In the past three months I have taken a crash course called “Walking Horse Abuse 101” and by my tally I grade about a C-minus, which is almost average for anyone who thought a pastern was country way of saying where horses graze grass. It turns out a pastern is a tender part of a horse’s foot where evil people drive nails, insert golf balls or apply heavy pads so the animals will lift their painful front hooves in a very unnatural gait called “The Big Lick.”
The biggest mystery to me is why anyone would sore a horse, but there is overwhelming evidence that caustic chemicals are routinely applied to the forelegs of performance horses in search of a grotesque dance that happens every August.
I was drawn into the fray in May after seeing a horrendous videotape that shocked and angered the entire nation. Since then I have had thousands of “teachers” who, through private email, have bared a very revolting part of the Walking Horse industry to me.
The public outcry has been incredible, lending credence to the notion this year’s National Celebration, which is slated to begin its 11-day run in Shelbyville on Aug. 22, will be unlike the shows of the past. The reason is the Shelbyville-based hierarchy is fighting with all its might against mounting pressure from every direction to finally clean up 50 years of abuse, corruption and the now-seedy image of the Walking Horse industry when, in fact, the defenseless horses are one of the most noble breeds in America.
According to the Bible’s New Testament, 1st Timothy 6:10 starts "For the love of money is the root of all evil" and nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to deliberately soring a horse. Just like some people go to the Indianapolis 500 to see the cars crash, there are those who go to Shelbyville to see the freaks.
A growing number of trainers say “The Big Lick” can’t be achieved without the hideous and sadistic methods used to produce the unnatural stomping gait, but if the government – both on the state and Congressional level – succeeds in outlawing such depravity, some say Shelbyville’s house of cards could collapse and, according to enforcement official, that is where “the root of all evil” is located.
The horse show has historically brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to Shelbyville’s distressed economy, but it also lines the pockets of those who are now so viciously fighting the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society of the United States, and a clamoring public to stop the vile abuse and eradicate once and for all the stacks, or pads, and action devices that cause horse lovers of other American breeds to angrily weep.
David Howard, who has craftily wormed his way into the Walking Horse elite of Shelbyville, is today believed to be the ringleader of “The Big Lick” faction. He controls the Celebration board, which picks the judges for the show. He also owns the Walking Horse Report, that is chock full of expensive ads from hopeful owners and trainers, and he owns several other horse-related enterprises.
If “The Big Lick” is eliminated, the crowds may not return to Shelbyville because there would be no more freaks, then the pages of ad revenue might dry up, then the hefty payrolls for the trainers may disappear, and – much like Humpty Dumpty – David Howard’s empire would take a great fall. This is why the Shelbyville bunch is suing the USDA. This is why they are now furiously visiting senators and Congressmen and reminding them that “walking horse money” was donated to various election campaigns. And this is why horses are still being abused.
When the villainous Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty to violating the federal Horse Protection Act on May 22, Howard somewhat innocently told Chattanooga TV station WRCB, "I'll be honest with you, we'll never get there. There's going to be somebody always cheating.”
When Howard revealed his ace card, it caused the anti-soring segment to tighten its resolve. This summer it became a felony to abuse a horse in the state of Tennessee and last week federal judge Sandy Mattice ordered abuser John Mays to write a newspaper article about soring under the terms of his release. The USDA passed new rules for stricter judging, which could cause the Celebration to be decertified, and all summer long there has been one embarrassment after another.
A couple of weeks ago Howard used his bully pulpit to boot Marty Irby – who heads the breed registry -- from the Celebration board and there are signs the intertwined leadership may soon be in disarray. Mike Inman, who insiders say is a shameless pawn for Howard, is the Celebration’s new CEO-elect and, in a newspaper interview last week, he said, “We need to focus on the positive and actively promote the performance horse. When you understand the (performance) package, the action device, when you put it in people's hands, they understand it, they get it, and accept it."
Oh? Two of the largest equine veterinarian groups have already called for performance devices to be totally banned this summer, saying the unnatural stacks obviously inflame a horse’s legs and are easily altered to hide far worse abuse. “Have you ever seen a performance horse in a field? They don’t do the ‘Big Lick’ unless they are forced to do it,” offered one reader.
But the scurrilous owners and trainers are adapting. With increased attention to violators, trainers are suddenly entering horses in the names of underlings, horse’s names are being easily changed, and clever methods are being used to escape detection of chronic abuse. The new swab tests are laughable, as is the fact the Celebration will use its own judges this year, three of which have known past violations of the Horse Protection Act.
The Tennessee State Fair, which will be held in Nashville during September, will not even allow performance horses due to the public’s increasing disdain, and some states are introducing laws to curb the cheating and abuse that has spread elsewhere. Worse, the overwhelming majority of Walking Horse owners detest the ill-gotten reputation that has plagued the breed for a half-century and seem eager to disassociate from the Shelbyville groups and their agendas.
Rumors continue to swirl. It has been confirmed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has obtained records and federal investigators, as well as USDA inspectors, will attend the Celebration in a continued effort to eradicate those who will cheat for money. It’s that simple. And they will sadistically “steward” any horse until they are forcibly stopped.