When a large group of carefully-selected owners and trainers revealed the newly-formed All-American Walking Horse Alliance on Monday, it sent a shock wave that was accompanied with a dire warning through the embattled Walking Horse industry based in Tennessee. It marked the first time in history that horsemen from 45 states have stood collectively united against the Shelbyville empire that has sullied the magnificent breed in recent years.
The alliance’s primary purpose is to stand in support of the proposed PAST Act, a much-needed amendment to the federal Horse Protection Act of 1970. The group has planned a “Walk On Washington” on June 18 to illustrate to the nation’s lawmakers they should pass reform laws targeted at those who abuse and torture animals in order to achieve the now-scurrilous “Big Lick” gait.
But the underlying message is even greater. Walking Horse owners and trainers have now had quite enough of bullying leadership of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors and its ongoing fights with such organizations as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Humane Society of the United States. The Big Lick is a small fraction of the industry – about 5 percent – but the Lickers completely dominate the breed’s governing body.
Paula Weaver, a sound-horse advocate in Michigan, told the Oakland Press this weekend, “Membership in the TWHBEA has plummeted from approximately 20,000 just a few years ago to less than 7,000 today. Many states, including Michigan, have discontinued classes (at shows) for Big Lick horses … Starting in 2009 the Kentucky Horse Park has not allowed Big Lick horses to exhibit in the World Equestrian Games. There are still scattered Big Lick shows in scattered pockets, especially in the South, but even those venues are dwindling.”
The PAST Act, if approved, would outlaw the huge pads on Walkers’ front hooves, the pressure shoes and tight chains and other action devices as well, but the Big Lick has fought hard against reform. Steven B. Smith, the president of the TWHBEA, happens to be Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander’s state campaign chairman and Alexander, up for re-election, has offered a watered-down version of the PAST Act that has infuriated sound horsemen across the nation. Alexander’s bill would keep the pads, where veterinarians claim Big Lickers can hide pain-producing devices.
Smith was also allegedly instrumental in a fundraiser for Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn that resulted in a reported $70,000 for her campaign. Since then Blackburn has sponsored a lame alternative bill in Congress and gotten Tennessee’s other Republican Party delegates to endorse it - a group that includes Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga) and Scott DesJarlais (R-Jasper.)
Teresa Bippen, the president of the highly-successful Friends of Sound Horses organization (FOSH), told the Michigan newspaper her group is the champion of the Tennessee Walking Horse, along with 14 other breeds that are flat-shod. “We believe this USA-made breed is undeserving of the extreme abuse forced on it for presentation in the Big Lick ring,” she said.
“The Repeat Violators list generated by our database (taking from actual USDA records) is over 265 pages long. (Those now seated) on the Walking Horse Trainers Association collectively hold 160 HPA violations. The president of the association has over 20 violations because the penalty system is too weak and the industry has failed at inspecting the horses properly.”
Horse shows featuring Big Lick horses are now plagued by poor attendance – the National Celebration has hemorrhaged money for the past five years – and public disdain continues to mount. Larry Wheelon, who once chaired the Trainer’s Ethics Committee, is expected to go on trial later this week in Maryville, where he and four others face felony charges for horse abuse that could result in prison terms if the men are found guilty.
John Haffner, a veterinarian who is the vice president of the Middle Tennessee Academy of Equine Practitioners, claims horse abuse is common. “The fact is the Big Lick can only be accomplished by soring. When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed. The Big Lick is a learned response to pain. If the horses haven’t been sored, then they do not learn it.”
The PAST Act is being trumpeted as the best method of clamping down on the cheaters, those who will abuse an animal for a blue ribbon. And while the All American Alliance wants to promote the passage of the bill, those involved are eager to remove the stigma and, regrettably, the scorn now associated with the breed. “All of this is because of very few people in high position,” said an organizer.
“The PAST Act will force the Big Lick to abide by the rules the great majority of Walking Horse people already do. And, if we eliminate the cheaters and those who abuse these horses, the breed will flourish just as it has for over a century. If we can get the bad people out, the good people will bring their horses back.”