Walking horse trainers expected to put injured, tortured horses on display at major event in Tennessee this weekend
As in previous years, the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration will be tainted with organized criminal activity – animal cruelty, to be specific – as the major event for this industry heads into its first weekend in Shelbyville, Tennessee. After a long show season of torture and abuse, many Tennessee walking horse trainers double down on cruelty to win championship prizes by performing the “Big Lick,” a manufactured, pain-based gait these abusers practice and applaud. It’s all done for a two-dollar blue ribbon and the fading applause generated by a shrinking base of followers within this small, corrupt slice of the horse show world.
This time last year, when I wrote about the Celebration, I expressed hope for a transformed event – a clean show that puts the natural talents of horses and riders together in fair competition, without the taint or tarnish of cheating and abuse. But that day has been indefinitely delayed because of a fumble in the final days of the Obama administration when bureaucrats didn’t properly finalize a rule to reform the industry. The Trump administration then froze all Obama rules in motion, including the anti-soring proposal, and that, at least for the time being, has maintained the status quo – where soring is illegal, but the law against it is nearly half a century old and full of holes that lawbreakers exploit.
The Obama rule contained game-changing reforms – banning the use of stacks and chains on the horses’ feet and eliminating an industry self-regulation program – which promised to end the 50-year-long battle against the soring of Tennessee walking horses, racking horses, and related breeds. This cruel practice – where trainers put flesh-burning chemicals such as mustard oil and diesel fuel on the horse’s feet, or place sharp foreign objects between the shoe and the hoof — has continued because of the scofflaw conduct of a few hundred owners and trainers who want to get a leg up on their competitors.
For years they fought off reforms, but the Obama rule would have been their undoing. Yet, even with that rule in abeyance, they are still pleading for the attention of their small but influential cadre of allies on Capitol Hill to carry their false narrative. But these lawmakers have an uphill climb, given the immense bipartisan support for legislation that is even stronger than the anti-soring rule that was sidetracked. The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, H.R. 1847, introduced by U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., has 252 cosponsors in the House – well more than a House majority, and heading toward the 300 mark. Both Yoho and Schrader are veterinarians, and their bill has the support of the American Horse Council, American Veterinary Medical Association, Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the National Sheriffs’ Association, to name just a few.
Two years ago this week, I wrote about our undercover investigation of ThorSport Farm in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. All of the 75 wrapping samples that the investigator obtained directly from the legs of horses either owned by or trained at ThorSport had soring or masking substances on them that are prohibited at horse shows. All of our findings and samples were handed over to the proper authorities in Tennessee. Unfortunately, justice was not served for the animals, but this investigation has been viewed well over 500,000 times online and, as with a prior investigation in 2011 exposing trainer Jackie McConnell’s misdeeds, it has helped educate the public about the persistence of soring and cement our case before Congress.
Last year, even using the existing weak federal law, USDA inspectors found 160 padded horses to be noncompliant with the HPA, out of 529 of the padded horses they examined at the 2016 Celebration — that is an astounding 30.25 percent of “big lick” horses in violation of federal law. That’s clearly not the work of a few bad actors, but the hallmark of an industry hell-bent on maintaining a tradition of cruelty at all costs. The numbers vary slightly from year to year, but we see mass lawbreaking at the Celebration every year.
This abuse of horses is an appalling form of cruelty and a crime – different, but just as brazen as cockfighting. These abusers have had decades to get their house in order and they’ve proven that they’re little more than organized criminals. Leaders in Congress must step up and show their support for the PAST Act, and bring it to the House floor for a vote. And the president should direct the USDA to revive the anti-soring rule, so that the federal government speaks with a clear voice that this intentional cruelty won’t be tolerated in the United States.