Sohn: Can we still save the Tennessee Walking Horse?

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / The first night of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration is seen Thursday, August 22, 2019, in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

There is a new effort underway to save Tennessee walking horses from soring - and to save the Tennessee Walking Horse and its industry.

The effort is new compromise legislation that seeks to protect the horses, end soring and preserve a show horse that the public will applaud by banning action devices, chemicals and tail braces, along with dramatically reducing the size and weights of walking horse pads and shoes. The bill also establishes additional felony penalties for horse soring and puts the USDA in charge of oversight, rather than the industry itself.

This compromise effort is long overdue, but welcome. By its very nature - the fact that it's a compromise agreement between animal humane groups and leaders in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry - we believe (and are assured) it is more likely to become law. Even this year.

"We don't love everything in it, but 90% of the loaf is better than no loaf," Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, and the Center for a Humane Economy, told this editor on Thursday.

Frank Eichler, owner and proprietor of Rising Star Ranch, the largest Tennessee Walking Horse breeding operation in the U.S., also is optimistic. He said he got involved in the effort because of the continuing impasse between the industry and the humane organizations. He says he is very pleased with the result - a "very detailed" compromise.

"I love this horse. It's my wife's passion. But I think you also need to recognize that there's a stigma - right, wrong or indifferent. Soring has occurred. I think this is a way to reduce, eliminate, however you want to talk about it, the stigma and then bring people into the industry and let them really experience the Tennessee Walking Horse again. I'm about promoting the Tennessee Walking Horse, not about just watching it decline into extinction."

Clant M. Seay also praised the idea of the compromise.

"It's not perfect, but it's progress," said Seay, who raised Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion winners and contenders from 1981 to 2005, then became the founder of a grassroots Citizens Campaign Against "Big Lick" Animal Cruelty.

Seay says the bill offers the walking horse industry a pathway back to respectability - one it both needs and wants. The walking horse culture is changing, he says, even in Shelbyville where horse farms and championship walking horse shows fuel the economy.

The change was forced, he says, by the public revulsion to soring, prompted by undercover videos showing the horrible hidden and illegal - but hard to prove - cruelty of some trainers. And in the ensuing years, the walking horse industry declined precipitously.

* Twenty years ago, 30,000 people attended the final Saturday night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. In 2019, fewer than 25,000 people attended the entire 10-day event.

* In 2000, the breed registry of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association had just over 22,000 members. In 2020, TWHBEA has 2,450 members - a decline of almost 90%.

The first of the damning undercover videos was approved by Pacelle when he headed the Humane Society of the United States, and it aired in 2012 on prime-time television. It gave the world a glimpse into the barns and training methods of former Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell. The video resulted in McConnell's eventual guilty plea and federal conviction in a Chattanooga federal courtroom.

That same year, despite the industry claiming it had cleaned up its act, USDA reported that federal testing in the final days of Shelbyville's 11-day event revealed that 145 horses out of 190, or 76%, tested positive for the prohibited foreign substances used in soring.

Soring was first outlawed by the Horse Protection Act's passage in the 1970s, but it's an open secret that the law has loopholes a herd of horses regularly run through.

Newer legislation, known as as PAST Act, was first introduced in 2013 and won overwhelming lawmaker support. Yet for almost a decade, that bill, which would have done away entirely with the nearly 8-pound stack shoes and chains, as well as the chemicals that make the horses flail their hooves in the air rather than step down in pain, was repeatedly held up in committees, thanks to the opposition from Tennessee and Kentucky lawmakers.

Last year, the PAST Act finally passed the House of Representatives with more than 300 bipartisan "aye" votes. Of course, almost all of Tennessee's, Georgia's and Alabama's Republican representatives voted no - including Chuck Fleischmann. To this day, the measure continues to be held hostage in the Senate, kept from a vote by Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn, who was honored by the industry at last year's Celebration, and by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

After all those years of government roadblocks and industry economic suffering, animal activists and Tennessee Walking Horse breeders and farmers like Eichler and Seay decided to blaze a new trail with this compromise.

Pacelle says the compromisers have enough assurances from lawmakers that the new bill could pass by mid-December.

We've heard it before, but let's cross our fingers. Perhaps we still can save the Tennessee Walking Horse breed.