Walking horse industry hemorrhaging, as scant crowd turns out for Celebration

By on September 4, 2017 with 74 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

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.

Equine, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

Subscribe to the Blog

Enter your email address below to receive updates each time we publish new content.


Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Robynne Catheron says:

    Ending soring would be a Godsend, wouldn’t it? I remember my mother telling us in the 70s that she’d heard about it way back in the 50s. 75 years of agony for those sweet, trusting horses is 75 years too long. I have a TWH, and I can’t imagine deliberately hurting him even in my wildest nightmares.

    So, let’s get the PAST Act passed, and then we can work on ending the rodeo.

    • Gborger says:

      If you were involved in the rodeo industry, you would know these aren’t abused animals. Some people abuse animals, the event does not.

      • Sandy Culbertson says:

        What event does not? The classes known as “Performance” classes show “Big Lick” horses all of whom are wearing stacks weighing up to 10 lbs on their front feet. Then they wear chains which bang against their ankles. These items are only used in Tennessee Walking horse shows, but the horses actually stand on those 10lb pads 24 hours a day & 7 days a week. No relief. And then there is Soring. The application of chemicals on the horses front pasterns, wrapped in cellophane to “cook” and then unwrapped leaving burned sensitive tissue which is then banged by the chains. I decent person would not condone this cruelty.

        • Brendak Nicholas says:

          I’m with you, I agree 100%

        • Bobbie says:

          I believe Gborger is speaking of the Rodeo industry, not the Big Lick issue.

          • D says:

            The rodeo has its fair share of abuse also. Take bronco riding for example. Tighten a synch around your groin and tell me its not a bad thing.

        • Curt Wyatt says:

          Sandy ,
          The old days are gone .
          If you know so much you have to know the USDA
          Inspects these horse very close.
          Try giving credit to the trainers for showing there horses after vigorous inspections and pass
          with not a hair out of place . I believe over 3500 horses were shown over 10 days.
          The picture is also misleading……
          ( Hemorrhaging )
          That’s laughable!
          That was taken on a very rainy night.
          Saturday night was almost pack out ….
          The Humanesociety Blog
          is another Fake News…
          Like CNN

          The Tenn Walking Horse is better then ever.

          • Terry says:

            Thanks Curt, you are exactly correct.
            The people that bad mouth, the Great Tennessee Walking Horse Industry, know so little about it.
            I wish they would come to the Celebration, and see for themselves.

          • Kelly says:

            Then why not be regulated by a non partisan body like USEF at your shows. Follow the drug rules, the training device rules, types of bits allowed like the Arabians Morgan’s, Saddlebreds, Hunter Jumper and the 8 or 9 other breeds that have their shows follow USEF rules. Maybe this would stop all this nonsense. Although I seriously doubt USEF would even take the Tennessee Walking Division over at shows

      • Jack Taylor says:

        Gborger, only who supports these cruel acts on such an amazing animal would make such a foolish comment! Admit your vile acts, or your support of such, and grant us your silence…or continue to open your mouth and express your ignorance. If not for the ‘ EVENT”, there would be no reason to abuse these beautiful animals just for your pocketbook and ego!

    • Nagina says:

      I agree – the ending of all of this completely would be a complete Godsend.

      In my opinion – even if one person attends these events – it is away too much! I have zero tolerance for these shows and the torture they have caused horses. Zero attendance at these shows is the way forward and they must stop completely. Problem is / the people involved in letting the show go on means these shoes could go on ‘ underground’ – which makes things more dangerous – a bit like illegal dog fights. But I guess – if this was the unfortunate way forward then such a thing would hopefully
      become illegal and the people involved would be forced to serve jail sentences – so still a long way to go.

      A big thank you to Priscilla Presley for being a driving force within all of this and speaking out for the horses. If you are reading this Priscilla – ‘ Hello’ to you from me again! I’m the Asian girl you have now met twice – I last met you at the SECC at Glasgow last year backstage for meet n greet. Keep doing what you are doing – u have my full support.

  2. Barbara Scanlon says:

    I am thrilled that the walking horse industry is dying. The abuse that these horses go through is horrible. Finally, the people who enjoy the beauty of these gaited horses are starting to understand the torture that the winners endure.

    • Heather says:

      The walking horse industry shouldn’t die because of one class…big lick. Not all the horses are put through that. Don’t punish the majority when it’s the minority causing the problems.

      • Gloria Livingstone says:

        Perhaps the industry as it is must die to be rebirthed. If the industry was on the up and up, a class such as the “BigLick” and the owners, trainers and judges who perpetuate it would not exist. What the public sees is the horrified creatures in shows, where the industry promotes their breed. Get rid of the class to begin with, then the public could see the beautiful animals as they are naturally. A minority can’t push a show class in a breed of animals. The majority votes for their board members who make the rules and decide the classes in shows.

  3. Lea Ann Lewis says:

    I’m right there with Mr. Irby. I was an assistant trainer in a TWH show barn & went along with what was done to the horses. I guess many years ago it didn’t impact me because it had been going on so long and all the good ol boys were winning because of the abuse. It was just what you did.

    With years of regret and shame I’m now proud to share with anyone who cares or will listen, the truth of behind the scene activities and why this must be stopped.

    I sincerely hope that 2017 will be the last Celebration involving the big lick classes. Let’s encourage and show this incredible breed with it’s natural talent and beautiful natural gait! I’ve always believed and loved this old saying about walking horses, “ride one today and you’ll buy one tomorrow”.

    Let’s keep up the fight to keep this breed sound, happy and loving what they naturally do!

    • Amy w says:

      It’s takes a strong person to admit they were wrong. Now you are part of the solution, and a new era for these horses.

    • HSUS Equine Protection says:

      Dear Ms. Lewis,

      Thank you for your support and courage to speak out against soring and the abuse behind the Big Lick. Sharing your previous, firsthand experience with soring is very impactful and can help resonate with others as to why things need to change by exposing the truth of the cruelty these animals endure. Would you be interested in joining us to bring an end to soring by using your voice to speak for these horses? If so, please feel free to reach out to us at equineprotection@humanesociety.org, we would love to hear from you.


      HSUS Equine Protection

  4. Holland VanDieren says:

    Thanks to Mr. Irby for his brave and moving testimony. I hope this year’s nearly non-existent attendance for the annual Walking Horse Celebration drives home the fact that we the public want an immediate end to soring, shackling and drugging of horses. The once hidden cruelties are revealed, and there’s no market for this spectacle anymore.

  5. Tammie Harrison says:

    Why do you continue to spread lies like this? The Celebration had more class entries (even with 16 fewer classes than previous years) than they had since you started this unfounded attack on their industry, and the Thursday and Friday night crowds were so slight because of the hurricane rains making their way north. I was there on Saturday and there was over 12,000 in attendance. Those who believe your lies are nothing but ill-informed puppets. Get a life that doesn’t include lying to under-educated people in order to pad your own wallets. The Celebration is making a big comeback.

    • CW says:

      There are no lies about the cruelty The Soaring the chains and the mistreatment of those horses. And if you think that that is right there is something wrong with your heart

    • Jody says:

      I sure as hell hope no – this is animal cruelty in its rarest form – your a bunch of ignorant horse owners.

    • Jay McKillop says:

      Unfounded? You really want to go with that? Shame on you.

    • Melissa says:

      So torturing horses for a good cause is ok?

    • Horse Breeder says:


    • Lisa Stock says:

      It really doesn’t matter if there are lies regarding attendance or why less people showed up. If there was only one horse there competing in the Big Lick all the other competitors in other classes should be ashamed to be associated with this event where the cruelty of an animal is put on display.

    • D.R. Watts says:

      Your problem is that the wrong numbers were quoted for attendance but you have nothing to say about the abuses TWHs have endured for decades? Goes to show where your brain is. And where is your soul? Shame on you for backing this ugly industry. And further, the “Celebration” will never come back – it’s all over but the crying for people like you. Just as it needs to be.

    • Just tired of the lies and misleading says:

      Thank you! I get so sick of hearing the lies these people tell. There are bad people and some animals may get abused but those people should be punished but the ones that do everything the right way shouldn’t be scolded and punished. I don’t agree with using chemicals to get a horse to walk but stacks don’t hurt anything. Let it be known these horses are taken care of better than most people.

      • Irene Apane says:

        If stacks don’t hurt why don’t these horses get turn out? The whole big lick is an abomination to the Tennessee Walking horse breed and all those who are complicit in it’s promotion. Permanent, lifetime ban on horse showing to anyone in violation and big fines to boot. The board of directors need to face criminal prosecution for promoting the big lick.

    • Chaludoll says:

      It is abuse pure and simple. It is not a lie except to those who want to deflect from the truth of this matter. My parents raised TWHs, had a few big lick horses, attended the celebration since 1939. I’m not going to go thru my history or conversations with those who were on the front line finding out more but if you don’t consider this abuse and would rather point out attendance numbers I am quite certain you don’t give a rip about these horses. I have also stood there at the entrance holding a sign after attending the celebration for many years. I do believe that the people can and should do all possible to end this. Money or lack of it at the ticket booth and vendor booths speaks. I adore this wonderful breed and own and ride my TWHs and SSH.

    • Claudia says:


    • Gloria Livingstone says:

      I’d like to see you and your ignorant cronies walking around in high heels day in and day out with callouses on your toes. Better yet, put a little mustard on the sores so you’ll step higher!! How would anyone benefit financially from trying to do something about the abuses your breeders and trainers perpetuate? It’s not the under-educated people who are impressed by the practices in this breed. Quite the contrary. It’s the old timers who don’t want change and don’t want outside influences telling them what to do that is the problem. Perhaps you fit that description. Unfounded attack? What rock have you been living under? Did you not read the ex president of your breed’s statements in this article?

    • Amber Johnson says:

      Noted: you disagree with the numbers. You are mad about the…. numbers. Crowd size and its reporting is the problem here. Thank you.

  6. Mary Gardner says:

    I, myself, grew up working and showing in this industry. It wasn’t until a few years ago I finally admitted to myself the cruelty. I have since forgiven myself. I encourage everyone to stop this cruelty, continue letting this beautiful breed perform at their natural gait and rebuild the industry, naturally.

    • HSUS Equine Protection says:

      Dear Mary Gardner,

      Thank you for your support and courage to speak out against soring and the abuse behind the Big Lick. Sharing your previous, firsthand experience with soring is very impactful and can help resonate with others as to why things need to change by exposing the truth of the cruelty these animals endure. Would you be interested in joining us to bring an end to soring by using your voice to speak for these horses? If so, please feel free to reach out to us at equineprotection@humanesociety.org, we would love to hear from you.


      HSUS Equine Protection

  7. Deborah DiFiore says:

    I am so happy to see that people are finally coming to their senses and refused to sit and watch these poor horses being tortured. First of all to see these poor horses doing the stupid Big Lick looks so unnatural and so painful for the horse I cannot understand anyone would want to sit there and watch. I am so happy that more people Now understand what the horse has to go through in order to get it to do the stupid Big Lick. This is how we can stop all animal abuse is by making it public so people understand how these animals are being tortured. What would be great is with next year’s event no one shows up. If there isn’t a demand maybe we can stop all animal cruelty on all animals !

  8. Mia says:

    Thank you for speaking out! TW Is my favorite breed of horse, one day, when I get a horse I want a grullo Tennessee walking gelding. (A rescue horse) I’m so glad people are avoiding this and not supporting the cruelty that comes with this stupidly exaggerated gait! These horses are treated so cruelly and I’m absolutely discusted by the fact that I am even part of the race that causes so much pain to these horses that have no voices of their own, but I realize that I’m not an evil person who realizes the pain and suffering that is caused, but still continues with the abuse. I realize that I’m part of the effort to stop this cruelty, and I’m going to do everything I can to help these horses.

  9. Ddddddd hhhhhhhh says:

    Your pictures and information are very misleading and not true!!!!!

  10. Jim Smith says:

    To bad you don’t state facts, first and foremost, you can thank Hurricane Harvey for the scant crowds. And by the way where were all your protesting people on Thursday and Friday. Wait, I know in their nice warm dry houses, can’t expect them to protest and deal with terrible weather conditions. Guess they are not to committed to their cause. Also, to bad you don’t have state the fact that attendance was up, as well as competitors. You are not winning, and you never will.

    • George Washington says:

      Y ou must be an idiot to think that the cruelty and harsh treatment to these majestic animals falls in t he categories of. Normality.lets put the over size shoes ankle chains and burning chemicals on your feet to see you s two higher.these horses endure the pain 24/7.all to hear you say ya. Man walk on.stupid.

    • Horse Breeder says:


    • Sandy Culbertson says:

      Proud of the cruelty aren’t you? So sick!

    • Claudia says:

      Not winning?? Is cruelty to animals especially TWH acceptable to you??

  11. Linda kubincanek says:

    How great ful I am that the torture of these regal animals may have an end.
    I only hope that they have a good life.
    My worry is where will they go from here.and not end up in a kill pen.

  12. Cynthia Porter says:

    This event week should showcase natural walkers. If it did I would go back to the walking h9rse industry.walkers are elegant without the pain. Walkers are intelligent and beautiful without abuse and false enhancement

  13. shana c Ruiz says:

    I can’t wait for the day when there are no more events at,all .

  14. Alyssa says:

    While I don’t believe soring is still in practice for shows, putting such huge overweight shoes on a horse to force exaggerated movement is uncalled for and cruel. I’m in the saddlebred industry and I know there is controversy against our breed as well since they are a naturally high stepping breed and people assume we use the same practice as TWH people. Of course, the majority of ASB trainers use weights and padded shoes for enhancement, not nearly as heavy as those used on a TWH. I firmly believe that if a horse does not naturally move uphill, it should not be forced or enhanced.

    Just my two cents.

    • David A Turner says:

      Sadly, packages on performance Fine Harness and Park entries are exactly as huge and heavy as performance Walking Horse shoes. Only the ultra-cruel fire extinguishers terrifying these performance Saddlebreds is not used by Walking Horse trainers. UPHA “professionals” are from the same gimmicky school of horsemanship as Walking Horse trainers. Saddleseat as a discipline torrures performance horses.

  15. Tammy Butler says:

    Keith I dont know where you get your numbers from. The photo posted was taken during down pours from the remnants of Harvey. This was the best show in the last 5yrs with a total of close 12,000 thru the gates. Saturday night 11,000 in attendance. Why cant you and Marty collect facts and tell the truth to the public???

  16. Jody says:

    Ignorance is bliss. Too bad these horses can’t speak.

  17. Bambi Bartley says:

    It doesn’t even look good!

  18. Chelle Lawrence says:

    You failed to say when the picture was taken. It rained several nights and the crowd was thinner. They even held classes in the indoor arena due to weather. Horse show attendance is down nation wide…not just the walking horse industry. I attended the WGC Saddlebred show I Louisville where as you said back in the day it was shoulder to shoulder. Even local fairs and charities are slacking up holding horse shows…for any breed! Why? Soring…No!! Expenses…you have no idea the cost of owning and training a horse. It’s become a rich man’s sport. Your backyard horses can’t afford to compete any longer. Which in the long run has in my humble opinion caused the greatest cruelty to horses.. Slaughter!

  19. Elsa says:

    While I 100% oppose soring or any training practice that discomforts or injures a horse, to say the entire Celebration does this practice is wrong. Next… What about nose-rolling for quarter horses and paints? Or blood-letting? Or spring in other breeds that lift their feet? HSUS is penalizing an industry because of 10%. Snowflakes!

  20. Stacy says:

    Im tired of all the lies…this is getting stupid:( and next the rodeos…what the hell!!!! Why cant everyone mind there own buisness…

    • Liz says:

      I will never mind my own business when it comes to cruelty to animals. Shame on you for turning away.

    • Nicole says:

      Because animal abuse is wrong? Speaking up for animals that can’t do that themselves has nothing to do with minding our own business.

  21. Jay says:

    Abuse happens in alot of sports and shouldn’t be allowed. After reading your article and some of the comments I feel you should also be ashamed for not portraying the facts truthfully. Your Nobel agenda sounds a little like a personal one. If you participated in abusing these animals then shame on you and anyone else involved. If you truly want to make a difference and be the leader for the cause then be honest and with everyone and be honest with the facts. You’ll get alot more respect on both sides. My two cents!

  22. Jane Cheuvront says:

    It’s about time that people have caught on to the Walking horse that has to endure pain and suffering from abusers for glory.

  23. J. Wright says:

    Soring still happens. Yes, the hurricane may have put a dampener on the event, but if there is one thing I hate more than HSUS, it’s the people who sore horses. Not only are they cruel, but they lend credibility to HSUS, which is also very disturbing.

  24. D.R. Watts says:

    I live in the area – the rain wasn’t the reason for people not attending because the rain wasn’t even bad. Nashville got hit but not Bedford County or Rutherford County. Talk about a crock!

  25. Kay Szabo says:

    The12,000 attendees should have found something else to do over the weekend.

  26. Michael Catterton says:

    This story is nothing but a bunch of lies and misreporting. Attendance was up and the number of horses shown was up this year. Let me walk on.

    • Nicole says:

      I’m in utter disbelief that every commenter who supports this “sport” is only focusing on the attendance, and not even scraping the surface of the horrible torture these animals have to endure. You’re all sickening.

    • Claudia says:

      Walk on Michael…with your legs sored, high heavy shoes and heavy chains…if attendance was up….maybe it was people trying to see IF the industry has REALLY CHANGED and all the walkers performed in their own natural gait WITHOUT HEAVY SHOES AND CHAINS!!! So…did all the horses show WITHOUT ALL OF THAT?????

  27. Peggy McCarthey says:

    Soring should be in the same category as cockfighting and dogfighting – felony animal cruelty. I listened in on the USDA’s national virtual meeting last year on the subject. It was clear that those who defended soring or denied that it existed cared only about two things – money and ribbons – so very shameful!

  28. Sandy Culbertson says:

    Thanks, Marty Irby for your story. It doesn’t surprise me that in these comments people are still defending the cruelty of Soring. We need to permanently get rid of the 10lb stacks and chains also. Due to social media more and more people all over the world are becoming aware of this torture and they are appalled that it is still allowed in the United States! Only the rich and greedy Big Lick show people want this to continue. PASS THE PAST ACT!!! #banthebiglick

  29. Drew Bulecza says:

    Did they hold the Celebration at a different arena this year or was a random arena photographed for this article?

  30. margarita clayton says:

    End of soring & hurting horses…hurray!!
    Now end rodeos!! so good. I understand rodeo associations have stringent rules, but not enforced…horses suffer there; they also use slaughter bound horses to the rodeo torture!!!!
    Thank you HSUS.

  31. Sue says:

    I compete in three day events. I can honestly say my horse’s board and care costs more than my own mortgage payment and groceries. My horse receives chiropractic care, acupuncture, Magno wave therapy, ice boots when needed, daily brushing grooming and turn out etc. She has fresh shavings in her stall three times a week. She receives vitamins, supplements, probiotics pre-biotics iron boosters etc. If you watch my horse you will see that she loves her job, she loves to work and she loves to jump. Otherwise she would just be standing bored in a pasture somewhere. We compete hard but we play hard too. She is my friend and my partner. We have trust. I do not use any form of miss treatment. Because we trust each other and because we train, she wants to do her job and she enjoys the sport.You cannot say that every horse sport mistreats their animals.

    • JoAnn McMahan says:

      Good for you.
      People are referring to so ring of TWH..if you do not do that no one is talking about you and you pampered horse.

Share a Comment

The HSUS encourages open discussion, and we invite you to share your opinion on our issues. By participating on this page, you are agreeing to our commenting policy.
Please enter your name and email address below before commenting. Your email address will not be published.