Celebration steps up effort to curb Tennessee walking horse abuse
Organizers say animals better off than ever
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Organizers of the largest Tennessee walking horse show say they are finally taking action to curb the physical abuse that has scarred the breed’s image.
“For 68 years, we kind of sat back in a role of independence, and let the industry handle its own problems,” said Ron Thomas, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which begins Wednesday in Shelbyville.
“After last year, we saw all the negative events that played out on our stage, and we couldn’t sit back and let that happen again.”
The 11-day show ended abruptly in 2006 after federal agricultural inspectors disqualified several of the breed’s top horses. Inspectors look for signs of soring, a type of abuse used to exaggerate the breed’s natural high-stepping gait in the show ring.
The disqualifications caused such an uproar that off-duty Highway Patrol officers who were working as security encouraged U.S. Department of Agriculture officials to leave as crowds of upset horsemen gathered.
The cancellation of the World Grand Championship class sparked heated public hearings about changes to the inspection and training rules for walking horses.
“I think it was a great wakeup call,” Thomas said. “These horses have to be treated and trained better.”
Soring practices include using caustic chemicals, painful shoe- ing and other techniques to make hooves tender which causes the horse to prance delicately in the ring, a unique gait also known as the “Big Lick.”
In addition to tougher federal regulations, the Celebration has added new rules designed to gain back the public’s trust in the multimillion dollar horse show circuit.
Inspectors will be able to remove shoes to check the weight, hoof-testers will be used to check for inflammation inside the foot and stalls on the stage grounds will be open for random inspections. Additional security measures will help to prevent another crowd from forming if horses are disqualified, Thomas said.
“The problem ended up being an uneducated, mob mentality,” Thomas said. “They were screaming and yelling. If there is an issue this year, we’re going to secure the area.”
Earlier this year, the USDA announced toughened regulations designed to keep trainers and owners who violate the rules out of shows and sales.
Martha Day, an inspection and animal welfare director with the National Walking Horse Association, said the USDA’s increased enforcement put a spotlight on a problem that had been ignored for a long time.
“I think it brought public awareness and helped move forward with what needs to be done,” Day said.
Nevertheless, Day said she still sees walking horses entered into shows that are in such pain they can’t stand up through inspections.
“Just within the past 12 months, I inspected a horse and it was so sore, when I picked up the hoof to palpate, the horse just fell down right on me,” Day said.