Last month the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration crowned its World Grand Champion is Shelbyville.
The show is unusual because it has inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – a rarity for any horse show in the United States. The reason: for 50 years, some trainers and owners in the industry have abused Tennessee Walking horses in order to cheat and give them a leg up on their competition.
The legendary Howard Baker (R-TN), helped shepherd to passage the Horse Protection Act in 1970 to crack down on these trainers injuring horses to cause them so much pain that they step higher after putting their tender feet on the ground - it’s like walking barefoot on hot asphalt.
The old-timers in the breed have said that Steve Hill, a well-known top trainer in the industry, utilized some chemical agents for the purpose of healing on Talk of the Town, the 1951, 1952 and 1953 World Grand Champion that was considered “unbeatable” by those competing against him.
None of the other horses performed quite like Talk of the Town, and trainers couldn’t compete so more and more trainers began practicing this egregious abuse by utilizing mustard oil to burn the skin around the horses’ ankles, and in some circumstances even placed barbwire around the ankle to create the reaction that later became known as the “big lick.”
The Act was well intended, and the result of some compromises that marked the first federal law designed specifically to help the iconic American equines we all revere. But the law is in need of a serious upgrade, because trainers have figured a way around the proscriptions in the law.
In an ideal circumstance the Act should have eliminated to use of stacked shoes or pads, and action devices now known as ankle chains, but it didn’t, and those devices are still highly utilized in 2018.
But there is reason for optimism. Veterinarian U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho (R-FL) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR), along with U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mark Warner (D-TN) have introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, H.R. 1847/ S. 2957 that would close the loopholes in the Horse Protection Act by eliminating the large stacked shoes and ankle chains, increasing the penalties, and eliminating the industry’s failed self-policing system by replacing it with licensed USDA contract inspectors, all at no cost to the taxpayer.
This is the third Congress in six years that this legislation has been introduced, and now has over 300 Members of the House and Senate as cosponsors.
But it hasn’t moved. Why? Because the scofflaws’ political protectors, such as U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), have gone to great lengths to block the bill and are watching out for their campaign contributors in the industry rather than working to encourage protection of the horses.
For many years, political pressure from my fellow Republicans in Tennessee and Kentucky backed down the federal government, preventing the USDA from enforcing the Act that Senator Baker and Senator Joseph Tydings (D-MD) worked so diligently to pass.
It all boils down to money. Dozens of violators of the Act continue to fill Blackburn and others’ campaign coffers with money made on the backs of injured horses. It seems Blackburn cares much more about snatching Senator Bob Corker’s seat, than supporting the will of the American people, her constituents, and the best interest of the voiceless animals that are so rampantly abused in the state.
I know firsthand what great lengths the pro-soring will go to in order to protect their habit, as a former Tennessean, past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association, eight-time world champion and lifelong supporter of the breed. When the PAST was first introduced in 2013, Blackburn, introduced a phony reform bill that would only codify the industry’s self-policing program that the USDA’s own Inspector General deemed corrupt.
Even the University of Tennessee recognizes that the big lick pain-based gait is something the public will no longer tolerate – they disallowed the exhibition of the World Grand Champion at the UT homecoming game, a long-standing tradition in the state, until several years ago. I hope that on Nov. 6 Tennesseans will step up and take action against soring by sending Marsha Blackburn back home to Tennessee.
Executive Director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C. and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association