Sen. Lamar Alexander - 423-752-5337 or 202-224-4944
Rep. Marsha Blackburn - 615-591-5161 or 202-225-2811
It's almost Celebration time in Tennessee. Again.
The 76th annual 11-day Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville is scheduled to begin in 10 days.
Organizers bill the series of shows as "the premier event" for the Tennessee Walking Horse. It is where the breed's "World Grand Champion" and another 20 "World Champions" in various contest categories are named, claiming more than $650,000 in prizes and awards and far more in stud fees and foal sales. There's also a barn decorating contest, a trade fair and a dog show.
It all sounds fun. But it's not. Especially not for the so-called "performance" horses - the ones with big padded hooves and the "big lick" gait that in the past four or five decades has been artificially exaggerated from a once gorgeous natural high-step to what now looks like a tortured lunge.
The exaggeration comes from soring - an illegal training practice that uses caustic chemicals, chains, or pressure shoeing under tall hoof pads. The combinations of those affronts make the horses' legs and hooves so sore that the animals stretch to unusual lengths to keep their legs in the air as long as possible because it hurts when they strike the ground.
Michael Blackwell, former dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Tennessee, recently likened the "excruciating" pain to biting something solid with an abscessed tooth.
Soring has been illegal under federal law for more than 40 years, but the law is weak and the enforcement - in other words funding - is even weaker. The result is that the walking horse industry largely polices itself, and problems go unresolved. Only in the past two years has anyone been federally convicted of the abuse, and that happened only after secret videos were made by the Humane Society of the United States and turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Proposed legislation, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, would toughen the law and bring back Tennessee's real walking horses by banning the pads, chains and soring practices that have corrupted this beautiful breed. The bill, known as the PAST Act, also would end the industry self-policing. The bill was introduced by U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, and it is co-sponsored by 305 other representatives and 57 senators.
Those numbers might make the bill's passage seem like a slam-dunk, but that's not the reality. Instead the legislation is being held hostage in committees under the power of other lawmakers from Tennessee and Kentucky - the two states where the walking horse industry is king.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander has said he wants to save the $3.2 billion walking horse industry, so he offered up a softer bill that really would just add a layer to the industry policing itself. Alexander's bill is co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and McConnell is said to be blocking the tougher PAST Act in the Senate where it is three sponsors short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.
Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, Tennessee's Rep. Marsha Blackburn, with her own version of Alexander's bill, is blocking the PAST Act in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she is vice chairman. Her bill has 12 co-sponsors, including Republican Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais. Alexander's has four. Both have said they want to involve veterinarians and "scientific" testing to detect soring. That is horse hockey.
Science has already been used at the Celebration in Shelbyville in recent years. There the lay inspectors - hired by the Celebration, trained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and overseen by veterinarians - administered swab tests and had them analyzed for chemicals. Soring was still prevalent, and even the "science" testing results from the lay inspectors differed from results obtained by USDA inspectors. Currently, USDA inspectors can police only about 10 percent of shows.
Frankly, no matter how many layers of vets and scientific tests are added, horses will continue to be sored as long as the fox guards the stable and prosecutions are made periodically every 40 years or so.
Perhaps a more effective tool might simply be a citizen pocketbook vote. Boycott the Celebration and every other walking horse show or exhibition or sale in the region.
The industry already is reeling financially after several years of falling sales and show receipts after national news audiences in 2012 were horrified by surveillance video of abuse in the stable of walking horse hall-of-famer Jackie McConnell. Seats prices have been cut and alcohol was sold to the arena audience last year to encourage attendance at the "family" event.
If Sen. Alexander and Rep. Blackburn can't wean themselves from this industry's influence and do what's right, perhaps the horse trainers and owners must come to understand that their profits suffer from the public's horror and disdain.
It is past time to return these beautiful horses to their oh-so-pleasing natural high-step.
It is past time for the PAST Act.