Written by Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
Putting on Tennessee's biggest walking horse show is a high-adrenaline, 11-day endurance test that carries all the usual drama of packing 200,000 enthusiasts into a city built for 20,000.
But there's a quieter undercurrent this year as Shelbyville prepares for the Celebration. It's a tension borne of months of battle in the public eye, waged in court and in Congress, all launched after a stomach-turning video of a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer mercilessly beating a horse went viral.
That former hall of fame trainer, Jackie McConnell, struck a deal with federal prosecutors that includes cooperating with them on future cases against fellow trainers. He's poised to start talking next month if it's accepted, an ominous prospect for at least some in the industry.
The video also prompted a U.S. Department of Agriculture move to standardize penalties for walking horse abuse, a policy being opposed by the industry - either because of stubbornness, constitutional issues or a desire to protect animals, depending on who's describing the motive.
Tennessee's congressional delegation has gotten nowhere in its industry reform efforts. A bill co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville, both Democrats, would broaden the federal government's powers to stop horse soring - chemically burning the legs of walking horses to induce their unusually long gait - and provide more money for inspections.
Reps. Marsha Blackburn, Diane Black and Scott DesJarlais, all Middle Tennessee Republicans, haven't signed on. The bill is stalled in committee.
In a prepared statement, Blackburn said she opposes animal abuse, but H.R. 2966 carries budget implications that she says deserve consideration.
"Furthermore, we must be mindful that enforcement and oversight of new regulations amending the Horse Protection Act could intrude on the private property rights of individual horse owners, strain the existing U.S. horse infrastructure, increase horse slaughter in many unregulated countries, and lead to more abandonment of horses in the United States," she wrote.
No other bills contain additional money for USDA walking horse inspections. Funding this year stands at $696,000, enough to send veterinarians to only a fraction of the nation's 500-plus shows.
"Unfortunately, there aren't any horse soring provisions in either the Senate or House versions of the farm bill, or in the House agriculture appropriations bill, which probably would have been the better vehicle for increasing the funding authorization for USDA horse inspections," said Katie Hill, Cooper's spokeswoman.
Pressure to find every flaw
The Celebration will start Wednesday and run through Sept. 1. There are nearly 2,700 horses entered, and the event carries a $50 million economic impact for Bedford County, its organizers say. It highlights the best of the breed, attracting visitors who love the horses and those drawn to the colorful and character-filled extravaganza that surrounds them.
The atmosphere is less celebratory backstage, where local inspectors this year will find themselves under unprecedented pressure to find every flaw.
There have been blow-ups over inspections in the past - most famously in 2006, when the Celebration canceled the Grand Champion contest after investigators from the USDA disqualified seven of 10 horses for soring violations.
And that was years before the nation watched videotaped evidence of what some walking horse trainers will do to produce a winner. The horror that ensued led to pointed questions about an industry that mostly regulates itself, with USDA-certified, local horse industry groups handling show inspections.
But USDA veterinarians always travel to the Celebration, inspecting for signs of abuse by trainers who want to quicken the journey from well-bred horse to grand champion. At last year's Celebration, the local inspectors and USDA veterinarians agreed on about 99 percent of their decisions.
Resisting the rules
But the two groups are at odds this year, with the Shelbyville-based SHOW Horse Industry Organization under threat of decertification for refusing to accept a new USDA rule. If that happens, it won't come until after the Celebration.
The rule would standardize penalties across the 12 HIOs - horse industry organizations - certified to inspect show horses in the USDA's stead. The idea is a good one, industry insiders agree, but three walking horse inspection groups didn't submit revised rule books incorporating the USDA policy, as required. Instead, SHOW is asking a Fort Worth, Texas, federal court to throw the new rules out, saying they violate trainers' rights to due process.
SHOW doles out punishments stronger than the USDA's, the group insists, and provides an appeals process the new rules don't.
Critics have jumped on the court filing as evidence of resistance to change. Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, a Shelbyville-based group, was formed this year with the stated purpose of promoting industry reform, protecting horses and maintaining the sport's integrity. On its face, supporting the lawsuit seems to run counter to all that, but Jeffrey Howard, the group's communications director, says his group can't ignore the constitutional principles involved.
His group has called for more scientific tests for soring and "pressure shoeing" - another abusive technique to make the horse lift its legs higher and longer. Those tests include swabbing horses' legs to detect foreign chemicals, a method Shelbyville groups adopted independently of the USDA's program, and radiology, which the USDA uses by bringing X-ray machines to the shows it inspects.
Those measures are more trustworthy than what inspectors see - and don't see, Howard said.
"The answer is a partnership with the USDA," he said. "Self-regulation won't work on its own. Science and technology are going to prove what the horse can and cannot do.
"In my view, I don't think the trainer should be held hostage for the rest of his life over one man's opinion."
There is a battle for public perception, said Sam Hamilton, executive director of PRIDE, a Mt. Vernon, Ky.-based inspection group that's also resisting the new USDA rules. He says the USDA's rules could drive competitors to shows where there are no local inspectors. And with the USDA going to fewer than 10 percent of shows per year, it's unlikely abusers would ever be caught.
"We don't want people to think we're rebelling against the government and not finding sored horses," Hamilton said. "If I check those horses and keep them out of the show ring, I've done my primary job. If someone sues me because I've violated their due process, I don't have the funds to fight that."
USDA spokesman David Sacks said he couldn't comment on the litigation but said the intent of the rule change was to level the playing field for all groups. He confirmed the department is exploring another scientific way to detect soring - collecting blood of sored horses to see if there are any markers related to what happened.
That's an effort Howard said the industry supports.
"Will there be a sored horse at the Celebration this year? There could be more than one," he said. "Hopefully, it will be caught. The Horse Protection Act allots half a million to catch that - SHOW doesn't care how much it takes. If you need a million dollars, go get it.
"The industry isn't trying to protect its own anymore."
Pursuing criminal violations
Those the industry catches also may face punishment from beyond their professional groups. A new state law went into effect July 1 making horse abuse a Class E felony instead of a misdemeanor - not soon enough for state prosecutors to apply it to McConnell, the trainer caught on the video.
After his Sept. 10 federal court hearing, where a judge will decide whether to sign off on his deal, McConnell faces 15 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty in Fayette County, where the video was shot. He's due in general sessions court Sept. 25.
District Attorney Mike Dunavant said he had to apply the charges that were appropriate when McConnell committed the offense. The video was released in May.
"I chose to make a charging decision based on evidence brought by law enforcement, and some of that included the video," he said. "The USDA and the Humane Society, (which) worked on this investigation, brought evidence, and I made a charging decision."
McConnell declined an interview request through one of his attorneys, Tom Greenholtz of Chattanooga.
Trainers in the Celebration can't worry about what McConnell, who's on a lifetime ban, will say, should his federal plea deal be accepted, said Mike Inman, the event's new CEO. But he's confident those involved this year find the actions on the video deplorable and wish only that they'd been brought to light sooner.
Inman is part of the industry's public reinvention. He was hired away from the residential homebuilding business in Birmingham, Ala., and his move to Shelbyville is so fresh that he still has a 205 area code on his cellphone.
He has shown horses for 27 years and picked up a one-leg soring violation in 2001, according to a database kept by a nonprofit watchdog group. Inman said he has never sored a horse or known of owning one.
"That's an incredible record for 900 inspections, especially since the inspections are subjective. That's well above 99 percent compliance on a very subjective arena," Inman said. "I hope as we move as an industry toward more objective testing procedures, we'll all push to 100 percent."
In 2010, he co-founded the Foundation for the Advancement and Support of the Tennessee Walking Horse and raised half a million dollars. He said he changed careers at age 57 for the love of the breed and to promote it and educate the public about it in the weeks between the Celebration's three annual events.
Transparency key to restoring image
The best way to advance the breed after the McConnell video is with transparency, said Don Roy, professor of management and marketing at Middle Tennessee State University.
He compared the walking horse industry's situation to the Major League Baseball steroid scandal of the 1980s and '90s and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt's crash death in 2001 - both industries came clean and made major changes to restore their images.
Installing a new CEO and proving through action that it's tough on horse abusers is a start for the Celebration, Roy said.
"The Celebration is an institution. It has a deep tradition," he said. "But the controversy that came about in 2006 and more recently, the viral video, certainly are strikes against the industry.
"It would make a person question whether or not he wants to support something like the Celebration if there are questions about some of the practices."