An eagerly-awaited showdown between the “dark side” of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture was scheduled to begin in far-away Texas today but the hearing has been cancelled, instead allowing both sides to file legal briefs in a process that will delay any gun slingin’ or – worse – not bring further reform to a shattered horse industry until September at the earliest.
If you’ll check your calendar, the 74th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration will be held Aug. 22 through Sept. 1 in Shelbyville and will slip nicely under the wire. And many hope it will be the last stand for the “Big Lick” people, as the criminals and cheaters have now been loosely labeled, because the once-noble Shelbyville show is being increasing scrutinized as what may be the most deplorable sporting event in America.
For well over half a century a despicable few among the many thousands of owners, trainers and riders have bought their blue ribbons rather than earn them with their abused horses. They cheat by using caustic chemicals, nails, imbedded objects and other sadistic means to force the horses to pick up their agonized front feet higher in what is called the “Big Lick.”
Shelbyville organizers swear there are only isolated cases but in a letter that appeared in the Nashville Tennessean last Thursday, Keith Dane, the director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, wrote that is certainly not true. “There is ample evidence that soring is pervasive and not limited to ‘a few bad actors.’ “
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted random testing for the use of prohibited foreign substances on horses at various walking horse competitions, and a shocking 97.6 percent of horses tested positive,” Dane wrote.
He also revealed, “Between 2010 and 2011, 100 percent of the top 20 trainers in the industry’s Riders Cup program were cited for (161) violations of the Horse Protection Act. What the horses, and the sport, need are strong regulations and unwavering enforcement, not a group of conflicted players claiming to be the right gang to clean up the industry.”
There are encouraging signs that badly-needed reform is coming. Horse abuse is now punishable as a felony in Tennessee and five men have already pleaded guilty this year to violating the Horse Protection Act in Federal Court in what is believed to be the first time the 40-year-old law has successfully been prosecuted. The guilty pleas show federal investigators and prosecutors are actively searching for other shady trainers and their employees.
A nauseating video appeared in May on ABC News Nightline and its star, a notorious trainer named Jackie McConnell, will be sentenced on federal charges Sept. 10 before 14 counts of unrelated state charges of cruelty will be heard in Fayette, Tn., later in September. One trainer has already done a stint in jail but federal laws are still lax.
The video, where McConnell is shown beating one horse with an electric cattle prod, has been seen by millions of viewers and opened a floodgate of rage and protest towards the Walking Horse industry and, more particularly, its leadership based in Shelbyville. Pepsi immediately dropped its sponsorship and a quick study showed the various boards are riddled with past violators of the federal act. One even tried to have the Humane Society’s Dane barred from the board. Two of the leading veterinarian groups in the country have issued a public demand that chains and padding, or stacks, be totally eliminated from the Walking Horse industry and several states have pending litigation to ban “performance horses” because the cheating and cruelty is so widespread. Some charity shows say they’ll ban any padded horses with the cry, “No more crippled horses for crippled children.”
But, worst of all, is the uprising from 95 percent of the Tennessee Walking Horse owners and riders. The outcry is reaching a nationwide crescendo after years of abuse that has been hidden, ignored, shunned and mocked. It is obvious, with the pending lawsuit against the USDA, the Shelbyville contingent is content to leave its empire status quo.
An avid horsewoman from Michigan sent an email this week that said, in part, “What these creeps our don't think of is that as the pressure is on, we no longer purchase horses from Tenn., no longer patronize those TWH related businesses, no longer breed or buy semen down there, no longer travel there for TWH related business and many are moving to other breeds to have a healthy atmosphere for the children to show.”
The USDA’s stronger inspection regulations went into effect last Monday and some sense there could be a greater presence of inspectors, investigators and even state and federal prosecutors at the Celebration in August. There will also be a noticeable number of empty seats. Many owners and riders are avoiding the Shelbyville show and are in search of fast-growing groups like FOSH – Friends of Sound Horses.
Others are writing to Congress and other political leaders, begging them to stop the criminals, including the owners who pay trainers to cheat. They demand to know who owned the horses shown being abused in the McConnell video, for example, and want them held accountable. But, more than anything, they want to drive out the “underbelly” of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and to be assured that the animals will not suffer at the hands of sadistic thugs ever again.