It is a scenario that would be impossible to fathom anywhere other than within the bizarre world of walking horse competitions. Last Saturday, at the annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the event’s top honor of World Grand Champion went to a horse, I’m Mayhem, trained by a man named Rodney Dick. But here’s the twist: in a month’s time, Dick – who has been previously disqualified for soring animals in his care – begins another 18-month federal disqualification for violating the Horse Protection Act.
If it sounds incredible that someone known to hurt horses should be winning ribbons for their performance, consider this: Dick is not the only scofflaw that the Celebration judges honored this year. In fact, almost all of this year’s winners have been disqualified previously for abusing horses, and/or are waiting to serve a disqualification.
Herbert Derickson, whose horse won second place, will commence a five-year federal disqualification beginning in September 2020, stemming from no less than 26 alleged violations. Gary Edwards, who rode the horse who won third place, has his own history of violations and serving long disqualifications; he will start serving a three-year disqualification in 2022.
Also competing for top honors at the Celebration this year were John Allen Callaway (who, with his brother Bill, served an eight-month federal disqualification in 2018 for alleged violations involving the 2017 World Grand Champion), and Chad Williams, who was a trainer at ThorSport Farm where we conducted an undercover investigation in 2015 and found evidence that the legs of every horse in the training barn had been “treated” with foreign substances prohibited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Jamie Lawrence, who rode in the final class and placed seventh, was convicted in 2016 for a failed attempt to run over an advocate protesting soring at a Columbia, Tenneessee, horse show.
Soring is a terrible practice in which violators intentionally inflict pain on a horse’s legs or hooves, forcing the animal to perform an artificial, high-stepping gait called the “big lick.” And while federal law prohibits soring, inadequate regulations as well as the USDA’s soft approach to enforcing the Horse Protection Act has allowed this cruelty to persist for decades. Those who break the law face minimal repercussions, get deferred disqualifications, and are typically allowed to continue carrying out the abuses that got them disqualified in the first place.
A big part of the reason why this culture persists, despite organizations like ours and the media turning a sharp eye on it, is because the industry now largely polices itself – a situation that the USDA itself recognized was inappropriate when it finalized new regulations in early 2017 but later withdrew after President Trump took office. We are suing over that withdrawal and we are also trying to remedy the problem through Congress. Those who are breaking the laws also have supporters of their actions in high places, including the Tennessee state legislature and Congress, or are themselves in positions of authority within the industry.
Both Dick and Derickson serve on the board of the Walking Horse Trainers Association. And there are a few members of Congress, like Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who have continually tried to block reforms to the industry. For instance, in July, DesJarlais led the small, failed effort to block the landslide House passage of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 693. He likes to claim that there are only a “few bad apples” that continue to sore horses in this industry and once even came to Derickson’s defense in a very public rebuke of the USDA’s efforts to enforce the Horse Protection Act.
The parade of scofflaws at this year’s Celebration provides more compelling evidence than ever before that we need to act fast to reform this industry. With the USDA refusing to implement the final rule that would bring the regulations into compliance with the HPA and cutting violators sweetheart deals, we are working hard to get the Senate to pass the PAST Act. The bill would end the failed and conflict-ridden system of industry self-policing (replacing it with a cadre of third party, independent inspectors trained, licensed and assigned by USDA and accountable to the agency). It would ban devices integral to soring, strengthen penalties and hold abusers accountable.
Walking horses and other related breeds have been victims of soring for more than half a century now, and it is high time we licked this problem for good. Please contact your U.S. Senators today and urge them to cosponsor PAST and do all they can to help enact it.