Tennessee Walking Horse furor renews abuse battle
Four decades ago, the soring of Tennessee walking horses was so bad, Joseph Tydings knew the federal government needed to take action.
He wrote the Horse Protection Act when he served in the U.S. Senate from 1965 to 1971. The act makes it illegal to transport or show a sored horse.
But the practice remains widespread, Tydings said.
“It is just as bad today,” he said in a recent interview from his law office in Washington.
Public outrage over soring has ebbed and flowed over the decades as high-profile cases come to light, then fade into the background. The industry has often had a one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach to curbing the practice. Reform efforts have had trouble gaining traction.
Tydings cited a mix of politics, lack of funding for enforcement and a culture that may not acknowledge the problem. He said many horse owners and trainers simply don’t want tighter regulations.
“They are more interested in getting the big ribbons than anything else, and it is such a tragedy,” Tydings said.
But Tydings said he hopes things are finally about to change, not only because of the high-profile release last week of undercover video showing soring and other abuses in a West Tennessee barn but also because of federal prosecutors’ willingness to pursue violations of the Horse Protection Act.
In the past year, the U.S. attorneys for Middle and East Tennessee have taken on three such cases — apparently the first of their kind in three decades — including ones against nationally known trainer Jackie McConnell and Lewisburg trainer Barney Davis.
McConnell appears in the undercover video, which was taken at his Collierville barn. The video, shot by an investigator from the Humane Society of the United States, helped lead to a 52-count federal indictment against McConnell and three others.
He has indicated his intent to plead guilty to count one of the indictment in federal court in Chattanooga today. In a separate case, Davis pleaded guilty earlier this year and is serving a year in prison.
A chemically induced 'Big Lick'
Tennessee walking horses have a naturally high gait, giving riders less bounce. The high step serves as a natural shock absorber.
Over the years, trainers used special shoes and metal chains to encourage an even higher step, which is permitted under the law. Eventually, some figured out that the training could go faster if they burned the horse’s ankles — the practice known as soring.
Dripping harsh chemicals on the horses’ front ankles forces them, because of pain, to lift their legs higher and shift their weight to their back legs. The movement produces an even higher gait. The walk, known as the “Big Lick,” is prized in walking horse competitions.
Walking horse industry groups have pledged for more than 30 years to crack down on soring, particularly after well-publicized cases. Leading industry groups condemn the practice and say a small number of trainers are giving the sport a bad reputation.
It’s not the first time that has happened. In 1998, several leaders questioned the industry’s commitment to ending the practice and tried to set up alternative events to the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville. The show remains the sport’s premiere show.
Now, the industry once again finds itself in the spotlight. In recent interviews, Doyle Meadows, the CEO of the national celebration, said the industry is stepping up.
He said industry organizations got tougher after 2006, when the celebration canceled its Grand Champions contest after U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators disqualified seven of the 10 horses for soring violations.
Meadows said soring violations have declined significantly at the celebration, which he said proves that the practice is becoming less common.
Except for this year’s $696,000 budget, the USDA has had only $500,000 a year to enforce the Horse Protection Act since its passage in 1970. That means USDA inspectors can make it to only a small number of horse shows each year and often rely on a form of industry self-regulation.
Under the system, horse industry organizations hire inspectors, which critics say leads to conflicts of interest.
When USDA inspectors do attend horse shows, they regularly find violations.
Dozens of owners and trainers are currently under USDA suspension. A review of about two dozen complaints and enforcement actions in the past two years shows that soring remains a serious problem for the industry.
The records detail cases in which horse owners and trainers ignored USDA disciplinary action against them and disqualifications at horse shows.
In one recent case, three trainers had horses disqualified from the 2006 celebration. But shortly after the inspections, the three ignored the disqualifications and showed the horses in the celebration’s Champion’s Arena. In December, the three agreed to a four-month ban from the sport.
“Our belief is that soring is very widespread,” said Dr. Harry Werner, chairman of the Equine Welfare Committee at the American Association of Equine Practitioners. “When also considering the likely violations occurring at the shows that aren’t inspected, we believe this clearly demonstrates widespread soring within the Tennessee walking horse industry.”
When Davis was sentenced in February in Chattanooga, he took the witness stand and described soring in detail.
Soring is needed so the horses can “step as big as they can step. That’s how you win,” Davis said, according to the court transcript.
The owners “want to win the money, the prestige, you know. They want that they’ve got a horse that can win,” he testified.
Davis also said soring is common. “Everybody does — I mean, they’ve got to be sored to walk. I mean, that’s the bottom line. It ain’t no good way to put it, but that’s it,” he said.
Preventing soring by example
Bill Killian, the U.S. attorney for East Tennessee, said a USDA agent brought the Davis case to the attention of his office and asked whether federal prosecutors would be interested in pursuing it.
Killian said his office has had an overwhelming response, with calls from around the world thanking him for taking on the issue.
He described the prosecutions as “impact cases,” meaning even taking on a small number could force the industry to change.
“There are certain situations where it has an impact on those who would commit violations of the law who are not actually charged,” Killian said Monday during an interview at his Chattanooga office.
In Middle Tennessee, federal prosecutors last year brought charges against Chris Zahnd, owner and operator of Swingin’ Gate Stables in Trinity, Ala.
Zahnd took a sored horse to the Woodbury Lions Club Horse Show in 2009. The horse also was wearing a nerve cord, a plastic zip tie often applied to the upper gum to distract from the pain of soring.
Zahnd pleaded guilty and was sentenced in November to two years of probation.
Jerry E. Martin, the U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee, said the three recent cases show there continues to be a problem within the industry.
“The message ought to be loud and clear,” Martin said. “If we get wind of soring, we are going to vigorously pursue the case, either in federal court here or in the Eastern District.”
For Tydings, who served in a U.S. Army cavalry unit during World War II, the federal government can do only so much to cut down on soring.
His law firm serves as the pro bono counsel for Friends of Sound Horses, an organization that promotes the humane treatment of Tennessee walking horses. And while the outrage may be cyclical, he said it’s the key to making things change.
“The most effective way to eliminate soring,” he wrote recently, “is for citizens to stand up to and speak out against this atrocious practice.”
Source: The Tennessean