and the more he worked, the longer his stride became. The overflow crowd of people could not contain their excitement watching this black stallion perform! When all was said and done, the top five ribbons went to champion Shaker’s Shocker, Go Boy’s Chatterbox, Go Boy’s Sun Dust, Duke’s Handy Man, and Johnny Midnight.
Not only did Shocker’s daily training pay off , but also did the young woman’s strong determination from the saddle, which one newspaper article called “one of the greatest rides of horsemanship in the Celebration’s history.” The love and respect between this young woman and her four-year-old black stallion was a combination that could not possibly be beaten on September 3, 1966. Miss Betty would be the first one to tell the reader that “it was about the horse then, and it should be about the horse now.” Shaker’s Shocker is the only Tennessee Walking Horse Champion ever awarded the Sports Illustrated Award of Merit, which he received on September 26, 1966.
Since that competition, the Tennessee Walking Horse breed has had no better ambassador of its history, beauty, intelligence, and natural versatility than Shaker’s Shocker and Betty Sain. She has exhibited the best of the breed all over the south at horse shows and in parades in major cities across the nation. A favorite story is about Miss Betty being invited to the Lion’s Club Banquet held at the Hyatt Regency in Nashville, TN. She didn’t think twice about taking “Shocker’s Spook” to the banquet, saddling him up, and riding him on the carpet of the banquet hall. Some guests had never seen a Tennessee Walking Horse, but that evening Miss Betty made sure they saw one.
Through the years following the Championship, thousands of people have traveled to her farm at Desiderata to see Shocker, Black Dust, M.R., and Merry Boy’s Traveler (her three stallions), as well as the mares and foals in her breeding operation. She never denied anyone their request for her to saddle up a horse and show its beauty and strength. She has continued to educate those interested in the breed’s history, served on countless committees, and given her straight-forward opinion on how to start a new, successful Walking Horse association. Her message has always been the same: “It has to be about the horse and nothing else.”
In Betty Sain’s world, there are no shortcuts to owning, training, and caring for the best gaited horse in the world. Betty is a hero to the hundreds of girls she influenced because of her courage at such a young age; she instilled in them a dream that has never died. Happy Birthday Miss Betty! Thank you for all you have done to promote, protect, and educate people about the Tennessee Walking Horse.
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