Mike Walden came by his love of horses honestly, taking easy steps behind his father, who founded Chattanooga Police Department's horse patrol decades ago with donated Tennessee walking horses.
Now most Chattanoogans know Mike, also a former police officer, by his company name: Walden Security.
But Saturday night they may know him as the owner of the 2012 world champion Tennessee walking horse.
For the 51-year-old Walden, who knew when he was 11 that he wanted to own and show Tennessee walking horses, it would be a dream come true.
It also would feel sweet to Walden because he missed a chance at the walking horse world's biggest prize in 2006 when he found himself at the center of one of the industry's biggest blowups.
It was so big that it is the only year in the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration's 74-year history when no world grand champion was named.
That year, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Celebration's lay inspectors disqualified all but three horses in the final contest, including Walden's horse, Private Charter.
Show officials reported that Walden offered the three remaining contenders equal prize money to sit out the contest. They likened it to a bribe, and they shut down the show, then banned Walden from any Celebration show or sponsorship participation for two years.
Then and last week, Walden said he never intended anything as a bribe. No charges were filed.
"They banned me for rabble rousing. They banned me for raising hell for my horse being turned down. And guess what: I'm guilty of raising hell that my horse was turned down [wrongly]. And I was proved right," he said.
Private Charter, then 9 years old, was disqualified on a scar-rule violation -- an indicator of soring, an illegal short-cut training method that uses caustic acids or foreign objects to make the horses exaggerate their high-stepping gait.
But the scar rule is one of the most controversial inspection calls in the walking horse business.
Inspectors make scar rule determinations with their fingers and their eyes. And they don't all see and feel the same way.
After the blowup, Walden led his horse to a USDA inspector for a second opinion, where the horse got a clean bill of health.
"But I can never get back that show that night — when he was the favorite," Walden said. "Three vets have checked my horse before he gets up there. Then a guy with a GED turns him down."
As for the hell raising?
"The lesson learned is take your medicine and go on," he said with an older and wiser laugh.
But he still is all about standing up — and showing off — his horses.
At the main gate of the 30,000-seat Calsonic Arena where the Celebration is held, a giant portable billboard advertises Copperfield.
Celebration officials say Walden is very competitive.
Mike Inman, the incoming CEO of the Celebration, said the Walden stable of winners tells a lot about the man.
"With almost 1,600 horses competing here, to have each of his horses in that level of competition means his string of show horses is extremely strong. That's like having every one of our Olympians gets either gold or silver," Inman said.
"Not only is he competitive, but obviously he's got an incredible eye for talent. And [he's] an accomplished rider."
This year, Walden already has a new raft of ribbons in a Celebration that once again is racked with controversy -- this time not of Walden's making.
• On Saturday, his world grand champion contender, I'm Copperfield, along with trainer Knox Blackburn, took a first-place blue ribbon in the 5-year-old walking stallions division -- a preliminary to the big prize.
• The day before, Walden rode Private Charter, his 15-year-old horse, to win the world championship in the "classic [older] horse" division.
• Earlier Friday, Blackburn rode Walden's Ted Who to take a first-place blue ribbon in the 4-year-old park performance [low hoof pads] class.
• On Monday, Walden rode Ted Who to a second-place finish in the owner-amateur riders park performance class.
• On Tuesday, Walden and He's Wildeyed & Wicked became world champions in the owner-amateur riders on 5-year-old walking mares or geldings class.
But Saturday will be the really big night, when Chattanooga might have a new claim to fame: The world grand champion walking horse.
On Thursday, Walden said the this year's Celebration is tense with inspectors from USDA handing out more scar rule disqualifications than ever before. This week Celebration officials said government inspectors had written five times the number scar rule "tickets" in the Celebration's first week as were written in 2011's full 11-day show.
But Walden doesn't let the industry controversies -- past of present -- get between him and horses.
"The horse isn't the problem. The people involved in the horse are the problem," he said. "The industry [groups and people] is going to have to figure out how to quit fighting among themselves. All they're hurting is the horse."
This year, with videos of horse abuse and the guilty pleas of several trainers and stable hands charged with violating the federal Horse Protection Act, the walking horse image has been tainted -- something Walden called very unfortunate because he thinks industry "bad apples" are few, not many.
"As a whole the industry is really, really trying to present the Tennessee walking horse in a positive light," he said. "And to keep owners like me and others to stay in this business, they're going to have to improve the perception. No one wants to be associated with anything that hurts any animal or any one. The breed will depend on their ability to improve their image."
He laughs at questions about championship money, stud fees and jackpot horse sale windfalls driving trainers or owners to sore horses with caustic substances or foreign objects.
"There's no money in the horse business. This is a hobby. If you want to make a million in the horse business, you have to start with $2 million. Then you'll wind up with $1 million," he said.
But this year Walden and his trainer, Blackburn, got another wake-up call.
A new initiative by the Walking Horse Trainers Association and other horse groups introduced a more scientific swabbing test to cull sored horses and their trainers from competition.
In the first show on the circuit when it was used, another owner's horse entered by Blackburn had a positive test. Blackburn was suspended from training and showing for two weeks.
Walden said it scared him and the trainer, but he still has "complete confidence" in Blackburn.
"Knox and I had a conversation about that," Walden said. "He has strict instructions from me. He's got a chance to win the world grand championship. There is no way he would knowingly, willingly or intentionally do anything to jeopardize that," Walden said.
"I am 100 percent confident that my horses are 100 percent compliant," he said.
Walden said even shampoo can be a "foreign substance" on the swabbing tests intended to catch caustic acids or numbing agents on horses' legs.
He said a groom was terminated after the incident.
Walden said he was one of hundreds of people who grew up on the tradition of the two-week shows, held each year since 1939 in Shelbyville.
"It was like a big fair when I was a kid," he said. "We would camp out in the Winnebago, and we would ride minibikes and bicycles and stay over there for two weeks on a family vacation. We would show horses, and go to horse sales and whittle."
He still recalls the smell of cedar and the feel of a knife his dad gave him. His first job was at the Celebration -- selling popcorn and peanuts so he could buy a new pair of boots.
"Those are memories that I just love. The pomp and circumstance, the barn decorations, buying the hats and the T-shirts and campaigning the horses. And the competition -- there's nothing more exciting than going down that chute with thousands of people watching."
With those memories driving his ambition, Walden bought I'm Copperfield after the stallion already had won a 2-year-old grand championship.
"Knox told me he was the greatest horse he'd ever ridden. So when the opportunity came up to buy him, I did."
Since then, the horse has won the 3-year-old championship and the 4-year-old championship.
Saturday night will tell the story about the biggest walking horse prize of all.
But win or lose, Walden said he has plenty of special memories with Copperfield, the first grand champion horse either he or his father ever owned.
Walden swallowed emotion to tell the story of his father, then dying of cancer, leaving the hospital to watch Copperfield show for the first time under the Walden family name. It was the year the horse brought home the blue ribbon as a 3-year-old.
"Now he's 5, and we're going for the world grand championship," Walden said.
As for Copperfield's future, to hear Walden tell it, the horse will have an enviable life regardless of Saturdays' outcome.
"I have a farm in Ooltewah where, when my horses are not competitive anymore, I turn them out [to pasture]," he said. "My horses are like family. They are family," he said ticking off their treats and tooth care and many luxuries some people don't enjoy.
"There's an old saying that there's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man," Walden said. "I love horses. And I love just going to the barn, sitting in a stall and talking to them."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...
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