NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Kennis “Buttons” Fairfax, a renowned horseshow judge and clinician from Westfield, N.J. was presented with the 2019 “Spirit of the Horse Award” at the Rutgers Equine Science Center’s  “Evening of Science & Celebration” on Nov. 8. 

Former Governor and current New Jersey State Senator, Richard J. Codey, presented the award to Fairfax but not before asking the question, “How did you get the name ‘Buttons’?”

“Do you want the truth, or my version?” Fairfax responded with a big grin. Perhaps it was “Because I was cute as a button,” he then said with a laugh, “But then I look in the mirror.”

Sign Up for E-News

At 6 foot, 2 inches tall, and built like a linebacker (he once even tried out for the Seattle Seahawks) — cute as a button is not quite a fitting moniker. Fairfax then explained that many years ago someone gave him a button to wear. But when he pinned it on his shirt, it kept poking him. So he moved it to his hat. Someone else gave him another button, and another. One day, someone who did not know his name, called him “Buttons” to get his attention. “I made the mistake of answering,” Fairfax said. The nick name since stuck, for good. He said today many people don’t even know his real name.

Fairfax is one of very few African Americans licensed to judge horse shows. A visual arts teacher at Arts High School in Newark by day, he spends many weekends and summers judging horse shows and doing clinics. He is in high demand for judging schooling shows where he has a knack for putting nervous beginner riders at ease, giving useful pointers while making them laugh. He has been known to sing, dance, talk to horses and high five riders in the ring. He has also judged local and state 4-H shows and horse judging contests as well as nationally and internationally.

It wasn't always so. Earlier in his career the color of his skin prevented people from hiring him. His knowledge and skills as a judge and his sense of humor helped him overcome those challenges.

Fairfax was also instrumental in bringing the mounted Scarlet Knight to Rutgers Football games. He said he was asked to work with Lord Nelson, a horse had a long career as a police horse and the student mounted patrol horse. The Knight’s mount needs to be bomb, or at least “cannon proof.” After every score the cannon is fired. Little was known about how the quarter horse would handle the atmosphere of a football game, but Fairfax said after the first boom, Lord Nelson just turned and looked to see if the cannon would go off again.

The Spirit of the Horse Award honors him for his lifelong commitment to advancing the proper care and management of horses, and for his contributions to youth education. “Buttons’ lifelong passion has been horses and their relationship with people,” says Center director Karyn Malinowski. “Being able to share his knowledge of horses with others is what he finds most rewarding. His goal of opening the equine world to inner-city children provides them with a unique experience that they might not have previously thought possible.”

For more information about the Equine Science Center see

See more Equestrian news at

Find us on Facebook

Sign Up for E-News to get top stories delivered daily to your inbox.