published Friday, December 14th, 2012

Poll supports tougher Tennessee walking horse protections

HORSE POLL RESULTS
HORSE POLL RESULTS
Altman Davis letter
Altman Davis letter

Poll Results

Question: A bill recently introduced in Congress, H.R. 6388, the Horse Protection Act Amendments of 2012, would strengthen the law against horse soring. It would end the system of industry self-policing, ban the use of chains and stacks which have been implicated in soring, increase penalties, and hold accountable all those involved in this practice. Would you support or oppose this federal legislation?

TN TOTAL // MEN // WOMEN // DEMS // REPS // INDS

SUPPORT // 75% // 70% // 80% // 74% // 74% // 77%

OPPOSE // 14% // 14% // 14% // 17% // 18% // 8%

UNDECIDED // 11% // 16% // 6% // 9% // 8% // 15%

Source: Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for Humane Society of the United States

From Paul Blackburn:

"I write this letter with personal reluctance, but also with hope for the future of this community. ... Many years ago, abuse of horses in the walking horse industry was prevalent. To win, trainers tried all sorts of things, some of which harmed or "sored" the horses. ... I did not change with the times, and I am being punished for doing so, as I should be."

"I am not showing horses today because the industry is truly self-regulating. The accusation that all horses must be sore in order to compete is simply untrue."

"We shouldn't end an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity for small communities across the country, raises money for many worthwhile local charities and serves as an activity where young kids can spend time, meet new friends and learn to compete because of the bad actions of a few."

From Christen Altman Davis

"Almost every trainer has received a HPA [Horse Protection Act] violation, and many of those have received not just one but numerous violations over the years. ... Everyone wants to stop the soring but the trainers are allowed to accumulate ticket after ticket, and also tickets in "ticket takers" names, which is employees that are hired to work at the barn."

"Many of the walking horse owners, trainers and board of directors of different clubs inside associations such as TWHBEA [Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association], Walking Horse Trainer's Association and TWSHO [Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization] have members who have been cited a HPA violation ticket."

"This industry is one that will not change without new rules and punishment. The continuous slaps on the wrist are obviously not working due to the amount of HPA violations by trainers. Until drastic measures are taken by the government or a higher authority, I don't know if the industry will ever change. This is what many know as their livelihoods, and no one wants to have that taken away."

Just as a newly released poll shows Tennessee voters by a 5-to-1 margin support stronger legislation to prevent the soring of Tennessee walking horses, two people recently convicted under the Horse Protection Act have followed a federal judge's order to write newspaper letters about the practice.

Paul Blackburn and Christen Altman Davis have submitted letters to U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice Jr.

The two were among eight people who pleaded guilty in the past 18 months to charges related to soring Tennessee walking horses or gaited spotted saddle horses -- two breeds known for high-stepping "big lick" gaits. Soring is the use of caustic chemicals or hurtful objects on horses' legs and hooves to make them step higher.

Both letters acknowledge that soring is abuse of horses and is wrong.

But Davis and Blackburn differ in their perception of how widespread the practice is.

Davis, who married also-convicted soring trainer Barney Davis after both of them were indicted, said Barney Davis and fellow convicted trainer Jackie McConnell were "not the only bad apples that have fallen off the tree."

"These two men, yes are guilty ... however these two men did nothing different than 90 percent of other trainers in the industry continue to do today," she wrote.

Blackburn, a lifelong trainer from a family of trainers, said the abuse used to be widespread but is no longer.

Blackburn said he didn't change his habit of training when other trainers did, and he was caught because of the horse industry's effort to reform itself.

"I am not proud of what I did," he wrote. "But don't let my actions or the actions of a few bad actors detract from what the walking horse industry has done to rid the system of soring trainers. I am an example of how recent reforms are working."

According to U.S. District Court records, all of the people found guilty and sentenced in soring cases over the past 18 months have been required to write letters explaining the practice.

Barney Davis was allowed to substitute a video for his letter.

Others -- including former Walking Horse Hall of Fame trainer McConnell, are still working on their letters, court officials said Thursday.

McConnell was captured beating a horse on hidden-camera video by an undercover operative of the Humane Society of the United States. Video excerpts aired last summer prompted public outrage. McConnell was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $75,000.

Polling attitudes

When McConnell's sentencing report made it clear that he likely would be sentenced only to probation, the public was outraged again.

In mid-September, days before McConnell was sentenced, two congressmen from Tennessee and Kentucky introduced legislation to amend the Horse Protection Act.

The amendments would make it a felony to sore a horse and end the use of chains, most pads and the industry's self-policing.

The new poll of 1,250 voters was conducted from Dec. 3-5 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Humane Society. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent.

The pollster asked 1,250 voters in Tennessee and Kentucky -- the two primary walking horse states -- what they know and think about soring in the industry and if they supported a tougher law.

Of the Horse Protection Act, 75 percent of Tennessee voters and 69 percent of Kentucky voters said they support adding teeth to the 40-year old federal law.

A majority of respondents said they support state legislation to make soring a felony offense.

"These poll results clearly indicate that in the heart of Tennessee walking horse country, the public strongly supports legislation to crack down on the corrupt 'big lick' industry," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society.

The poll respondents, by about a 3-to-1 margin, also would avoid buying from companies sponsoring shows that promote "big lick" horses.

And by a more than 2-to-1 margin, respondents said they would avoid attending a competition where they knew horses would be wearing chains and tall, heavy stacks or pads.

"Abusing horses for the sake of a blue ribbon is cruel, and the majority of voters have expressed their disdain for this industry by saying they would avoid 'big lick' events altogether," Dane said.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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