Roy Exum: The Budweiser Clydesdales Wept

Monday, August 5, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Budweiser’s magnificent Clydesdales, splendid dray horses that weigh over 2,000 pounds apiece and have thrilled cheering crowds all over the world, surely wept and their Dalmatian buddy was none too pleased either when the sad news made its way to the gorgeous stables on Grant’s Farm in St. Louis. It has just been announced that Budweiser will be an official sponsor of the 75th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville later this month.

Even the Clydesdales know that Shelbyville is the epicenter of the worst horse abuse in the world; at last year’s show 190 horses were chosen at random by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and 145 of them tested positive for caustic substances that had been used to “sore” the forelegs of the animals. Soring is illegal in the United States, prohibited by the federal Horse Protection Act.

But until badly-needed reforms make way through Congress and the Senate, the scofflaws within the Walking Horse racket receive little more than a warning for the rampant abuse. An outraged public and an army of dedicated horse advocates are pushing for help in both the House and the Senate, but the USDA has neither the resources nor the manpower to police the deceitful “Big Lick” faction of the Walking Horse industry.

Budweiser’s involvement with the National Celebration comes as a huge shock, but it seems that L&H Distributing Co., located in Tullahoma, has cut a deal with the cash-strapped show to provide alcoholic beverages for the first time ever at what has been previously billed as “a family event.” Many recall when Pepsi immediately jerked its sponsorship away from the Celebration last year after an undercover tape showed a Hall of Fame trainer, Jackie McConnell, clubbing horses and abusing one’s lips with an electric prod.

The Big Lickers soon worked a deal with Coca Cola Bottling Works of Tullahoma, a small independent distributor, and, while “Big Coke” was said to be incensed with the Tullahoma decision to sell Coca-Cola product, a spokesman said they were unable to intercede on behalf of horse lovers around the country. “Big Coke” did demand there be no signage at the Celebration, knowing such publicity could tarnish the corporate brand. Now most will agree that the late “Augie” Busch would roll over in his grave if he knew what the Tullahoma Budweiser distributor has just done.

The Big Lickers suffered a big loss in a U.S. District Court in Fort Worth, Tex., on June 30, when a judge upheld federal regulations to prevent the practice of "soring." The federal rules were challenged by a group of Big Lickers called S.H.O.W., which has fought the USDA, the Humane Society of the United States, and every other animal welfare group calling for the vile practice to stop.

S.H.O.W. stands for “Sound horses, Honest judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly” but has become the biggest joke in the horse industry after taking the Department of Agriculture to court and promptly losing. It is expected that SHOW will soon be decertified by the USDA, but, due to an appeals process, this won’t occur until after this year’s celebration.

The USDA has made no comment on the ruling and has not indicated what role its investigators and veterinarians will take in Shelbyville Aug. 21-31. Due to last year’s overwhelming evidence of soring, there will undoubtedly be a government presence and, after USDA investigators joined state agents in a raid against trainer Larry Wheelon in Maryville, the crackdown against the equine criminals will continue. It has been reported 19 horses in Wheelon’s barn had been sored, some so badly the horses could barely walk.

Wheelon, two of his helpers, and a loathsome farrier have been charged with one count each of “aggravated animal abuse” and will appear before Sessions Court Judge Robert L. Headrick in Maryville on Aug. 14. The high-profile case is expected to go to the Blount County Grand Jury. Pending the outcome, additional charges will be filed and all four men could be charged with felonies on each count. Under new Tennessee law, each count calls for “no less than one and not more than five years” in prison.

American Veterinary Medical Association CEO Ron DeHaven met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week to discuss the rampant soring and said afterwards, “The Secretary is sympathetic to the cause and supportive of the effort. He also understands concerns given the current budget climate. Any additional requirement has to come with funding.”

DeHaven suggested that S.H.O.W. inspectors be replaced with USDA-certified veterinarians. “Currently, horse show management is paying the cost of (their inspectors,)” DeHaven said. “There’s no reason a similar arrangement couldn’t be made where inspectors trained by USDA could be reimbursed by show management.” 

DeHaven told reporters on Capitol Hill that the Big Lick’s resistance is “because that has become part of the culture.” He also said some Walking Horse judges reward the violators. “They have a judging system based on rewarding that ‘Big Lick’ gait and arguably the only way to get that is through soring a horse,” DeHaven said.  “Judges tend to turn a blind eye … ”

At least one of this year’s judges at The Celebration has a notorious record of USDA “tickets” – Rollie Beard of Lewisburg – and many of the top trainers who will bring horses to Shelbyville have sordid histories as well.

Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Warner (D-VA) introduced a bill to amend the Horse Protection Act in the Senate last week to accompany a similar bill already in the House that now has 137 cosponsors. Both bills are called the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act of 2013.

Tennessee’s delegation in Washington has been curiously silent regarding the new soring legislation, but one Congressman, Scott DesJarlais (R-Jasper), was given a reception at last year’s National Celebration and is known to have met with the USDA’s Vilsak in support of the Big Lickers.

The Humane Society is urging horsemen and horsewomen all across America to contact their representatives in Washington, urging swift and decisive action on the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act. The Budweiser Clydesdales, despite the Tullahoma distributor, are adamant foes of horse abuse and if you watched the dog’s reaction in the sickening Jackie McConnell video, you can be assured the Dalmatian that rides with the driver, when the Clydesdales make your heart nearly jump through your throat as the proud hitch prances down the street, is so mad that noble dog is ready to go to Tullahoma itself and bite somebody. Real hard, too.

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