The biggest competition for the Tennessee walking horse breed begins Wednesday in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
For some, the 11-day Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration - often called the Celebration - embodies the best of the breed and its traditions. For others, it's tainted by the cruel practice of horse soring - when humans intentionally injure horses' hooves or legs to make them step higher, creating an artificial gait known as the "big lick."
Soring became illegal in 1970 and is not allowed at the Celebration. However, the current law doesn't prohibit stacked shoes, chains or other "action devices," and those will be used on horses at the Celebration in classes where the high-stepping "big lick" is still coveted.
Celebration CEO Mike Inman said those classes are "iconic." But in July, the U.S. House overwhelmingly approved a bill - the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act - which deems them abusive. The country's governing body for equestrian sports, the United States Equestrian Federation, already does not recognize "big lick" horse shows, including the Celebration, because of these practices.
"We're opposed to the PAST Act, because it's not science-based and its desire is to eliminate the show horse," Inman said. "The journey through the Senate will likely be much more difficult, and we'll just keep monitoring the process."
What Inman calls "tradition," another man calls torture.
Clant Seay and the advocacy group Citizens Campaign Against "Big Lick" Animal Cruelty have peacefully protested outside the Celebration for the last four years.
Seay founded the group and regularly documents examples of "big lick" horse abuse on his blog, billygoboy.com, and Facebook page, which has more than 11,000 followers. One of his latest videos is of 2-year-old walking horses wearing weighted shoes and chains and displaying the "big lick" at a show on Aug. 3.
"Calling attention to illegal and abusive activity is every citizen's responsibility. Animal cruelty is not a tradition just because it has been going on for more than 50 years," Seay wrote in an email. "To say that this is a 'tradition' is just a propaganda technique. Nor is this an 'industry' any more than cockfighting or dog fighting is an industry."
This year, the group plans to protest five of the 10 nights starting Thursday, Aug. 22. Seay said all are welcome to join, and he anticipates a record number of people to show up for the horses and to honor the "recent landslide vote," which included "staunchly conservative Republicans."
"Horses do not have a voice, so we protest for them," Seay wrote. "The United States House of Representatives voted decisively - 333 to 96 - to end the 'Big Lick' Animal Cruelty forever. The 'Big Lick' folks never thought they would see this day. They spent millions of dollars to prevent it. Now, they will never recover from it."
Inman said he expects this year's Celebration to be business as usual and called the protest a "non-event."
"It has never been more than 20 people, half of which are children under driving age," he said. "It's your first amendment right, certainly, and we have no problem with it whatsoever. It's a non-issue."
Preliminary classes begin Wednesday and culminate with the championship divisions on the last three nights.
"That's when you get the most excitement, because that's when it gets to the very best," Inman said. "If you love horses, you'll love this."
Two natural, non-"big lick" divisions have been added to the grand championships this year.
"As these divisions have grown the committee felt the numbers are now there to support world grand championship classes," according to a statement from Inman posted on the Celebration website.
Parking for the event is $5 and admission starts at $7, increasing based on seating location.
Inman said what sets the Celebration apart from many other sporting events is that the concessions are run by local civic clubs.
"There's a real community feel to it, because someone you know is selling you a hot dog," he said. "The money they derive during this show is money they get to use all year for charity action."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.