Sarah Burks was driving her husband's customized Chevrolet Corvette shortly after his death in 2017 when she felt the call to return to the horse show world after three decades away.
Albert Burks passed away in May of that year shortly after his lung cancer diagnosis.
"When I heard that big block engine roar, I heard my late husband's voice: 'Honey, you've done everything that you need to do. Now, it's time to do something you love,'" she recalls. "That's when I decided to celebrate his life rather than mourn his death."
Three months after Albert's death, she attended the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee, to watch a friend's show. It was there that she met Alan and Nick Price, a father/son horse training team based in Gordon County.
She remembers Alan encouraging her to get back into the sport she had loved since she was a young girl.
"The first words he said to me were, 'I want to be the one to put you back in the show ring,'" she says.
Her response: "That's never going to happen."
Life circumstances, including a divorce years earlier had led her away from the horse world, and she was hesitant about jumping back in. But she trusted the Prices, and by the end of 2018, she was
was the proud owner of 21 Tennessee Walking Horses and 20 high-stakes blue ribbons that she had earned within the year.
Sarah started riding horses almost before she could talk.
"My daddy put me on my first pony when I was 2, and it was, 'Horse, horse, horse!' ever since then," she says.
She wanted to ride hunter jumpers as she got older, but her father thought it was too dangerous. Instead, at the recommendation of a friend, he got her into Walking Horses, a breed known for its smooth, specialized gaits, when she was an adolescent.
Sarah's father was actually her adoptive parent, and unbeknownst to her for a long time, her biological father was an avid rider. He sustained head injuries jumping horses, which was why her adoptive father refused to let her ride hunters. Sarah found out about her birth father's affinity for horses when she was 30 years old. That was the same year she won a world championship and a world grand championship aboard "Senator's Delight R&R" at the Celebration, the be-all and end-all of Walking Horse shows that takes place in Shelbyville, Tennessee, each year.
It wasn't long after winning that first title that she made what she thought might be a permanent break from the show ring. Her adoptive father died a short time later.
"It meant the world to him to see me win that," she recalls.
'We just went gangbusters'
She credits Alan and Nick Price with bringing her back into the sport and helping her rekindle the love of horses that never really fizzled. Nick does the training, and Sarah says his talent surpasses that of much older trainers. The communication he brings to his training through his hands, she says, makes all the difference when it comes to creating horses that outshine the others.
"I have never had anybody put me in the ring on such consistently great horses," she said.
Her show season took her all over the South this year: Crystal, Franklin and Chestnut Hill, Tennessee; Conyers, Georgia; Tunica, Mississippi.
The year began with a win for her stallion, "Cowboy Casanova," at the National Walking Horse Trainers' Show in Shelbyville. She and the Prices decided to pursue other serious titles after that.
"We just went gangbusters," she says.
The year included a world grand championship win at the Celebration with a young horse in the 3-year-old amateur division.
"Winning the world championship and world grand championship on 'Dobie Gra/was, of course, the highlight of this year for me," Sarah says.
Only 25 show barns took home this accolade, she says. Horses who attain this level of success must first qualify to compete for the title by winning a world championship against horses of the same gender within their divisions. Mares, geldings and stallions then compete against each other for the world grand championship title.
The fact that Sarah had only owned "Dobic Gray" for about six weeks before winning the grand championship augmented the win significantiy. She credits Nick with elevating the horse's way of going in a short time with solid training.
At the end of the year, her mare, "Ruby Lipstick," had taken home the Walking Horse Trainers Association Ladies Amateur Horse of the Year award, and "A Classic Action" had come in second place overall for the year in the association's 4-year-old amateur stallion category. Sarah has enjoyed every second of it.
"I promised myself I wouldn't pressure myself... I thought I was having fun (showing before) but not like I'm having now," she says. "My goal is to represent the Walking Horse industry, Price Stables and this wonderful breed as best I possibly can and to have a lot of fun doing that. And I've certainly had the time of my life."
Sarah moved here from Knoxville in early 2017 after realizing where her partnership with the Prices was headed.
"It's like we've known each other in a previous life," she says.
She has a big year planned for 2019 with the National Walking Horse Trainers Show up first in March. She has a lot to live up to in defending her 2018 titles, but she's ready.
"We've got some great horses to do it with," she says.