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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / The first night of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration is seen Thursday, August 22, 2019 in Shelbyville, Tennessee. While a few people were scattered around the edges of the stands, most were crowded into the seats just outside of the competition area.

This story was updated Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, at 10:20 p.m. with more information.

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SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — Protesters shouted "big lick, big lie" as diesel trucks hauling trailers packed with horses whizzed past and through the gates of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration show grounds Thursday afternoon.

This is the fifth time the Citizens Campaign Against "Big Lick" Animal Cruelty has protested outside the Tennessee walking horse breed's biggest competition, held each year in Shelbyville since 1939. If they get their way, it'll also be their last protest.

Tawnee Preisner owns a horse rescue called Horse Plus Humane Society in Hohenwald, Tennessee, and has participated in the protest since the beginning. She said the group has renewed hope since the U.S. House of Representatives' landslide vote in favor of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act in July.

Soring is when humans intentionally injure horses' hooves or legs to make them step higher, forcing an exaggerated gait known as the "big lick." It became illegal in 1970 but persists due to loopholes in the current law. Proponents say the PAST Act would close those loopholes by beefing up inspections at shows and outlawing devices used to create the "big lick."

"We're protesting horse abuse is what is comes down to," Preisner said. "I'm really hopeful this will be the last year that we're here. We just need to get the PAST Act signed and what's happening to these horses will be outlawed."

Celebration CEO Mike Inman said there are 2,047 entries this year, which is slightly more than in 2018. The show began with morning classes on Wednesday and night classes started Thursday. The competition gets stiffer and crowds get larger as the show progresses, he said.

"You have preliminary, qualifying classes. They funnel into the championship classes, and those are when the biggest crowds take place and winners ride under the spotlight," Inman said. "It's a very festive atmosphere."

Although the crowds were smaller and the stakes not as high on night one, riders still donned traditional long coats and hats. Organ music played and onlookers cheered as their favorite horses displayed the high-stepping "big lick."

Inman said he opposes the PAST Act, because its goal is to eliminate those show horses, and he called the protests a "non-event."

Although many people think soring is a thing of the past, Preisner said she regularly rescues horses who have been sored from slaughter. Once they have scars, they're no longer able to pass inspections at big shows, leading some people to toss them aside.

"It's really just barbaric when you think of the process it takes to make a horse do this artificial gait — the chemical burns, the wrapping of their legs so the chemicals sink in, the chains, the stacks," she said, adding that the reason why the horses come in on trailers and leave after the show each day is so people can't see the soring process. "I feel like these horses need to be celebrated for their natural gait, because they have amazing, natural, beautiful gaits."

Dawn Kretzinger is in the process of adopting one of Preisner's rescues, a 20-year-old former "big lick" horse she's named Spartan. She decided to start protesting after volunteering at Horse Plus and falling in love with the breed.

"I will be protesting until the laws are changed and they end soring of Tennessee walking horses," Kretzinger said. "People need to be out and help, voice their opinions and get with their state congressmen, legislators and let it be known that this is animal cruelty."

The group began their day on the lawn of the Bedford County Courthouse, where nearly a dozen protesters were needed to support a large banner reading, "America Votes 333-96 To End Animal Cruelty" to honor of the PAST Act.

Clant Seay, founder of the Citizens Campaign Against "Big Lick" Animal Cruelty, said the House's vote was a "verdict" against "big lick" from the rest of the country. He hopes their presence will show people such as U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., who voted in favor of the PAST Act, that his vote was the will of the people.

The group will protest outside the grounds of the Celebration several other nights throughout the competition, which runs through Saturday, Aug. 31.

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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