The more light that’s shed on the “Big Lick” faction of the Tennessee walking horse industry, the clearer it becomes that Congress must upgrade the original language in the Horse Protection Act to deter the criminal abuse that is inflicted on the horses involved, and to give the federal government the tools it needs to crack down on violators. Newly introduced legislation – the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act – will strengthen the HPA by ending industry self-regulation, fortifying penalties for violations of the law, and expanding its prohibitions to include a ban on mechanical soring tactics, such as the use of stacks and chains on horses’ feet.
The artificial, high-stepping gait called the "Big Lick."
Despite efforts by the Tennessee legislature to enact an ag-gag measure that would cover up abuses in the walking horse industry (that’s a story in itself), national scrutiny of the Big Lick fraternity continues to reveal widespread abuse. Last week, Tennessee and federal law enforcement officials raided a barn allegedly owned by Big Lick trainer Larry Wheelon. Reportedly, many of the 28 horses found there showed signs of having been treated with caustic substances on their legs and were in extreme pain.
Of course this would make Wheelon the second “superstar” of this industry to be exposed within the last year for cheating and for tormenting animals for a blue ribbon in the show ring. Wheelon has been cited at least 15 times for violations of the Horse Protection Act, but ironically he sits on the ethics committee for the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association, and is a AAA-rated horse show judge. It’s no wonder the horses victimized by soring are consistently rewarded as winners at Big Lick walking horse shows – with judges themselves apparently unwilling to follow the law, why would other trainers comply?
As if this weren’t proof enough that strict legislation is long overdue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released the startling results of foreign substance testing it conducted at horse shows in 2012. The USDA tested show horses for evidence that their trainers or owners were putting illegal soring agents on their horses’ legs to make them step higher in the ring, or numbing or masking agents to hide signs of soring. Whichever illegal substance they use, the only purpose is to hurt a horse so badly that he compensates for the pain by walking with an unnaturally high gait. Of the 478 horses the USDA swabbed for illegal substances, 309 tested positive. That’s 65 percent of horses in random samplings at 2012 horse shows. At the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the “Grand Prix” for the Big Lick crowd, 76 percent of the horses randomly sampled tested positive for illegal substances. Imagine if three-quarters of the players in the World Series or the Super Bowl were found guilty of using illegal drugs. This is the corrupt, warped world of Big Lick horse competition – with many practitioners seemingly undeterred by high-profile prosecutions and widespread condemnation of their cruelty.
We’ve documented over and over the cruelty endured by Tennessee walking horses, and we’re continuing to see evidence that the Big Lick faction won’t reform on their own. Please join us in the fight to protect these horses, and open up the industry to those who wish to take part in humane and fairly-judged horse shows: call your representative in the U.S. Congress and urge him or her to cosponsor H.R. 1518. A Senate companion bill should be introduced soon.