In the past couple of weeks I have been accused of some things I am not in the hundreds of emails I have received from walking horse people and today, it being a slow Saturday, seems like a good time to clear some things up. Dozens have called me a hero and that’s not true. More have called me courageous, a saint, a savior, a brave warrior and all kinds of other plaudits that simply don’t fit me so let me tell you about myself and maybe you’ll recognize some other folks you know.
I don’t own a horse and, to my misfortune, I never have. But I was raised with a fierce love and a deep admiration for all of God’s animals. My earliest recollection was when a big herd of my grandfather’s milk cows chased me into a farm pond and my first chore as a little boy was to change the dog’s water every day. (Some time later I told my daddy water doesn’t “get old” and he laughed and told me, “Son, the dogs know you do it.”)
This time two weeks ago I thought the Tennessee Walking Horse was our state’s greatest symbol. It is regal and majestic and strong and brave. I still think that. But when I saw a video tape of a trainer, Jackie McConnell, whipping a beautiful horse with an electric cattle prod, it flew all over the fighting side of me. When I learned he would soon be appearing in our city’s Federal Court, I made sure my readers knew it so nobody would be nice to him when he came to town. That’s all I wanted to do.
Since then I have been drawn into a steamy and curious cauldron that I know absolutely nothing about. I have nothing against the horse show leadership in Shelbyville and I’m not here to promote any group over another. But I can neither fathom why nor stand still when I know some sadistic psychopath is willfully and knowingly hurting an innocent and defenseless animal of any kind. That, in a word, is sick and I’ll fight anybody over it.
Please, I am hardly a “bunny hugger.” I am convinced those who hunt and fish are the greatest conservationists among us. What Ducks Unlimited and the Wild Turkey Federation do is glorious. Oh, the late Erma Bombeck made us laugh when she claimed her favorite animal was “steak” but I’ll tell anybody that my dog Scooter sleeps every night nestled up against my right thigh (yes, in the bed and, if it’s cold, under the covers.)
Since I took after “Jackie the Jerk,” the Humane Society’s nauseating video has caused the walking horse cauldron to bubble over. The heat is now so intense every newspaper in Tennessee and many around the nation have railed against what turns out to be a somewhat seedy governing body. A casual look at the leadership shows that to have any standing at all it appears one must have at least one violation of the federal Horse Protection Act. Are you kidding me – of the top 20 trainers in the Rider Cup right now, there are 161 violations in just the last two years.
The boards of the Trainer’s Association, the Breeder’s Association, and the Exhibitor’s Association are rife with past violators who all cry the abuse is “isolated” and – mathematically – that is true. With 500,000 walkers that are registered and many others that are not, it is easy to reason at least 98 percent of the owners and trainers and riders are the kind you would be blessed to have as a neighbor. It’s that 2 percent -- the criminals who lust for money -- who are ruining the entire infrastructure for everybody.
When a horse’s foot literally fell off at a Florida horse show this spring, when there is so much evidence of abuse “at the top” it makes you queasy, and when they threaten to kick out the very man who created the despicable video, I don’t see how any human being with values and morals on earth can stand still.
Forget applauding the barbarians, until “we the people” oust those that include scurrilous politicians, bullies who preside over the show judges and a propaganda network that would make Hitler proud then the 98 percent who revere the horse doesn’t have a chance. They have a senator from Kentucky who is clearly trash and his former aide is now a Washington lobbyist for the clearly tainted walking horse hierarchy.
How is this? The now-reeling industry created a new group last week called the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization. To really kick it off, they got a guy named Randall Baskin, who has owned a world champion, to jump up and pledge a matching gift of $100,000 to the roar of the crowd. My goodness gracious! He’s the same Randal Baskin who is currently suspended by the Department of Agriculture for violating the Horse Protection Act with a horse aptly named “Spotlight on Parole.” He shouldn’t have even been there!
In the Nashville Tennessean newspaper the other day a trainer by the name of Rodney Dick claimed, “We don’t do that anymore. Now in the past, I can’t say that. But I know, as of now, we don’t do that anymore.” Please, brother! The same Rodney Dick, widely known as the Trainer of the Year in 2001, is currently suspended for a violation of the Horse Protection Act.
Don’t fret; Rodney will get back in the game next Monday, his time-out finally served, and his buddy Larry Weldon, who serves on the Association’s Ethics Committee, will get off his suspension on Tuesday. Baskin, the owner of Spotlight on Parole and his trainer, Steve Dunn of Alabama, will have their suspensions lifted on July 19 to give them time for the big show in August. I’m telling you, as an animal lover I find the whole thing totally disgraceful.
I’m neither a judge nor a jury, just one guy with an opinion. I saw an X-ray of a horse’s padded front hoof the other day and I could count 30 nails and spikes that had been driven into the animal’s foot, not its hoof. Until the Humane Society video I never knew a horse could actually cry. Why the owner of that horse didn’t take a lynch mob after Jackie McConnell is a mystery to me. But I still can’t get the sound of that horse sobbing out of my ears or my heart. That’s who I am.
I’ve had more than several implore me to “watch my back” but somebody’s been threatened to whip me for most of my life and I don’t flinch real easily. My mom says that’s why I went to five high schools while my family never moved. Nope, I was taught to stand my ground early and that hasn’t changed. When you don’t stand up for what you believe then you’ll fall for anything.
Now, if I spent just five minutes to respond to each email I get every day, I wouldn’t have time to eat or sleep. I try to read all of them – especially to learn – and I deeply appreciate the fact people take the time, the trouble and the patience to write to me. For the record, I finally got the very first email on behalf of “the dark side” late Thursday afternoon but – guess what – cowards never sign their names.
I am also very appreciative of the many invitations that have come my way to horse shows, training barns and dinner tables. I’m excited about actually getting to ride a walker one afternoon this summer. I learned to ride early in life, to tie a cinch knot and to laugh at a gallop, but now I’m old and break easily.
I know that walking horses are different; all the Confederate generals in the Civil War rode walkers. So did circuit preachers and families used to hitch their walker to the family buggy long ago. That’s how gentle the ones that aren’t abused grow to be. One lady even wrote that walkers are so easy to ride they don’t even come with training wheels. So, yeah, I’m excited about that.
Thanks to the hundreds who have written to me, urging me on, and filling me in on things that “a good ole boy” would never know otherwise. I’ll still write about horses once in a while and anytime I hear an animal cry I’ll ball up my fist and be right there. Tennessee walking horses are a gift from God and let no man tear them asunder.
So that’s my story – I’m just an everyday guy who cares about horses and dogs and kids and springtime flowers. I am no hero. I am not courageous. No, I’m guess I’m just a lot like 98 percent of those who own walkers and know that sometimes we all need to hold hands, especially when the current gets running too strong.