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!!)