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August 22, 2012

Tennessee Walking Horses: No Cause for Celebration, Yet

Today, the 74th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration gets under way in Shelbyville, Tenn. This 10-day horse show is generally recognized as the largest, most prestigious event in the industry. As such, it is the focus of controversy surrounding the abuse that trainers inflict upon the equine athletes who are the victims of “soring” —the cruel and illegal practice used to cause horses to perform their high-stepping prance known as the “Big Lick.”

So pervasive is soring that in 2006, the Celebration failed to crown a World Grand Champion (the highest honor bestowed on any animal in the breed) because only three of the horses entered to compete could pass inspection for not being sored in violation of the federal Horse Protection Act (HPA), and the final class was canceled by show management. If nothing else proves how widespread soring is, that’s it.

Tennessee walking horse investigation
Read more about the investigation.

HSUS staff have attended and monitored the big show every year since then, and I’ll be travelling to Tennessee soon to observe the spectacle for myself. In 2007, we reached out to show management to urge reforms and offer our support. In 2009, amid record numbers of violations and seeing no signs of progress or willingness to change, we dubbed the Celebration “The Cruelest Horse Show on Earth.”

But perhaps at no time in history has public scrutiny of this event—and this breed—been greater than this year. News of an HSUS undercover investigation into the operation of well-known trainer Jackie McConnell broke on ABC’s Nightline, and was covered by other media outlets around the country, exposing a horrified public to the practices that go into the making of winning Tennessee walking horses. McConnell trained and rode the 1997 Celebration winner and trained the 2010 Reserve World Grand Champion Moody Star (a horse that was being sored in his barn during our investigation)—even while he was on a five-year federal disqualification from participating in horse shows. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the HPA, and will be sentenced on Sept. 10 in Chattanooga.

Convicted Tennessee horse trainer Barney Davis—who served most of a year-long term in federal prison after pleading guilty to various violations of the Horse Protection Act and conspiracy to commit witness tampering—testified at his sentencing hearing that soring is a common practice. “They've got to be sored to walk,” he said at the Feb. 17 hearing. “I mean, that's the bottom line. It ain’t no good way to put it, but that's it.”

Because of the widespread and severe nature of horse soring, we’ve made this issue one of our top equine protection priorities. We filed a legal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the agency charged with enforcing the HPA—seeking tough new enforcement regulations to protect horses from this practice. We recently opened a hotline for tips about soring that can lead to rewards of up to $10,000, and we advertised the program on a billboard across the street from the Celebration in Shelbyville.

We also work with any group in the industry that signals a legitimate desire to effect change. Again this year, The HSUS contacted Celebration show organizers to urge the adoption of several key reforms that would help protect horses and restore the industry’s integrity, and to offer our support. We received no response until we made our outreach public—and even then, the only reply was a curt press release dismissing our efforts and saying everything was just fine.

According to an editorial in today’s The Tennessean newspaper, the Celebration has instituted a new program whereby show inspectors will test horses’ feet for the application of prohibited foreign substances, and produce results within 24 hours. Any entry found in violation will have its prizes stripped. As we had proposed to show management, we believe that any confirmed violation of the Horse Protection Act should result in the stripping of an entry’s title and prizes—not just the finding of a prohibited substance under the industry’s fledgling and unproven testing program. Why should anyone who cheats, and abuses horses, be allowed to keep the rewards of those misdeeds?

We have concerns about the validity and transparency of this latest incarnation of the industry’s attempts at self-regulation (which has failed miserably for over three decades)—concerns that have been echoed by many participants in the industry themselves. We will be watching this new program and monitoring the results, which to date have been kept well under wraps.

In recent days, there has been much talk around Washington that industry insiders are working through Congressional offices to apply pressure on USDA to back down in its enforcement of the HPA at this year’s show. If true, that’s appalling, given the incontrovertible evidence that’s come to light. Soring is a crime, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy for it. We need strong enforcement efforts by USDA, and we need members of Congress to strengthen the federal law and support agency efforts to root out criminal behavior. All the business and pageantry that surrounds Tennessee walking horses depend on it. This event and this sport are in crisis, and something has to change.

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