Holding the Reins: Horse show created by Morgan County woman has raised $755,000 for St. Jude’s

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Joyce Webster remembers the day 24 years ago in detail when a little girl with a baseball cap covering her bald head walked across the horse arena toward her.

“She was so white and thin. She told me, ‘Before I die, I’d like to ride a pony,’” Webster recalled.

When Webster asked the teacher about the girl, she learned the student from a Montessori school in Huntsville was battling cancer and doctors had given her roughly six months to live.

“When we got her up on that horse, I never saw such an incredible thing. The aura that came around that child, it was like God was touching her,” Webster said. “For years I had her picture on the wall with a note from her mother thanking us and letting us know that she had gone into remission.”

Instead of taking the $100 the school offered her that day, Webster asked them to donate it to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in honor of the child’s birthday.

The interaction with the girl inspired Webster, who lives in Hartselle, to create a horse show to benefit St. Jude, which is based in Memphis.

“God just laid it on my heart to start the horse show,” the now 75-year-old Webster said. “I was doing two other major shows at that time. I gave up both of those and started the National Academy Championship Horse Show.”

Over the past two decades, the horse show has raised more than $755,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“Heavens, I never thought we would raise this much. I would’ve been happy if we raised $2,000. It just grew and grew and grew,” Webster said. “It’s been amazing. I am so thankful to God that we have been able to donate so much to St. Jude’s.”

For her work establishing the National Academy Championship Horse Show, Webster received the American Saddlebred Horse & Breeders’ Association’s Wing Commander Medal during the 2023 annual convention.

“The Wing Commander Medal is a medal of honor. It is the highest recognition you can get. I feel so very honored to receive this,” Webster said.

Recipients of the Wing Commander Medal are chosen based on their service and dedication to the ASHBA and the American Saddlebred breed, according to the association.

For Webster, the Wing Commander Medal represents the culmination of more than five decades of dedication to horses.

On most days, one can find Webster training riders at B&W Arena in Hartselle, which Webster opened in 1967 with her father James Berger.

When asked how much time Webster spends in the arena, she half-jokingly responded “24 hours a day.”

On a recent summer morning, Webster stood in the middle of the dirt floor and watched Lisa Greene ride Rocky around the ring.

“This is my happy place. This is where I belong,” Webster said.

Webster’s love for horses started young. According to family stories, it began the day she was born.

“My dad said I said the word ‘pony’ before I said ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy,’” said Webster, who grew up in Montreal. “In Canada, they had a park and they had little ponies you could ride. When I was really little, I would pitch a fit until we got to the ponies and I was allowed to ride one.”

At 12 years old, Warren received her first horse — a Pinto pony named Pal — and began participating in competitions.

“I had Pal until he passed away at 22 years old. With Pal I really realized how horses become like members of the family,” Webster said.

When Webster’s father, who worked in Huntsville in the aerospace industry, retired in the late 1960s, they decided to open B&W (Berger & Webster) Stables. They found a 40-acre plot in east Hartselle, north of Alabama 36 and bordered by Perkins Wood Road and Jarrett Road.

They tore down the old chicken house standing on the property, erected the barn and, for 20 years, brought in horses and attracted riders.

Then tragedy struck.

In 1988, lightning hit the barn, causing it to burn and killing the 14 horses inside. Only two horses survived — Webster’s daughter’s world champion horse, who was in the pasture during the fire, and her son’s world champion horse, who was on the way to Louisville for a competition.

“We lost almost everything we had. It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever been through in my life. But, out of the ashes, God turned around and sent us a miracle,” Webster said.

For a month following the fire, Webster wondered if she could rebuild. The $35,000 she received from insurance did not come close to covering the quotes contractors predicted it would cost to rebuild. Then she received a call from a gentleman asking if she planned on rebuilding.

“I was so ugly to him. I really was, because I had already called four or five barn makers and they had all laughed at me when I told them how much money I had,” Webster said. “I did not know this man and have never met him to this day, but he knew the dimensions of the barn.”

He sent a proposal in the mail for $27,500.

“I thought he was a nutcase, but I called him back. He said he had added right and could have a crew out here if I could get the pad built. I didn’t even know what a pad was. When I got off the phone with him, this little, old gentleman came driving up in his rickety old truck. He was building a pond for a fellow down the road and needed a place to put the dirt. He said, ‘Would you let us build you a pad?’ My knees buckled and I started crying,” Webster said.

Four months after the fire, Webster opened the new barn and dedicated it to God.

“We even had 14 horses given to us, which was the exact amount of horses we lost,” Webster said. “God is the reason we are still here today. We owe everything to him. If I can do something like the horse show to help someone else and share my blessing, then that is what I’m going to do.”

Currently, B&W Stables has 18 horses and 24 riders. This year’s National Academy Championship Horse Show will take place Nov. 2-5 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Last year’s show attracted more than 1,300 riders from 19 states.