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May 21, 2012

Abuses Are Rampant in Tennessee Walking Horse Industry

Shelbyville Farm Center division manager Joe Green, Sr. told The Tennessean, in a story published today, that last Wednesday night’s report on ABC’s Nightline exposing illegal training practices within the show world for Tennessee walking horses painted “a bad picture.” “The good guys have tried so hard to make it right, then that bad guy comes along and tries to ruin it for everybody.”

His son―who runs the Farm Center, which does a lot of business with show horse owners and trainers―had a similar message he conveyed: “The walking horse industry has been under such a microscope for so long that most of the bad guys have been weeded out, and it was unfortunate that ABC tried to paint all of them as bad,” said Joe Green, Jr. “The way they did that TV piece wasn’t even journalism.”

Tennessee walking horse
Photo: Lance Murphey
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These people may really believe what they say―perhaps because people within this industry have been in denial so long. You repeat something long enough that you then internalize it―like so many other people who participate in or defend animal abuse. I see it with sealers, with puppy millers, with cockfighters, and with just about every subculture that causes harm to animals.

Tennessee walking horses don’t naturally throw their front legs way up in the air, with such a strangely exaggerated gait. This “big lick” gait is artificial and regularly accomplished by the illegal practice of “soring”―the intentional infliction of searing pain with each step. By every indication, this practice is absolutely pervasive in the industry, and it is these competitive pressures that have led to a sort of arms race within the training profession―and the arms used against the horses are oil of mustard, croton oil, chains, and other foreign substances and tools. 

The now-indicted horse trainer Jackie McConnell may be a particularly ruthless and harsh man, but so many other trainers are working in the shadows and using very similar methods to get the same results. There is widespread lawlessness within this industry, and the deniers need to take note and recognize reality. Opinion leaders are saying the same thing, such as The Tennessean editorial board and columnist David Climer.

Barney Davis, who along with three others was also indicted for Horse Protection Act (HPA) violations in 2011, pled guilty to violating the Act and was sentenced to a one-year prison term after he was caught soring horses on video while out on bond. When the court asked Davis about the pervasiveness of illegal soring in the industry, he responded, “Everybody does—I mean, they’ve got to be sored to walk.” Davis used “pressure shoeing” as his soring method of choice―but the goal was to produce a high-stepping gait by inflicting pain, as McConnell did. These are standard practices in the world of training for these shows. We’re not talking about a few bad apples here.

Take a look at these facts:

  • The industry claims a 98 percent compliance rate with the HPA, yet 52 of the 52 horses randomly tested were found by USDA to be positive for prohibited foreign substances having been applied to their ankles, at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, which is the major annual show (the Super Bowl, if you will) within the industry. Foreign substance violation rates (for soring, numbing, or masking agents) at all shows at which USDA inspected horses were 86 percent in 2010 and 97.6 percent in 2011. It doesn’t get more pervasive than that.
  • In 2006, the Celebration failed to crown a World Grand Champion of the breed when only three of the horses entered to be shown were able to pass inspection for compliance with the HPA. Industry inspectors, under the watchful eye of USDA agents, ruled most of the entries ineligible to compete―and show management decided to shut the event down, rather than hold a three-horse class for the breed’s most coveted title.
  • A recent analysis of the HPA violation history of the 2011 Riders Cup nominated trainers indicates that the top 20 ranking trainers collectively received 164 citations in 2010-2011 alone, suggesting that if you want to win big, you have to violate the law.

There are voices within the industry condemning McConnell, and they’ve rightly excommunicated him. But if they really want the public to believe that the industry is largely complying with the HPA, they need to be much more transparent in their words and deeds―acknowledging the violation histories of key players, and allowing independent law enforcement officials to examine their training practices and the horses before the competitions. And they should be the first in line to support The HSUS’s efforts to strengthen the law, which has not been updated since it was amended in 1976, and to seek adequate funding for enforcement. 

That’s my challenge to the leaders of the industry: join us in the efforts to modernize the law and enforce it. Send a response through this blog, and we’ll work together on it.

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