Tennessee Walking Horses are among the finest naturally gaited horses in the equestrian world. Their smooth horizontal stride, steady disposition and all-day endurance make them the preferred trail horse of many riders in states and countries far beyond Tennessee. They deserve kind treatment and care. But in Shelbyville's Walking Horse Celebration and other rich show-rings that celebrate the "big lick," they get little of either.
In these shows, a world away from natural riding, unethical trainers deliberately harm walking horses -- often resulting in permanent lameness -- to make them produce the unnatural, ultra-high-stepping front stride known as the big lick. Crowds roar in delight at the sight.
Forget the regular flat horseshoes ordinary riders typically use. Trainers focused on the big lick have the horses' front hooves cut and shaped to accommodate a 4-to-5-inch-high leather or rubber shoe-stack, which is bound to the front feet with nails, metal bands or chains. More cruel abuse involves "soring" a horse's hooves and pasterns with caustic fluids or chemicals, adding more chains, and adding balls, tacks or screws inside the top of the shoe-stack to inflict extra pain against the center of a horse's hooves when they put their feet down.
Before they are ridden into the show ring, they also may be spooked by strobe lights and loud music to make them wild-eyed and vein-popping dynamic. As one undercover film showed, they may also be beaten with pipes to distract a horse's attention from the pain in their front feet.
All these cruel practices are meant to make a horse response to the pain by picking the front feet up high, and shifting the rider's weight to the hind end. The cruelest practices are illegal under the Horse Protection Act, enacted in 1970 specifically to outlaw soring of the front feet. Regardless, soring remains commonplace -- apparently due to lax enforcement of rules against soring -- and no one has ever been sentenced to jail specifically for violating the act.
Guilty pleas entered in federal court here this week by three men charged with violating the Horse Protection Act in a 52-count indictment brings needed attention to the continuing abuse of Tennessee Walking Horses and the need for tighter enforcement of walking horse industry's anti-soring rules. The pleas were entered by Jackie McConnell, a well-known TWH trainer and former World Championship winner who had been previously suspended nine times by Horse Industry Organizations, including four soring violations; and by two of his employees, John Mays and Joseph Abernathy.
Their pleas were prompted by an undercover investigation by the Celebration's own inspection group, known as SHOW, which gathered evidence that federal prosecutors used here and in other cases to bring horse-abuse charges to court. Five other men were brought to court last November in Middle Tennessee on similar charges. Four received probation, and one was sentenced to a year in prison for continuing to sore horses while free on bond for earlier counts.
The three men who entered guilty pleas here Tuesday are expected to receive probation, as well. That's because the weak Horse Protection Act defines most violations as misdemeanors, and because federal sentencing guidelines mandate concurrent sentences and probation for most charges covered under the act.
Such leniency for the sordid and continuing practice of soring gaited horses in pursuit of the "big lick" is appalling. Until some federal congressman or senator -- Lamar Alexander? Bob Corker? -- proposes a stiffer punishment for the deplorable practice of daily animal abuse against Tennessee Walkers and other gaited show horses in their home state, that abuse seems destined to continue.