Written by Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
The Tennessee Walking Horse industry is beginning its 75th annual national celebration in turmoil, the fallout from a major horse abuse case still taking its toll more than a year later.
Industry leaders say they're more committed than ever to making sure every horse shown in Shelbyville's celebration ring - or anywhere else in the country - is there because of natural talent developed by great trainers, not abusive tactics. The Humane Society of the United States, the dominant lobbying group for reform, has seized public attention on the abuse issue to push for stronger protections on the breed.
Here's what remains at issue going into tonight's celebration, which is the premier Tennessee Walking Horse competition and continues through Aug. 31.
What's at stake
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration's organizers claim a $38 million economic impact on Shelbyville and Bedford County, but the numbers are dropping as fewer owners choose to participate. Earlier this month, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration posted a news release about its financial losses and released these figures about declining horse entries.
Flat shod entries*
2012 - 908
2013 - 658
Down 28 percent
2012 - 1,763
2013 - 1,479
Down 16 percent
* Flat shod horses don't wear the tall, padded shoes many associate with the breed.
Review Tennessee Walking Horse history from the 1950s through today at Tennessean.com.
Amending the Horse Protection Act
A bill that would strengthen the 40-year-old Horse Protection Act, established to end "soring" of horses - injuring their hooves or legs to speed development of their unique, high-stepping gait - has been in the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade since April. But congressmen Ed Whitfield, R-KY, and Steve Cohen, D-TN, the original sponsors, have gained 140 co-sponsors in the House plus a companion bill in the Senate.
HR 1518 would:
• Eliminate action devices - the tall horseshoes, bands over the hooves, and ankle chains that mark the sport's most elite division.
• Provides for stricter penalties for soring.
• End industry inspection groups and require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to license, train and oversee inspectors at horse shows.
Meanwhile, the horse industry is working with opponents of HR 1518 on an alternative version of the bill. They contend the action devices, used properly, are legitimate sports equipment that do not harm. Their alternative bill would:
• Keep the existing inspection structure but make it independent of the industry.
• Train inspectors more comprehensively.
• Increase penalties for soring, but assign them through objective and state-of-the-art testing.
SHOW, a Shelbyville-based group that does inspections for the celebration and most major walking horse shows, spent a year enmeshed in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. SHOW opposed new mandatory penalties related to all horse inspection groups and a 60-day time limit on handling appeals, claiming they violated a constitutuional right to due process. The USDA threatened to decertify SHOW from doing inspections, which could have put the celebration in peril.
That outcome was avoided when the Fort Worth judge that heard the case ruled against SHOW earlier this month and, this week, SHOW agreed to comply with the new rules.
What both sides say about the horse's future
There are a half-million Tennessee Walking Horses around the world, the breed's registering organization says. But Tennessee Walking Horses Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association membership has dropped from 10,500 in 2011 to 8,300 today.
The walking horse industry and the Human Society of the United States, the biggest outside group pushing reform, differ on what it will take to protect the breed's future.
"It's time to take the Tennessee Walking Horse into the future, and it's time for him to be something we're all proud of. It's time for us to talk about the love of the horse, the pageantry of what they do, the charitable dollars they raise in our state. All the good gets overshadowed with this one debate, and it really is sad. Honestly, I think that's the thing that's holding back the growth of the horse, that we're always defending him. How many people want to spend money in the middle of a fight?"
-Jeffrey Howard, Performance Show Horse Association spokesman
Hear Jeffrey Howard explain his hopes for this year's celebration at Tennessean.com.
"We've maintained for some time now that the breed has been held back and hampered by allegations of soring. ... The resistance to change is so strong, the only way we believe the breed can survive, and thrive, is to eliminate the devices that are part and parcel of the soring process. Once the devices used to sore and industry self-regulation are things of the past, the horse can step into the future."
-Keith Dane, equine protection director, Humane Society of the United States
In May 2012, "Nightline" broadcast an undercover video of Collierville, Tenn., horse trainer Jackie McConnell soring horses. McConnell swiftly pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating the Horse Protect Act and later to state animal cruelty charges. Now a civil court is sorting out what will happen to his horse victims.
Larry Wheelon, a Maryville trainer and AAA-rated show judge, was arrested and charged with animal cruelty in April. Last week, that charge was dismissed after a prosecution witness sat in the courtroom during testimony before he was called, a violation of court rules.
As a result, Blount County Assistant District Attorney Ellen Berez couldn't enter into evidence the soring test results from the horse Wheelon was charged with abusing. The judge failed to find probable cause to send the case to a grand jury.
On Tuesday, Wheelon told The Tennessean he's never sored any horses. As for past violations, he said the inspectors weren't properly trained. Now he's eager to put the prosecution behind him, get 19 horses seized in the case back and return to making a living.
"They broke me," he said. "I don't know if I can get gas money to come over (for the celebration), and I ain't missed it since 1964. You take your livelihood for four months - those 19 horses out here, that's my monthly income. That's truck payments, house payments."
Berez didn't return calls seeking comment.