Band Lady was her name, and 11 year old Mary Elle Areaux was in love with the stylish bay Tennessee Walker.  The mare belonged to the vice president of Gulf Park College, across the street from her childhood home on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
  "I was told she was worth  $400," recalls Mary Ellen, "but she didn't fit into their equestrian program.  He knew how much I admired her, so he offered to sell her to me for $75.  I ran home to ask my mother. 

   'You have four older brothers and we can't  afford her,' she said.  Well, he reduced the price to $50, but again my mother said no.  His final offer was $40.  'Will he take it in two payments?' asked my mother.
   "So I became the proud owner of Band Lady, my first horse.  I rode her along the beach, through the woods, everywhere.  We were inseparable.  Years later, my father was transferred to New Orleans, and he had to sell my mare for $75.  It broke my heart."
   But Band Lady was only the beginning.
   After moving to Texas in 1967, Mary Ellen purchased her next Tennessee Walking Horse in Tulsa --a white mare with a black colt at her side.  At her well-known barn, Walkers West, (first located in Terrell, now in Kaufman) she has raised and sold horses of that elegant gaited breed for nearly 30 years.  Buyers come from almost every state, as well as Canada, Brazil, Germany, Holland and Scotland.  Wout van Tillingen of Wimberley (formerly from Holland) assists with the exports.
   Her barn holds 46 horses, and there's a waiting list for stalls. Customers bring their Tennessee Walkers for training, breeding or sale on consignment.
Her trainer is Morton "Moe" Lawell, who hails from Shelbyville, Tenn., the heart of Tennessee Walking Horse country.  Moe has spent his entire life working with the breed, notably with well-known trainer Ronal Young.
   Originally a Thoroughbred operation, Walkers West has a 7/8 mile racetrack, now covered with grass -- excellent for conditioning the 15 to 20 trail and pleasure horses that Moe works with daily.  Walkers West doesn't train for show, although at times in the past, Mary Ellen has exhibited colts at halter to promote her stallions.
   "Breeding is the part of this business that fascinates me," she says.  "I feel it is my responsibility to have top quality stallions.  It is a serious commitment. It takes a long time to develop a stallion's reputation."
     She has owned all four of hers for many years. 
      The oldest is Bum's Warrior, 26, one of the last living sons of World Grand Champion Delight Bumin' Around.  The mahogany bay, who has sired many blue-ribbon winners in Texas, still has great presence.  He is also the teasing stud.  "He's got lots of personality.  He all but talks," she says.
Generator's Charmer, 18, is a dark sorrel with flaxen mane and tail.  He is a son of Prides Generator, the premier sire of the breed.  "He also has a playful streak," says Mary Ellen.  "When he's in the outside pen by the road, he chases cars."    
     Gold color and old blood have made The Gold Rush Is On, a 23-year-old palomino, the most popular stallion.  His grandsires, Midnight Sun and Merry Go Boy, were two of the legendary World Grand Champions of a generation ago.  "Gold Rush has six Foundation horses on his papers--a real rarity," she says.  "That goes back to 1935, when the breed was first recognized."
     She likes to breed him to liver-chestnut mares to produce foals of a deep golden hue.  One of these, standing over 16 hands with a frothy white mane and tail, recently sold for $15,000 as a two-year-old to a buyer from California.
     The youngest and tallest stallion (13 years and 16 hands) is Paint's Cotton, a striking black-and-white tobiano.  His portraits, by English photographer, Bob Langrish, adorn the official breed calendar.
    Such loud color, which used to be discriminated against, is increasingly popular, especially with pleasure riders, she notes.

Walkers West cont.....
     A similarly-colored yearling caught Mary Ellen's eye six years ago in Kentucky.  She bought Powder River and brought him to Texas.  Exhibited by Danny Wooten and Jeff Givens, he became an outstanding show  champion, earning world titles in driving and park pleasure.  "I sold him last year, and he's now winning everything in North Carolina," she says.
     In November, Mary Ellen sold one of Powder River's foals--Majestic River - colored just like his sire--for $5,000 at four days old.  His dam is one of Gold Rush's first daughters.
     She sells 70 to 100 horses a year, at various prices, averaging $5,000.
     That talent for marketing comes easily to someone who has been a successful commercial realtor since 1973.  Currently, Mary Ellen is the leasing agent for General Growth Properties, the second largest shopping center owner in the US.  The Dallas company owns many of the major malls in the Metroplex and also operates the Galleria.  She will soon be responsible for leasing space in the company/s malls in four northern states.
     Both her home, which she shares with a passel of cats, and her office are on the property, a few steps away from the barn.  "I can sleep with one ear open," she says, in case there is trouble, like the night when two stallions got out of their stalls.  She's also there to greet customers when ever they drive through the gate. 

Nearly all the time, the barn is a busy place, with hands bathing and grooming the horses, potential buyers looking over those for sale (currently 15), mares coming in for live breeding (mid-March through December), and farrier Gary Hill keeping them all immaculately shod on his weekly rounds.
     "The number one attribute of Tennessee Walkers is their gentle nature," says Mary Ellen.  "They come in every size, from ponies to giants.  Every color, from champagne to chestnut.  And every type of conformation.  I can find you one that looks like a Quarter Horse or an Arab. With all that, you have the advantage of a wonderful smooth ride.  It's the only way to go.
     "Riding a Tennessee Walker feels a little different at first.  They're trained through the mouth.  You apply pressure and urge them on all at the same time.  They have power steering and power brakes.  But once you get it, it's so much fun--whether you are 4 years old or 80."

     She rides her stallions for pleasure, but she generally stays on her own property after a neighbor's pit bulldog attacked her and a friend as they were riding down the farm road right-of-way.
     Mary Ellen continues to be a tireless promoter of the breed, spreading the gaited gospel far and wide.  She says, "We attribute much of our success to the great website which was designed by Judy Handel of
Bansidhe Graphics in England.  She is a master designer of Tennessee Walking Horse websites."
     Recently, Donna Mack, a woman in her sixties from Bozeman, Mont., enchanted by the Walkers West website flew down and stayed for several days.
    "She wanted a nice, safe horse." says Mary Ellen.  "I sold her a two-year-old stallion.  Safety has nothing to do with a horse's age. It's the temperament.
     "Just before she left for home, she told me, 'By the way, I'm Lawrence Welk's daughter.'
     Now she is riding the trails in Montana on her Tennessee Walking Horse gelding and making all kinds of converts up there.