“I am every bit as committed to Tennessee Walking horses as ever, but I won’t stand by as trainers and owners cause misery by hurting horses to get a leg up in competition.”
Animal Wellness Action is a Washington D.C.-based organization that seeks to help animals and promote animal welfare through the promotion of legal standards that forbid cruelty. The group’s efforts largely focus on influencing lawmakers and ensuring that lawmakers who care about animal issues are elected. Ongoing priorities for the current 115th Congress include banning the sale of shark fins in the United States, applying laws against dogfighting and cockfighting to US territories, and others — including support of the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, aimed at cracking down on the long-standing practice of soring in Tennessee Walking Horses.
Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, writes this op-ed for Horse Nation readers:
Being a horseman is in my blood.
And Tennessee Walking horses have been my addiction. I grew up in Alabama competing in horse shows. And as an adult, I became the volunteer president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), the breed registry established in 1935.
To my great chagrin, some of the people in this industry have engaged in a pattern of horse abuse and brought national shame and disrepute to the industry. I am every bit as committed to Tennessee Walking horses as ever, but I won’t stand by as trainers and owners cause misery by hurting horses to get a leg up in competition.
Now, as executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a national animal advocacy group, I am working to put an end to the miserable practice of horse soring, where people involved in showing walking horses injure their feet and legs in order to induce an exaggerated high-stepping gait known as the “Big Lick.”
The Tennessee Walking Horse officially came into existence as a breed of horse with the establishment of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA).
My friend, and one of my mentors, Bill Harlin was there that day in 1935 at the Marshall County Courthouse. Mr. Bill was a past president of the association during a tumultuous time and later he helped me more than anyone during my time as president from 2010-2012. Unfortunately we lost him in 2017, but he lived well into his 90s. He was a legend, as is the Harlin name that most horse folks and Tennesseans would associate with Midnight Sun, whose genetics live on within nearly every living walking horse today.
For the first twenty or so years, the Tennessee Walking Horse breed grew by leaps and bounds, was the fastest growing and largest breed of equines in America and was for all intents and purposes “America’s horse.” Roy Rogers and Dale Evans rode walkers in the old western films, and John Wayne rode on the back of walker – all ecstatic about the “glide ride” a walker provided – with no bumpiness like a pacer or trotter.
The walking horse was darn near perfect, and even President Lyndon B. Johnson traveled to Tennessee to present the World Grand Championship awards at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville – just one county over from Marshall County. The event was established in 1939 to crown the breed’s champion but has always been a completely separate entity than TWHBEA and governed by a corrupt group of local businessmen instead of horse people – something that I consider a detriment to the breed.
In 1950, the United States Department of Agriculture officially recognized the Tennessee Walking Horse as a distinct breed, and a few years later, soring began. Leave it to us humans to pervert one of God’s perfect creations. Soring ran rampant, thus the stigma of the Tennessee Walking Horse being the most abused equine on earth began, and with it Tennessee has become known as the “Horse Abuse Capitol of the World.”
The old-timers in the breed have said that Steve Hill, a well-known top trainer in the industry, utilized some chemical agents for the purpose of healing on Talk of the Town, the 1951, 1952 and 1953 World Grand Champion that was considered “unbeatable” by those competing against him.
None of the other horses performed quite like Talk of the Town, and trainers couldn’t compete so more and more trainers began practicing this egregious abuse by utilizing mustard oil to burn the skin around the horses’ ankles, and in some circumstances even placed barbwire around the ankle to create the reaction that later became known as the “big lick.” After 15 or so years of rampant abuse, the federal government stepped in.
The legendary U.S. Senator Joe Tydings (D-MD), who passed away last month, joined by Howard Baker (R-TN), shepherded to passage the Horse Protection Act in 1970 to crack down on soring.
The Act was well intended, and the result of some compromises that marked the first federal law designed specifically to help the iconic American equines we all revere. But the law is needs of a serious upgrade, because trainers have figured a way around the proscriptions in the law. In an ideal circumstance the Act should have eliminated to use of stacked shoes or pads, and action devices now known as ankle chains, but it didn’t, and those devices are still highly utilized in 2018.
Veterinarian U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho (R-FL) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR), along with U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), and Mark Warner (D-VA), have been leading bipartisan, bicameral legislation known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, H.R. 1847/ S. 2957 that would close the loopholes in the Horse Protection Act by eliminating the large stacked shoes and ankle chains, increasing the penalties, and eliminating the industry’s failed self-policing system by replacing it with licensed USDA contract inspectors, all at no cost to the taxpayer.
This is the third Congress in six years that this legislation has been introduced, and now has 285 Members of the House and 45 Members of the Senate as cosponsors. It’s been stalled because a small group of Republicans from Tennessee and Kentucky who continue to rake in campaign cash from violators of the HPA, but there is cause for optimism. Last week, the House Problem Solvers Caucus proposed that any bill with 290 cosponsors (2/3 of the House) should be brought to floor for a vote in the next Congress that begins in January, and we’re only five away from having that number on the record in the next few weeks when the 115th Congress ends, and I believe we can get there.
Please call your U.S. Members of the House at 202-224-3121 and ask them to join in cosponsoring the PAST Act, H.R. 1847 this week – the horses need you to take action.
Marty Irby is the executive director of Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C. and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association.
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