Roy Exum: A Dismal Horse Celebration

Thursday, August 30, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I am not in the weather forecasting business, but it seems to me that if indeed Shelbyville gets any rain this weekend from Hurricane Isaac, it could not possibly dampen the 74th Annual National Walking Horse Celebration any worse than what we’ve already seen happen to the so-called “Big Lick” segment of the walking horse industry this week.

Celebration officials have unwittingly done the unthinkable, allowing anger and avarice to take the luster off the Celebration’s natural centerpiece – the majestic animals that prance every year in Calsonic Arena. But just as those who have sored and abused the beautiful horses for a half-century and, more recently, enraged the nation in May in a now-famous video, the Shelbyville crowd has vilified itself to the world once again.

In what should have been a huge positive step of a show, one that would focus on “clean” and sound horses, it has turned instead into a vicious war of words and, with newspaper readers and television viewers watching the diatribe more intently than ever before, the shameful allegations and barbs between the Celebration leaders and stern-faced officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Humane Society is reaching a crescendo as the weekend events arrive.

My goodness, a “wash out” would be a Godsend for the beleaguered annual event. Shelbyville leaders hired a public relations firm but after what has already transpired leading into this weekend’s finale, no amount of damage control can overcome the arrogance and brash stance that horribly misguided Celebration officials have taken towards the government officials, the Humane Society of the United States, the top two groups of equine veterinarians, and literally thousands of decent Tennessee Walking Horse owners who today vigorously stand up for the noble sanctity of the breed.

Spectators and riders alike have stayed away from the suspected donnybrook in a revealing way and no wonder; the Shelbyville “country club,” as the Big Lick leaders are called, has been as caustic as the irritants that scurrilous trainers apply to the forelegs of the defenseless horses, virtually assuring that the only sure outcome of this year’s event is that sweeping and stringent changes will finally come to what one Humane Society official calls “the cruelest horse show on earth.”

In honesty, the Celebration leaders have seen the disaster coming all summer. The minute Pepsi pulled its sponsorship in the wake of the Jackie McConnell video, the Celebration was ill-fated but, instead of offering a contrite stance and a repentful model, the Shelbyville leadership has actually sued the USDA, inflamed the Humane Society with outlandish accusations and made one strategic blunder after another in the three months leading to its showcase.

The resulting damage is seemingly as wide as the hurricane’s swath in Louisiana. Thousands of seats have been empty this week, infractions of the federal Horse Protection Act are being found at a frenzied pace by USDA inspectors, and with public scrutiny and livid disdain at an all-time high, the Celebration hierarchy foolishly appears to care less that the breed – the Tennessee Walking Horse – is the biggest victim of its senseless charade.

But, again, the Shelbyville organizers had to know what was coming. When the Tennessee State Fair opens next week in Nashville, only flat-shod walkers with natural gaits will be allowed in an open rebuff to the unnatural “Big Lick,” an exaggerated gait that many trainers now claim is nigh impossible without torturing, or sadistically “stewarding,” an animal.

Celebration officials staunchly defend the “Big Lick,” of course, because of moneyed interests, but for the first time since the federal Horse Protection Act was enacted in 1970, animal advocates, devotees of the horse, and a groundswell of public sentiment is combining to pressure the USDA and the Humane Society in a way that is having a devastating effect on the disreputable “Big Lick” faction.

Further, animal advocates promise the hardline stance being seen in Shelbyville this week is merely a battle in the escalating war to eradicate the dark and seamy side of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. Harsh federal and state laws are being enacted and, in Tennessee, it is now a felony to abuse horses. Oddly, multiple violations are reportedly now being found in Shelbyville but, to the puzzlement of many, not one arrest has been made by the local sheriff.

There is some indication that criminal investigations are indeed underway. Officials from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are said to have requested files before the Celebration and a heavy blanket of rumors now plagues the Big Lickers in the same way the increasing salvos of an incensed nation are aimed at the very leaders of this week’s calamity.

What is most unbelievable – and absolutely unexplainable – is why the Shelbyville crowd continues to perpetuate an evil and perverted method of animal cruelty when, today, any fool can tell it still thrives beneath some of the pads and chains and so-called “performance devices” that are associated with the Big Lick.

Don’t they realize if there is no cheating the USDA, the Humane Society, the leading veterinarian groups, the angry lawmakers and the enraged public will go away? Apparently not, so the guarantee – as illustrated so blatantly on Shelbyville’s own doorstep this week – is that the Big Lick will soon be over because the fire, once thought to rage on the hooves, pasterns and forelegs of a helpless horse, is now descending in a different yet distinct fury on any and every rouge who haughtily insists on a man-made trip to Hades.

Believe this because it is the new mantra – the Tennessee Walking Horse will win. Oh, will it ever. And when it returns to a natural gait, an intact tail, and countless loving hands, the only lasting scorn will be reserved for those filthy few who today stubbornly defend a dirty dollar at the expense of an ever-innocent horse. Their failure is now a certainty.

royexum@aol.com



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