Stop horsing around with our Tennessee Walkers

Stop horsing around with our Tennessee Walkers

August 24th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Campaign contributions

Public campaign records tally the following contributions from the Tennessee Walking Horse industry to Tennessee and Kentucky political candidates and from 1989-2014.

Lamar Alexander - $19,799

Rep. Marsha Blackburn - $16,400

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann - $0

Rep. Scott DesJarlais - $0

Sen. Mitch McConnell - $38,800

Source: Sunlight Foundation, OpenSecrets.com

Certainly at this year's 76th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration special honor should be accorded to Tennessee's congressional delegation - especially Sen. Lamar Alexander and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Rep. Scott DesJarlais. Kudos also would be in order for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. And, yes, there has been something of a pay-off for them - something along the lines of at least $75,000 in campaign contributions over the past 25 years.

All of these Republicans are helping the walking horse industry hold onto a tradition of pain and abuse for a beautiful breed that provided a smooth-gaited, high-stepping ride for aristocrats surveying their plantations.

The abuse, known as "soring," has turned the final days of the walking horse Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., into a sadistic parade of horses with over-sized, padded front hooves and a "big lick" gait exaggerated into something akin to a tortured lunge.

Soring techniques include caustic chemicals, chains or pressure shoeing under those tall hoof pads. Those physical injuries make the horses' stretch to keep their legs in the air as long as possible because it hurts when they hit the ground. Michael Blackwell, former dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Tennessee, has likened the "excruciating" pain to biting into something with an abscessed tooth.

By all rights, this abuse shouldn't still be happening. Soring has been illegal under federal law for more than 40 years, but the law is weak and its enforcement is even weaker because there is no funding for it. The result is that the walking horse industry largely polices itself, and problems go unresolved.

There is proposed reform legislation, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, that would toughen the law and restore the natural gait of Tennessee's 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, introduced by Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, is co-sponsored by 305 other representatives and 57 senators.

That's where our lawmakers come in. Especially Alexander, whose 2014 finance chairman is Stephen Smith, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association. In January, Smith said he expected to raise $3 to $4 million for Alexander's re-election campaign.

Our lawmakers and Senate Minority Leader McConnell not only opposed the PAST Act reform legislation, they continue to hold it hostage in committees, even introducing their own decoy legislation.

In April, Alexander, saying he wants to save the $3.2 billion walking horse industry, offered up his softer bill that really would just add a layer to the industry policing itself.

"In baseball, if a player illegally uses steroids, you punish the player - you don't shut down America's national pastime. ... Our goal is to find a way to preserve the Tennessee Walking Horse tradition and stop the cruelty to horses," Alexander said.

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.

In the House, Blackburn had penned a similar bill, and she keeps the PAST Act bottled up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which she is vice chairwoman. Her bill has only 12 co-sponsors including Republicans Fleischmann and DesJarlais.

Only in the past two years has anyone been federally convicted of the soring 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. Celebration Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell pleaded guilty in Chattanooga to 22 counts of animal cruelty. He agreed to a sentence in 2013 of one year of house arrest and three years' probation, as well as a $75,000 fine. He is prohibited from owning and training horses for 20 years.

Previous fans and exhibitors in the Celebration can't vote in Congress, but they are voting with their feet and their horses' feet. Celebration officials recently announced that 2014 show entries (1,784) are down a whopping 33 percent from 2012. Meanwhile, the all-flatshod WHOA International Walking Horse Show held recently in Murfreesboro had a record 1,913 entries - a 22 percent increase.

The All American Walking Horse Alliance and this editorial page have urged a boycott of the Celebration.

If you're also wondering how to register your disgust with Alexander, Blackburn, Fleischmann and DesJarlais, don't give to their campaigns. And don't vote for them.

If they can't have concern for animals, they probably don't have much for us either.