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Wayne's Blog: The 'Big Lick' Shows Big Changes Are Needed to Stop Horse Soring

Wayne's Blog: A Humane Nation

  • Trainers torture Tennessee walking horses to create the exaggerated "Big Lick" gait that wins at the Celebration. Cisneros/The HSUS

UPDATED 9/13/2012 by Keith Dane, HSUS director of equine protection.

On the last day of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, members of Tennessee Citizens for the Tennessee Walking Horse, a group of grassroots horse lovers and owners, gathered in Shelbyville under The HSUS’s soring-tips reward billboard near the Celebration to protest the stacks, chains, and soring that are so typical of the abuse that is inflicted on “big lick” Tennessee walking horses.

"We're hoping it will bring some awareness to the abuse," group member Marcia Harris told the “Shelbyville Times-Gazette."

Another Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration has ended. And—thanks to The HSUS's shocking undercover investigation—the public, media, and Tennessee walking horse industry are well aware of the abuse. And still the Tennessee walking horse industry refuses to change.

Desperate to keep the federal government from stepping in to protect Tennessee walking horses, the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization and Celebration organizers made a dramatic promise:

  • They would swab and test every horse at the Celebration
  • They would release the results in 24 hours
  • They would disqualify and remove the titles and awards of any horse found to have been treated with prohibited substances

More than a week later, we are still waiting for the result of those tests. On an industry chat list, Celebration officials have already backtracked, indicating that, though all horses were swabbed, only the first-place winner and random other horses were actually tested.

And do the tests mean anything? Officials have never disclosed what chemicals they were swabbing for.

Yet again the Tennessee walking horse industry has shown that it can't be entrusted with the welfare of the horses in its care. And it's proven that the only way to end the crime of soring is to strengthen the federal government's ability to combat it.

We can make that happen: Congress has introduced a bill to toughen the federal Horse Protection Act that would end industry self-policing, ban the use of certain devices, strengthen penalties, and make other needed reforms to finally end this torture. It's our job to tell our federal legislators to pass this bill!

Fortunately, we’re already being helped in that effort by some of our celebrity friends. Among those who support the bill and are asking Congress to act on it are Jillian Michaels, Emmylou Harris, Lynn Anderson, Kelly Carlson, Loretta Swit, Alexandra Paul, Jenna Morasca, Georgina Bloomberg, and Dawn Olivieri.

Stop the torture of Tennessee walking horses »

Wayne Pacelle: September 03, 2012

A good number of owners, trainers and others associated with the Tennessee walking horse show industry are engaged in a coordinated effort to cover up illegal “soring”–a practice prohibited by Congress in 1970. Their scheme involves the cruel application of painful irritants and implements and devices to the feet and legs of horses. It’s done to induce the so-called “Big Lick,” which involves an unnatural, bizarre, and illegally induced high-stepping gait, all for a blue ribbon.

Last night, I went to the Celebration, the world grand championship show for this breed in Shelbyville, Tenn., with The HSUS’s director of equine protection and lifelong horseman, Keith Dane. We saw some flat-shod horses exhibit a normal or natural gait. But seeing those animals only accentuated for us how bizarre it is to see horses with four-inch stacks and heavy chains on their feet, prancing into the show arena, raising their front legs high and unnaturally shifting their weight onto their back legs.

Attendance seemed way down last night at the Celebration, according to people who have been there for years. In a 25,000-seat arena, there were perhaps only 5,000 people there.

There is one particularly compelling explanation for the low turn-out of horses, riders, and spectators: In May, The HSUS released footage that rocked the Tennessee walking horse industry. An HSUS undercover investigator captured one of the most decorated trainers, Jackie McConnell, the former president of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association and a Hall of Fame inductee, on tape applying chemicals onto the legs of horses and cooking them into their flesh. Our investigator also documented McConnell striking horses in the head with a bat or stick (“stewarding”). Ironically, at the time these crimes were committed, he was already under federal disqualification for previous soring activities, but he was still training horses for the show ring, underscoring how porous and weak the current enforcement program is.

Our investigation has roiled the industry and prompted calls for reform. The American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association have said it’s time to end the use of stacks and chains and to do away with industry self-regulation. And today, Barney Davis, a trainer convicted of soring, participated at a press conference with Keith and me, arguing that the only way to get the Big Lick gait is to sore horses. He grew up in the industry, and says that he did the same things every other trainer did.

Of all of the dozens of breeds exhibited in horse shows under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jurisdiction, the agency only deploys officials to check up on Tennessee walking horse shows. Why do they warrant such attention from the federal government? It’s only because the industry’s abuses were so bad that the Congress had to step in and mandate federal oversight by passing the Horse Protection Act. Yet 42 years later, all of the Big Lick horses are exhibiting the same exaggerated, unnatural, absurd gait. Abuse has become routine and normal in this industry.

The industry is attacking The HSUS and the USDA, which is charged with enforcing the federal law, because Tennessee walking horse trainers and owners have an economic stake in continuing their cover-up. The industry is fighting the new USDA rule to require that industry inspection organizations impose mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act.

Last year at the Celebration, USDA swabbed 52 horses for illegal substances used to numb, mask, or sore horses, and every one of them was found in violation of the law. With their attendance declining and the American public disgusted by the illegal soring behavior, what more incentive does the industry need to make real, fundamental, and enduring changes? As this year’s low attendance shows, it's losing the battle of public opinion, in addition to finding itself on the wrong side of the law.