Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Debate Rages On

This blog post probably won't win me any fans but oh well.  We live about an hour from the heart of Tennessee Walking Horse country.  I love the breed.  Although the breed is not well suited for my disciplines of choice I love their temperament, trainability, and most of all their running walk.  Whenever I've had the opportunity to go trail riding with a friend on her walking horses it is always a pleasure.  It is very obvious to me why a lot of serious trail riders choose to ride a gaited horse, what a comfortable ride!

However I hate the whole Performance Walking Horse division, better known as the "Big Lick."  This is not something a Walking Horse does naturally, it is completely artificial and has to be created.  The big lick is achieved through shoeing the horses in massive stacked shoes, wrapping chains around their pasterns, and forcing them to squat down on their hind ends and look like they are doing some sort of crazy crab walk thing as they go around the ring.  It blows my mind that huge crowds are attracted to these shows to cheer this on.  I don't get it.  When I watch Big Lick horses all I see is something that is so artificial and unnatural, and it looks downright cruel for the horse. I can't stand to watch it.  Not to mention the tail sets that the horses have to wear and a lot of the other stuff that seems to just be part of the breed.  

Don't get me wrong, I am fully aware that every riding discipline, English, Western, gaited or whatever you pick, has abusive tactics that some people employ.  However in my experience, and I've had the privilege to show extensively at some points in my career with some BNTs (Big Name Trainers), this tends to be the exception not the rule.  However with the Big Lick horses I'm not sure that one could ever convince me that all of these horses are not subjected to some level of abuse, because in my opinion being forced to live in and wear the huge stacked shoes is abuse.

The Big Lick training methods have been under fire for decades and they have their own USDA inspectors that inspect horses at the shows in an attempt to enforce the rules.  The industry always seems to circle the wagons and fight vehemently to protect their rights to to produce this Big Lick instead of trying to clean up their act.  Here is an old Sports Illustrated article from 1960(!!!) titled "The Torture Must End."

The latest embarrassment to the industry was the expose on ABC's Nightline a few weeks ago, "Video Reveals Torture of Horses Trained to Win Championship."  I will admit I cried when I watched the video in the link.  You see various ways that the horses in this undercover video were "sored" to produce the Big Lick.  You also watch the horses beaten and abused in a process known as "stewarding." This is where the horses that have been sored are taught to stand still no matter what someone does to them.  This is important as the inspectors are looking for pain responses from sored horses, so the goal is that the horses don't respond to pain and can pass their inspections and be allowed to show.   You see horses so tortured and abused they have to be beaten just to make them stand up in their stalls.  

None of the stuff in this video is new, is a secret or is a surprise.  It just another example of the systematic (in my opinion) abuse of the Big Lick Walking Horse.  The industry reps will tell you over and over that this is the exception and not the rule.  OK, then why is that just about every trainer in recent years who has won the World Grand Championship has been busted for violating the Horse Protection Act?  As of right now the top 20 horse trainers in the Walking Hose Riders Cup competition have amassed 164 violations of the horse protection act between them in the last two years alone.  

Some disturbing statistics quoted in this newspaper article (bold emphasis mine):  "According to Pacelle, “The (performance horse) industry claims a 98 percent compliance rate with the (Horse Protection Act), yet 52 of the 52 horses randomly tested were found by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be positive for prohibited foreign substances having been applied to their ankles at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, which is the major annual show (the Super Bowl, if you will) within the industry.
“Foreign substance violation rates (for soring, numbing or masking agents) at all shows at which the USDA inspected horses were 86 percent in 2010 and 97.6 percent in 2011. It doesn't get more pervasive than that,” wrote Pacelle." 

I find it laughable that their industry leaders can say abuse is not the norm in light of these statistics.  Maybe, unlike me, they don't think these numbers are bad.  I'm glad there is a yet another uproar over the Big Lick walking horses.  However this debate has been raging for over 50 years, and the truth is I doubt anything will change. The TWHBEA (TN Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association) is yet again circling the wagons and defending the Big Lick.  How they can claim soring is the exception and not the rule is incomprehensible to me.  That thousands and thousands of people flock to the Celebration each year to watch these horses and cheer on the Big Lick is something I just can't wrap my brain around.  However the good news is that the Celebration has lost some sponsors thanks to the Nightline story and the undercover video.  Maybe if they lose all of their sponsors some real change might finally happen.

So that is my opinion of the Big Lick walking horse.  It disgusts me, I can't stand to watch it, I wish it would end.  Like I said, this probably won't win me any fans but I've been keeping up with the outcry caused by the Nightline story with interest since I agree with many of the critics of the Big Lick industry.  I hope Jackie McConnell, the trainer in the video, is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the things on that video, but I have my doubts that even that will happen.  


Lucky horses O'Reilly and Noble enjoying the good life after never knowing about stacks, pads and stewarding

Fabrizzio and Walden

OReilly, Thor and Lucky

Titan and Romeo

Lighty taking a look around after hanging out in the woods (I think that is Johnny and either Wiz or Sebastian behind him)

Asterik and Faune doing some early morning grazing

Homer and Trigger

Levendi, Moe and Homer hanging out in the woods

Chance and Leo in the woods

Dutch and Wiz grooming (again!!)


Funder said...

Yup. I never transferred Dixie's papers to my name because I feel SO STRONGLY that I do not want to give the TWHBEA a penny of my money. I mean, I've got her papers if I'm ever forced to sell her, but voluntarily pay them? Never.

I can't say I'll never get another TWH, but I promise you, I'll never get one from a show home or register one.

lytha said...

oh yah, have you seen that video where they show a normal twh going around an arena in a lovely natural gait, and then they put progressively bigger and bigger shoes on until she's doing something like big lick? it was crazy to see the gait get less and less natural and comfortable, and go over the line into cruel.

Kate said...

Big Lick is abuse, plain and simple - the stacked shoes and the unnatural movements alone would qualify as abuse and the other stuff is the icing on the cake. Any time horses are used as ego gratification/money making instruments without regard to the welfare of the horse, you get this stuff, and you're right, it exists in all disciplines - Western pleasure, reining, hunter/jumper, dressage. Rollkur is the same, whether used western or English - again, it's forcing horses to move in an unnatural way. Heads tied up in the air or to a horse's sides, we could go on and on. But Big Lick carries things to extremes of cruelty.

It isn't just bad people doing bad stuff, it's the horse cultures in the disciplines that condone it from big name/winning trainers - then it propogate through the discipline as "acceptable" practices.

Laura Crum said...

Well, you've won a fan here. I totally agree with you. How can anyone see it differently? Its so blatantly obvious. And I have been involved in training cowhorses and rope horses all my life and have seen plenty of abuse. But its not universally so in those events. The Big LIck horses MUST be abused in order to perform this activity. Boo, hiss to anyone who defends this practice.

joy whitney said...

These people ( and I use the term loosely) need to be in prison! They are openly flaunting their abuse on horse everything one of them goes into the ring with one of these poor creatures, who appear to be screaming for help! Its their eyes...and it just continues!! Shelbyville is the doorway to hell for these animals..

Kristy said...

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a horse person. I understand cows like they were my long lost twin, but I've never been around horses much. Despite my inexperience, my company sent me the the TWH Celebration last year to do some market research for their StableComfort system...because if ever there was a stalled horse that needed some comfort, it's most definitely these poor creatures.

My take-away from just one afternoon at the Celebration...complete sadness and disgust. I'm not sure there was anything to Celebrate. Celebrate a bunch of horse doing exactly what you described...a crab walk? Celebrate the line-up area swarming with inspectors (which can you say they were or werenot doing their job if nearly 100% were in violation and the show continued on)? Celebrate the millions of dollars floating around that venue traded on the pain of those animals?

I've honestly decided not to approached these potential customers because me telling them how cruel they are to those horses would not make me any sales. And I feel that I would be in some way supporting that industry if I did make a sale.

Bif said...

My friend's walker, bought several years down the line from when he had been a big lick horse (back in the '80s), was the bravest, best trail horse. He LOVED going out on trail, and 6, 8, 10, 20 miles didn't dim his enthusiasm. He wanted to be moving!

He was terrified of men on the ground. He'd come to sort of tolerate her husband, barely. He didn't mind women, but didn't really care for grooming, or to be fussed on at all. He wanted to be moving down a trail.

Strangely, he didn't mind being ridden by a man, but one on the ground always had him freaked out. He wouldn't let one get within 8 feet of him.

Anonymous said...

Big Lick is sick, it's unnatural, and it's twisted.

I would imagine anyone who is in the horse business must have began with a basic love and admiration for horses.

I do not understand how someone can see beauty in Big Lick, Rolkur, and the peanut roll in western pleasure.

RuckusButt said...

Well, I couldn't agree with you more. Yes, every discipline has it's dark side at the "upper" levels but TWH show people seem to be the worst. I barely even know what these horses are supposed to move like, though I do remember watching one video with a TWH and the movement was natural and exceptionally beautiful. I finally understood what the attraction was!

Clancy said...

You have won a fan in me. The cruelty that some people will go to to 'train' a horse beggars my mind.

Anonymous said...

I was appalled to watch the video. The only thing that has changed since my exposure to show TWHs in the 60s and 70s is the stewarding. Still a sick, sick industry.

TWHs can make great horses. In my teens I was the lucky reciepient of young geldings rejected by a BNT of the Big Lick variety. These two year olds trotted rather than pace and he just wanted them gone. They all made nice trail horses at one end of the spectrum to dressage, eventing, or hunter/jumpers at the other. I always felt they had "escaped" a horrible fate and was glad to find them new careers.

GreyDrakkon said...

How could you offend anyone with what you said? Anyone who wouldn't like it is someone not worth your time, since they would have to be an abuser.