The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville is headed into its big finale this weekend. Another grand champion will be crowned. Even under ever-increasing pressure from animal rights activists, the 76-year-old show continues to draw thousands.
They watch from box seats as the well-manicured horses high-step around the dirt oval under stadium lights. As the organ vamps, the horses show off their signature stride. They drop their hind quarters and take sweeping steps with their back legs while kicking out their front hooves.
“It’s actually in their genetics,” says Celebration director Mike Inman. “No other breed has that, which is what separates this walking horse.”
Inman says even as yearlings, the Tennessee Walking Horse will stride across a field with their knee breaking above their chest, shaking their head in cadence. In the show ring, however, the champion horses where ankle chains and platform shoes, known as “action devices.”
For years, trainers have been pushing horses well past genetics to get that eye-catching step called the “big lick.” The banned practice is described generally as “soring.” Trainers make tiny cuts on a horse’s ankles and splash diesel fuel or mustard oil on them. The pain makes the horse step even higher.
The Humane Society of the United States has been trying to end soring for years, even sneaking into barns to nab undercover video.
“This is an industry that has been based for over 40 years on intentional infliction of pain and cruelty to animals,” says HSUS equine director Keith Dane. “It’s so widespread in the ‘big lick’ segment of this industry, that it’s got to stop.”
Soring was outlawed by Congress in the 70s, but there’s been little enforcement. The Humane Society has gotten traction with new legislation that would give more teeth to the law. Tennessee’s delegation is split on the matter, but dozens of congressmen from both sides of the aisle have signed on. Yet it’s been fought to a standstill by the industry.
There’s money at stake, though not huge sums. The top prize is usually around $15,000.
As Sylvester Skierkowski of Murfreesboro watches his horses go through some final paces before competition, the longtime trainer says everyone wants the title of “World Grand Champion.” He helped train one in the late 70s.
“We worked more trying to keep that son of a gun sound than we did trying to hurt him,” he says. “That’s all I know.”
Still, there have been some high-profile soring cases. Just two years ago, one hall-of-fame trainer was indicted on more than 50 counts of abuse.
“Nobody is denying that there are people that will try to game the system in any competition,” Inman says. “But the best way to make it so they can’t game the competition is through objective testing.”
So for the first time, the Celebration is using blood tests to screen for pain-killers that might be used to mask that a horse is hurting. Samples will be shipped to a thoroughbred lab in Lexington for analysis. X-ray inspections are new too. That’s to find other banned practices like shoeing horses so that every step is painful. One method is hiding half a golf ball between the platform shoe and the horse’s hoof.
Dr. Jerry Johnson chairs this new enforcement panel.
“We feel like now, with what we’re doing, that they’re really going to have to clean up their act because I think we can really get a handle on just about anything they can come up with,” Johnson says. “And believe me, they have some quite old-fashion recipes.”
The Humane Society calls the panel an 11th-hour attempt “to suggest that they are serious about reform.”
Dane points out that results of the drug tests will take three weeks to get back – well after everyone’s gone home. And two years ago, the industry announced another new testing regimen that included swabbing legs for known-irritants. Few violations were found.
In Shelbyville, horse owners feel like the Humane Society won’t be happy until the Celebration is shut down.
Leading one of her horses to its stall, Lauren Hamilton of Cedar Grove suggests the organization should move on.
“Race horses, you know, they’re falling out on the track,” she says. “Do you see these horses dying out there? That’s when I get upset.”
But even among walking horse owners, there are a few voices calling for an end to the big lick. Van Barnes from Florida competes in what’s called the “flat shod” division, where there are no platform shoes or exaggerated high stepping.
“They don’t have a problem getting through inspection,” she says, adding that the “big lick” should be banned. “I think for the industry to survive, you’re going to have to.”
If it’s any indication, at this year’s Celebration, the number of horses competing is down at least 10 percent and so is attendance, even after ticket prices were slashed.