SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — The horses aren't just walking. They're speed walking.
Surging forward with the power of muscled bodybuilders, they shine with the glow of competitive excitement.
They are Tennessee walking horses, and they move their 1,200 pounds with powerful and athletic grace.
Yet there are other images now ingrained in people's minds of the smooth, sturdy breed prized for its patient and docile nature.
The scenes are painful, all caught by a hidden camera in one of the industry's top trainer barns:
• One of the beautiful animals raises its wrapped front legs like a jogger trying to relieve sharp leg pain.
• Another thrashes on the stall floor, unwilling to rise because it doesn't want to put weight on its hooves and legs.
• Yet another shies from the trainer who raises a club to strike the horse repeatedly so it will fear the command to stand steady more than it will care about the pain caused as its legs and ankles are mashed by someone simulating an inspection check for soreness.
The horses in the hidden camera video were abused with "soring" -- a short-cut training method that employs harsh burning chemicals and other cheats to induce a "big lick" step.
The extremes have placed the Volunteer State's most recognizable icon under unprecedented scrutiny by government regulators, criminal prosecutors and the public.
The question on everyone's lips: Is abuse still happening and how widespread is it?
It has led to a showdown of animal lovers, and the trigger is Shelbyville's 11-day Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, a 74-year-old tradition that began Wednesday and ends Saturday.
"It's tense," said Steve Mullins, a veterinarian and the new head of the Celebration's lay inspection group, called SHOW — short for Sound Horses, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly.
"Hopefully we all have the same goal in mind, and that is to protect the horse and get rid of the sore-horse trainers," Mullins said. "Yes, we have disagreed [with federal inspectors] on a few calls. But that's part of the game."
For sides that all say they want what's best for the horse, the divide couldn't be greater.
Federal regulation has been stepped up: Veterinarian inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed up for the morning shows — normally flat-shod and low-pad events that traditionally haven't drawn inspection interest.
On the horse industry side, even the watchers are being watched — both the federal ones and the civilian lay inspectors charged with self-policing.
A new industry group aimed at pushing reform has hired an independent veterinarian to back-check horses disqualified by USDA and/or the lay inspectors.
Mix in the Humane Society of the United States and you have the makings of a bonfire.
Tensions grew in the first evening shows Thursday, when USDA and lay inspectors disqualified eight horses before the evening's halfway mark. Inspectors believed they found possible signs of soring or illegal equipment such as oversized pads.
But the horse industry had planned a fallback that could be used both to further reform and to defend riders and trainers. The reform group's independent veterinary inspector performed additional inspections on-site of any horses turned away by either government regulators, lay inspectors or both.
The lines were drawn and trust was thin.
Of those first early disqualifications, at least, the independent vet -- Scott Hopper, a Kentuckian touted by the horse industry as "the premier equine veterinarian in the world" -- said he found nothing too off about the disqualifications.
But the temperature likely can't go anywhere but up.
The Celebration, which features more than 175 competitions to name world champions in at least 15 walking horse disciplines, will be at its midpoint tonight. And Saturday night will be the competition to name the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration world champion.
"The jury is still out on whether the industry will make good on its promises to improve treatment of show horses" said Keith Dane, equine protection director for the Humane Society of the United States.
He has called the Celebration "the cruelest show on earth."
Walking horse owners, trainers and fans see it differently.
But Hopper's agreement with the initial disqualifications didn't seem expected.
On Thursday, the industry touted a letter from U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The letter raised concerns about Horse Protection Act enforcement, which DesJarlais said "cause[s] great uncertainty for the industry" and the 11-day Celebration.
The letter, written in mid-August, said USDA had issued 12 times more violations than were issued before the Celebration's lay inspection group, SHOW, sued USDA over new toughened rules. DesJarlais' letter insinuated that USDA was bullying horse industry officials.
The Celebration and SHOW, on the other hand, have "instituted aggressive reforms" that include videotaping all inspections, creating a hotline for reporting abuses and sanctioning "numerous people" for violating d inspections.
The letter also claims that because of SHOW's successes, USDA "has even adopted some of the procedures as their own."
USDA inspectors at the Celebration performing thermal imagery on horses' legs and feet, along with other checks, declined comment. USDA spokesman Dave Sacks on Friday acknowledged that the agency received the congressman's letter.
"We are looking into the concerns that he raised and will respond through official correspondence channels as quickly as possible," Sacks said. "In the meantime, we remain committed to achieving our stated goal of ending the cruel and inhumane practice of soring."
U.S. Highway 64 from Bell Buckle and Wartrace and toward Shelbyville is known as Walking Horse Parkway.
It meanders through green fields lined with black or white fences that trace rolling hills dotted with old farmsteads and new mansions with eight-car garages.
Somewhere in these hills and between the time the old country farms became new country estates, the horse breed that began as a smooth farm ride became a heavily padded "big lick" machine.
The first Celebration champion, Strolling Jim, won the title as a flat-shod horse in 1939.
He was the result of farmers working to develop a breed that could work in the fields, but still give the owner a comfortable saddle gait. Jim and his ensuing breed is a mix of Thoroughbreds, Canadian Pacers, American Saddlebreds, Morgans, American Standardbreds and Narrangansett Pacers.
The trademark gait is known as the "running walk." And it's pure power.
The trouble apparently began when men wanted to enhance the reaching arch of the breed's front legs.
First there were "boots," and then came weighted shoes that could be filled with sand or BBs. Those were outlawed. Now pads and chains -- legal if they meet weight limits -- are used as old training aids.
The result is that the horse becomes a trained weightlifter, with a "big lick" gait.
But soring is not the same as the pads and chains.
Soring may involve use of caustic chemicals on a horse's legs to make the chains hurt and prompt a quicker, exaggerated movement, trimming hooves into the quick or putting objects in the shoes and pads as irritants.
The rub comes with knowing where normal breeding, padded shoeing and intensive training stop and soring begins.
Many say soring is widespread.
Others say soring is the action of "a few bad apples."
Sorting it out
Mullins said SHOW's 2011 inspections found Horse Protection Act violations in 1.5 percent of the animals checked.
That meant 98.5 percent were compliant, he said.
Since 2009, SHOW, the largest lay inspection group, checked more than 76,000 horses and suspended 155 trainers for one year — more than any other lay inspection group or the USDA in its history.
"The USDA has only pursued 52 federal cases in the 40 years since the passage of the Horse Protection Act," according to a fact sheet prepared by SHOW and Celebration officials.
But statistics can also tell other stories.
Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle this summer unveiled an analysis of the top 20 Riders Cup trainers' violation histories.
The analysis "found that every one of them was cited for HPA violations in the past two years, with a total 164 violations among them," Pacelle wrote in a Humane Society blog.
"How many served a suspension penalty? A mere 7 percent. And of those, all but a handful were for a measly two-week period," he said.
Trainers and horse industry lay inspectors argue that those citations do not mean a horse was sored. And they do not mean the industry is not working to police itself better.
The Humane Society of the United States is "more of a fundraiser than anything," said David Howard, a member of the board of the Celebration. He has built a family business around the walking horse industry and shows as the founder and first publisher of the Walking Horse Report.
"They needed a new poster," Howard said, referring to the Humane Society's hidden-camera video that led to a 52-count indictment against Collierville, Tenn., trainer Jackie McConnell and some of his stablehands. McConnell and others pleaded guilty and face sentencing on Sept. 10.
Some say the Celebration industry — with its $1.4 billion economic impact — itself may be part of the driver of the big lick and the soring that it brings.
But Howard said that's not the case.
"It doesn't matter if the horse steps this high or this high," he said, lowering his arched arm and hand from head high to hip level. "There will still be shows, and the industry will keep on. It always has."
Celebration spokesmen say 30 percent of the shows during the Celebration are for flat-shod horses and 70 percent are for "performance" horses -- those with the big lick.
One trainer's story
Winky Groover, of Shelbyville, is a trainer who is willing to talk about the past and the future.
He believes that on the whole, the breed draws more spectators than any other horse events. But he thinks to keep that going, he and his fellow trainers and walking horse owners have to convince the government and the public that soring is over.
Groover grew up in the walking horse industry with a father who also was a trainer.
And he acknowledges that he has been "ticketed" by both USDA and lay inspectors -- sometimes because of his own "poor choices," but sometimes because of inconsistencies in inspections and judging.
"I've pretty much always tried to do the right thing, but 11 years ago I got saved, and I changed. I'm a lot better than I used to be, and I'm trying to be better every day," he said.
Groover and his family are among those in the industry who helped form the newest group now pushing for reform.
"The real problem is that we've never had a real positive test to eliminate [soring], and we've always had to rely on palpation," mashing a horse's legs to see if it flinches.
As he talked, a horse "chiropractor" was making a barn call. Clients came by to train with their horses or to confer with him about their horse's care.
Quiet, slow and steady, Groover took each client question with a smile.
This year he and his customers are showing 29 horses in 50 or 60 shows at the Celebration.
The entry fees were more than $12,000, and he hopes he'll win enough to at least break even.
He said he's hoping the trainers and owners can tell their stories and prove the effectiveness of the new swab tests.
"If we can't, it's going to be on a gradual downhill slope," he said of the walking horse business. "I don't think any of us want to see it go to that point. I know I sure don't. I really like doing something I love."
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, ...