In three days, when the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration begins its 11-day run, audiences will be looking at a Southern way of life under fire.
Since 1939, the yearly event in Shelbyville, Tenn., has showcased a breed that began as a farmer's smooth speed-walk over sprawling plantations.
But at least three times in about as many decades, the show -- and the Tennessee walking horse industry -- has been engulfed in controversy and claims of abuse.
And this time the controversy may not go away without change, according to the man who 42 years ago wrote the Horse Protection Act.
Former U.S. Sen. Joe Tydings, a horse-loving Democrat from Maryland, said the fact that several people in 2011 and 2012 for the first time were charged, prosecuted and sentenced for violating the law may finally bring real reform.
"Six months is the same as six years for people like this," he said of trainers and perhaps eventually owners who've encouraged or ignored the abuse known as soring in pursuit of a win. "And if you get one of these owners and send them to jail for six months -- it's as much as life sentencing."
Change also might be in the air because pictures are more powerful than words.
Among the most damning evidence in some of this year's prosecutions is video made by undercover workers with the Humane Society of the United States.
The videos, presented to the public by the Humane Society on prime time news shows and the Internet, shocked an animal-loving public.
People didn't want to think someone would put acids on horse's pasterns [ankles], file their hooves to the quick or force objects like nails into tender spots. All are outlawed methods known collectively as soring and used on horses to achieve the "big lick" step so highly prized in competitions.
One horrified viewer was U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican.
"Anyone who cares about horses should be shocked by this video," said Alexander after seeing the video that showed renowned trainer Jackie McConnell and some of his stablehands abuse a horse. McConnell and two others were charged in a 52-count indictment under the U.S. Horse Protection Act. They have pleaded guilty and face sentencing in Chattanooga on Sept. 10.
"I will work in the Senate to strengthen the [Horse Protection] Act and add more money to enforce it," Alexander has pledged. "The walking horse industry should step up its self-policing so that a few bad actors don't destroy one of our state's most treasured traditions."
Walking horse industry groups say the recent prosecutions and controversy are catching up to their own efforts -- not pushing them.
"We've been serious about instituting change for several years and have the history to prove it," said Jeffrey Howard, communications director for the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization.
His group was formed "to push a message of reform about our industry. Our commitment to change started far before this year's show," said Howard, who also is publisher of the Walking Horse Report, a trade publication started by his father, David Howard. David Howard is on the Celebration's board of directors.
But other numbers take another kick at the industry.
"Entries in the 74th annual Celebration are 9 percent down over last year," said Jeffrey Howard.
And the number of contestants in 2011 was down about 9 percent from the 3,216 entries in 2010.
Ribbon-seekers apparently aren't the only ones shunning the show. With advance ticket sales lagging, celebration officials also have offered some special pricing packages -- ranging from $200 to $350 -- for three-night box seats to this year's shows.
Normally box seats are only available for the entire 11-day event.
Enforcement vs. reform
U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians are the ones who enforce the Horse Protection Act. But with an enforcement budget of only $500,000 a year, federal inspectors attend only about 7 percent of walking horse shows. This year, USDA received an enforcement bump to $696,000.
To fill the gap, federal inspectors have trained and used lay inspectors with 12 horse industry groups.
Lay inspectors with the group known as SHOW -- Sound Horses, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly -- oversee the Celebration.
But this year, SHOW and the USDA had a falling-out when federal regulators required that the groups adopt its new mandatory penalties for Horse Protection Act violators.
The new rules require the lay inspectors to cite not just the trainers of sored horses, but the owners. Cited trainers and owners face mandatory suspensions that increase in severity with each subsequent violation.
Trainers have gotten around suspensions in the past by substituting another trainer's name on a horse's entry sheet.
But cited owners would lose the right to show any of their horses during their suspensions.
SHOW has sued USDA, claiming the rules are not fairly applied unless USDA requires inspections at all shows -- even private mom-and-pop shows that are not affiliated with any lay inspection group.
SHOW refused to adopt the new rules. Federal regulators have sent the group a letter of decertification. SHOW is appealing, and will be the lay inspector group again this year at the Celebration.
Although USDA never tells where or when its veterinary inspectors will drop in, they historically attend the Celebration.
David Howard, who was involved in founding SHOW, and the group's new veterinary leader, Dr. Stephen L. Mullins, said SHOW has a 98 percent compliance rate at the events it oversees.
They also tout their premier effort to use swabbing tests to detect sored horses.
Unlike traditional touch and visual examinations that require subjective decisions from inspectors, swabbing is an objective, scientific test.
A swab rubbed on the horse's legs and analyzed can detect the caustic chemicals that cause soring and/or medications that temporarily prevent horses from flinching when inspectors touch their feet in a "palpation" test.
The swabbing tests were first used last year at the Celebration. The results showed 50 of 52 samples were positive for foreign substances -- mostly numbing agents.
The government's recently released swabbing numbers call into question SHOW's claim of 98 percent compliance, since the 2011 Celebration was also overseen by SHOW's lay inspectors.
Money and ribbons
The Celebration's purse -- more than $650,000 in prizes and awards at a show where some 20 world champions will be named -- is almost equal to the largest amount of money ever allocated by Congress for enforcement of the Horse Protection Act in a single year.
That Congress has only once raised funding from the $500,000 the program started with 42 years ago but several times has threatened to completely defund it infuriates Tydings, now a feisty 84.
"Forty years ago, $500,000 was [worth] 10 times what is today," he said. "There's never been an opportunity to enforce the law, because the Congress has kept the money out. And pressure's been on the department so that they can't enforce it."
Tydings, who was defeated for re-election in 1970 and has been out of Congress since 1971, was pleased with Alexander's interest in raising enforcement funding.
But, of course, Alexander's effort could be a bumpy ride.
Congressional leaders' tentative deal on a six-month continuing resolution that continues federal spending across the board at prior levels means appropriations debates are stifled.
Tydings, ever the politician, said public opinion also is a tool.
"I hope now there will be some other prosecutions, and hopefully the industry [and] the people ... will realize that this big lick is a horribly and cruelly inflicted practice on these beautiful horses," he said.
"It's my hope the people won't go along with this anymore."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...