The start of the 74th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is less than three weeks away, but, according to some accounts, it just might resemble more of a funeral. Ever since the “Big Lick” industry came under the harsh glare of the nation’s scorn in May, one catastrophic blunder after another will almost assure the 11-day spectacle in Shelbyville will feature the dying breath of a loathsome faction of tainted horse owners, trainers and officials.
The day of “The Big Lick,” where horses are cruelly abused and sored so the magnificent creatures take unnatural and painful high steps, is nearing its demise and, to the delight of the 98 percent of walking horse owners worldwide, it is believed that the scurrilous leadership based in Shelbyville could easily be on the verge of collapse as well.
CEO Doyle Meadows has already announced his resignation and last week, after Marty Irby, who heads the Breeders and Exhibitors Association, was shockingly banned from the Celebration show and grounds, he confirmed that agents of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had sought and obtained records from the breed registry two weeks ago and that there appears to be some type of criminal investigation now taking place.
Irby, who fell under the wrath of key Celebration officials for reportedly obtaining some web domain names, was obviously ousted from the “inside circle” of Shelbyville hocus-pocus for more than that. Already under intense scrutiny, when the Celebration board attacked Irby with a one-year suspension it magnified the “Big Lick” bitterness, the public’s mounting distrust and the industry’s inward disdain for the Celebration’s Executive Committee.
It also prompted a furious attack focused on the self-appointed czar of the Shelbyville hierarchy, David Howard. Even the widely-respected Walking Horse Chat reported, “The Celebration has for some time been on the edge of destruction for much of what they cause, and much of what the media has painted as a picture of our industry."
“This latest effort to publicly destroy someone who doesn’t agree with him comes as no surprise,” announced Chat. “David Howard has a long line of people in his path who he has tried to destroy through his position at TWHNC, some to no avail.”
Howard and a confederate, John Bobo, are now thought to be the leaders of an effort to openly defy the federal government. It was just learned that horses at this year’s Celebration will be inspected by the in-house SHOW group, despite the fact it is currently being decertified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Further, it has already been announced that at least four judges at this year’s show have records as past offenders of the federal Horse Protection Act.
Under SHOW guidelines, trainers of horses found to be guilty of violations of the federal Horse Protection Act are suspended for two weeks, but, under a new Tennessee state law, violations of horse abuse are now a felony, punishable with sentencing guidelines of one to five years in state prison. SHOW does not suspend owners or riders of horses that fail inspections.
SHOW, which operates under Howard’s tight thumb, has already sued the USDA this summer but USDA and Humane Society officials will most definitely be at the Celebration and will continue to closely monitor the dark side of the walking horse world where cheating, corruption and rampant animal abuse have been amply noted for a half century. Currently there are over five pages of names of violators on a USDA website.
Worse, more and more of the most respected trainers are admitting the “Big Lick” can’t be accomplished without using the sadistic methods that have resulted in four separate guilty pleas in Federal Court this year.Two of the country’s most prominent veterinarian groups are calling on our nation’s lawmakers to outlaw stacks, or pads, and other “performance” devices and there is harsh legislation being drafted in several states.
Celebration leaders, panicking over much smaller crowds, are offering everything from cash give-aways to church-night promotions -- of all things -- but the perception of the enraged public has been relentless across Tennessee all summer and Irby admitted the breed registry is today only half of what it once was.
The Celebration’s defiant stance to protect the “Big Lick”will cause more empty seats, leading to the belief more true horsemen will go instead to the Tennessee State Fair, where flat-shod performers and the Walkers’ natural gait will be featured in early September.
Organizations such as the Kentucky-based National Walking Horse Association, which will oversee the State Fair in an obvious snub of the now-tainted Shelbyville crowd, are growing in popularity because of the natural gait and much more humane show conditions (Nashville will use 140 tons of sand for a softer surface).
Jackie McConnell, the sadistic trainer who savagely abused horses in a tape that has now been seen by millions, will be sentenced in Chattanooga on Sept. 10 by Federal Judge Sandy Mattice and will face 14 state charges on unrelated horse-abuse charges in Fayette, Tn., later in the month.The McConnelll tape is prompting some horse advocates to say they will boycott the Shelbyville show, where McConnell was an esteemed member of its Hall of Fame until after he pleaded guilty.
On the day that McConnell and two other men copped a plea in Federal Court, horse czar Howard told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he was horrified and said, “I've been in the business a long time and it shocked me.It's just totally unbelievable," but now federal sources say Howard’s open defiance lends credence to their belief he’s “up to his ears in everything that is going on.”
The Humane Society of the U.S. acquired the McConnell tape and is active in horse abuse but when the agency recently tried to buy ads and provide editorial information in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, the editor –Sadie Fowler – flatly refused. It was later revealed Fowler once worked for the Tennessee Walking Horse Report, which is owned by Howard.
“It’s not totally surprising, but it’s still disappointing,” Keith Dane, the Humane Society's equine protection director, told the Nashville Tennessean. “Anything that is seen as critical of the walking horse industry is perceived as being bad for Shelbyville, and it’s a close-knit community.”
That statement begs the question: What happens when the Celebration itself is bad for Shelbyville? It’s a close-knit community, indeed, and until the walking horse industry purges itself from those who are destroying it, the “Big Lick” will linger before it eventually dies of self-inflicted wounds.