The 79th Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration concluded Saturday night, and by all appearances, it was for the most part a friends and family affair. Gone are the days when spectators sat shoulder to shoulder in the nearly 30,000-seat arena in Shelbyville, providing a boost to the local economy in middle Tennessee. On Thursday and Friday, not even a thousand people attended, perhaps fewer than 500. During the Saturday night finale, the crowd topped out at a few thousand people. The event is a vestige of its former self.
There were just a small number of food vendors, and fewer than there were at last year’s event. Local motels had plenty of empty rooms. The vendor trade show on the grounds was devoid of customers.
The controversy about the industry’s barbaric mistreatment of animals – the intentional injuring of the horses’ front legs and feet in order to induce an exaggerated gait — has hollowed out the event and sport. A scofflaw industry no longer has the trust of the people who are interested in these regal horses.
This industry has been in decline for years, accelerated by The HSUS’s campaign to end soring abuses and fortify federal policy against this criminal activity. Our undercover investigations have thrown the curtain back on abuse in the stables.
I’ve asked Marty Irby, The HSUS’s senior advisor, who heads our equine department, to share his perspective on the issue of horse soring and the showing of Tennessee walking horses. As the former president of the major trade association for the industry, and as a World Grand Champion rider, he knows the backstory like no one else. He’s traveled an extraordinary journey — from the biggest defender of horse soring to its biggest critic.
A few weeks ago I attended an HSUS-sponsored event, Now, That’s a Walking Horse!, at Gary Lane’s stables in Brodhead, Kentucky. The event is designed to help trainers tap the God-given power of Tennessee walking horses to heal veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was an event that particularly resonated with me. Though I’m not a veteran, walking horses saved me. My own childhood circumstances were very painful and difficult to endure, and these horses were my salvation, truly a gift from God. I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t spent hours with them just about every day of my adolescence.
The Tennessee walking horse is extremely docile, with a calm and soothing temperament, and a smooth and sound gait. The “Big Lick” is manufactured by trainers who engage in the practice of soring, using large stacked shoes, ankle chains, caustic chemicals and hard objects on horses’ hooves and pasterns to make them fling their legs away from the pain. It’s rewarded with prizes at thinly veiled spectacles of cruelty like the Celebration. The physical cruelty happens in the stables, but the behavioral evidence is there for anyone and everyone to see in the show ring.
I grew up and participated in the “Big Lick” soring culture from the age of four until just five years ago. I’m ashamed I didn’t have the strength to speak out and step away earlier in my life. I’m 38 years old now, and I am proud to be an advocate for stopping the abuse rather than perpetrating it.
I lived a lie. Eventually, I realized I couldn’t continue on that path. I had reached the highest rungs within the industry, serving as president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association – the top organization in the field. I decided I was going to leave the industry and speak against this form of organized abuse. I knew that this action would upend my professional and personal world, but speaking the truth was the right thing to do, and the best decision I’ve ever made.
It is time for this charade to end, and it’s time for the Tennessee walking horse breed and its people to begin to heal. Any healing in this world begins with letting go of something, and is ultimately achieved by forgiveness – but it is a process, and not necessarily an easy one. We all have something to do – the “Big Lick” industry needs to let go of the stacked shoes, ankle chains, and toolbox of soring gimmicks, and all us – including myself, have some forgiving to do. Everybody inside that world knows soring is rampant. Those within the industry that feel the tugging of your heart – know that it’s there for a reason. You can emerge from the shadow that has marred this breed by standing strong, and speaking out. I can promise you will be much happier by joining us on the “other side.”
I was once as deeply entrenched in soring as a person can be, but after seeing the light, and speaking out, I feel liberated. Every person in the Big Lick segment of the industry can shed this cruelty too and join me on the right side of history. And what’s the point of it all anyway? It’s no longer a profit center for people involved in the business, and it is not an economic driver for Shelbyville, or the state of Tennessee, which was once the heart of this enterprise.
It’s all unraveling. The crowds have thinned. The defenders of the industry in Congress are aging and few. On the other hand, the ranks of supporters of real reform in Congress — the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 1847 — are growing. Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. — both veterinarians — have every responsible horse group, veterinary group, and animal welfare group on their side. If the horse soring faction continues with the masquerade, they can delay the inevitable. But the outcome is now unavoidable.
Just like our nation took a strong stand against cockfighting and dogfighting, so too must we stand against horse soring. Cruelty to animals for the purpose of entertainment and prizes is unconscionable. We can solve this problem because we’re the ones who created it.