With the Celebration less than a month away, and the WHOA International Grand Championship show taking place all this week at the Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, controversy is once again raging in the world of the Tennessee Walking Horse.
According to a "Member Notice" on the Walking Horse Trainers Association Web site, "On May 27 the USDA published in the Federal Register a proposal to amend the horse protection regulations to require Horse Industry Organizations (HIO) or associations that license Designated Qualified Persons (DQP) to assess and enforce minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act and the regulations. To date, approximately 32 responses have been filed and the overwhelming majority is in favor of the proposed amendment and thus mandatory penalties.
"It is urgent that the show horse industry acts now on this public comment period and let their feelings be known by the USDA. This is an opportunity for the industry to be heard and everyone that owns, trains, exhibits or enjoys the Tennessee Walking Horse should feel responsible to file a response. The deadline for responses is July 26."
The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association (TWHBEA), headquartered in Lewisburg, issued a similar appeal.
Trainers, owners and show organizers responded in a big way, and almost 900 comments were posted on the regulations.gov Web site for the United States Department of Agriculture to study.
Marshall County horseman Wayne Dean, one of the organizers of the highly successful one-night show held in Lewisburg last weekend, wrote, "As a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer/owner/exhibitor and industry leader, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on the proposed regulations. The current regulations are more than adequate to ensure the humane treatment of the Tennessee Walking Horse, as well as allowing honest, hard-working trainers who love this horse an opportunity to make a humble and honest living. The compliance rate exceeds 90 percent. While a 100 percent rate is the ultimate goal, no one can deny the monumental strides that the industry has made under the current regulations....(which) are more than adequate and should not be changed."
Marshall County trainer Link Webb, a former president of WHTA, summed up the thoughts of many with this comment, "I oppose the rulemaking being proposed by the USDA. I have been involved in the Walking Horse industry my entire life and have been a professional Tennessee Walking Horse trainer for 25 years .... (I) believe that in recent years our industry has made great strides in both self-regulation and the showing and exhibition of compliant horses. ..... The HIOs which police our industry are private organizations which do not have the ability and/or responsibility to provide due process for government mandated penalties as proposed by the USDA. ....I have already witnessed the negative economic impact which the USDA's actions can have on our industry and believe the current rulemaking being proposed will have a huge negative impact on the price of horses, will decrease the number of people participating in the industry and will hurt the charities and communities supported by the industry."
Many of those commenting highlighted the fact that Walking Horse shows are often put on to raise funds for organizations such as the Lions Club or the Rotary, which directly benefit the local communities. Others pointed out that the horses seen in the show ring are only the tip of the iceberg - there are hundreds of horses at trainers' barns, with people employed to look after them, as well as money spent locally on feed, tack, equipment, trailers, trucks, veterinarians, farriers, and so on. And don't forget the breeding farms, where champion stallions command huge stud fees, and well-bred mares are pampered and cared for 24/7 to ensure they deliver a healthy foal.
Some of those who responded suggested that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was behind the move by the USDA. This comment by Calvin Cheek is an example of that point of view.
"It is time that the USDA recognizes HSUS as what it is, a self serving organization whose only interest is raising millions of dollars by spreading lies and misinformation," Cheek wrote. "HSUS is determined to destroy the Walking Horse industry and all of the charitable organizations that it supports through horse shows. I will be the first to admit that the industry has made mistakes in the past, but thanks to the cooperation between HIOs and the USDA, these are in the past. ...... I have not owned a Walking Horse in over 30 years, so the only thing I have invested is the love of watching these beautiful animals perform. It is a shame that a self-serving organization like HSUS can have such an effect on the decisions made by a government entity such as the USDA."
Indeed, on the HSUS Web site, it states, "If you think all show horses are pampered and well-cared for, think again. Many Tennessee Walking Horses are subjected to a cruel practice known as soring - the intentional infliction of pain to their feet and legs to produce an exaggerated gait known as the 'Big Lick.'
"The lives of many Tennessee Walking Horses trained in this manner are filled with pain, suffering, and fear. Most are kept in stalls the majority of the time - fitted with tall, heavy shoes, their legs covered with caustic chemicals meant to cause pain, these horses are subjected to extreme cruelty, all for the sake of a ribbon.
"The HSUS is working for increased enforcement of the federal Horse Protection Act and other laws that are meant to protect these majestic animals."
There are plenty of places on the Internet to find even more inflammatory statements, accompanied by pictures, of the alleged cruelty being perpetrated in the Walking Horse world, and so the dispute rages on.