It's soring time again in Tennessee. That's shorthand for the 11 days of late summer leading up to Labor Day when a once-proud but now-scarred Tennessee Walking Horse industry shows off its best, albeit often tortured, horses during a series of horse competitions.
The shows, known as the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, are set in Shelbyville, and this year, COVID-19 notwithstanding, the gates will open and the 82nd annual competition will go on. The shows began Wednesday and will end with the world championship competition on Sept. 5.
Given the pain and suffering to horses that it takes to create the distorted "Big Lick" for which Tennessee walkers have been known since the 1970s, it seems particularly cruel to call this show a "celebration."
But Marty Irby, a former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association and reformed sorer himself, notes that the gruesome games of Ancient Rome were commonly referred to as a celebration, as well.
Irby knows a thing or two about pain and about the practice of soring — the intentional infliction of pain to horses' legs and feet by applying caustic chemicals such as croton oil, mustard oil and diesel fuel to the skin and inserting sharp objects into the hooves to achieve the artificial high stepping gait known as the "Big Lick."
"It's a cruel and violent culture that I grew up in," he wrote Wednesday in a blog for Animal Wellness Action where he now serves as executive director. "And for more than six decades, soring has marred the Tennessee Walking Horse breed and stained the Volunteer State."
An eight-time champion on the walking horse show circuit, Irby said the industry has simply numbed itself to the horror of the practice. Soring became just part of the job to get the horses to step high. The higher, the better.
"The horse throws their leg in the air and sort of away to get away from the pain. So it would be like if you were walking over hot coals. Think of it as walking across black hot asphalt barefooted. You would want to run really quick or step really high and you wouldn't want to just put your foot on the ground," Irby told North Carolina Public Radio in 2017.
By the time Irby became the breeders' association's youngest president, his better angels were getting the best of him. He steered the association to back legislation that would end soring, stacked horse shoes and chains. He wanted to take walking horses back to their stately, graceful and naturally high — not big lick — origin. When the group reversed its action, he began speaking out against soring and the wearing of stacked shoes and chains, not only for Tennessee walking horses but for racking horses and spotted saddle horses, other popular show breeds in the South.
But his boldness had repercussions. He lost business partners, his father, even his wife. Still he didn't give up.
He's become a Heritage Foundation Congressional Fellow, a former director of equine protection and rural affairs at the Humane Society of the United States, and Animal Wellness Action's chief lobbyist. The Hill named him as one of nation's Top Lobbyists for 2019.
But this month, the honors went international when Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, awarded him a certificate of recognition "for his extraordinary efforts to reduce violence in the training of horses." The British queen, a patron of Join-Up International, a equestrian nonprofit organization, commended Irby for adopting Monty Roberts' horse-training concepts and initiatives, according to the formal Aug. 3 proclamation.
Roberts, founder of Join-Up International, added a comment: "Marty Irby is our hero and has paid a huge price in his own life in the interest of being fair to the horses. Along with thousands of supporters, Her Majesty and I strongly recommend the necessary rules and regulations to eliminate violence from this breed and all other competitions involving the horses we love."
Soring was 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.
A version of the legislation that would do away with the nearly 8-pound stack shoes and chains, as well as the chemicals that Irby pushed the breeders' association to back seven years, finally passed the House of Representatives in July 2019 with more than 300 bipartisan "aye" votes. (Almost all of Tennessee's, Georgia's and Alabama's Republican representatives voted no, including Chuck Fleischmann.) The new measure continues to be held hostage and kept from a vote in the Senate by Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn, who was honored by the industry at last year's Celebration.
But there are other breakthroughs.
The U.S. House just doubled USDA's funding for enforcement of the Horse Protection Act in 2021 from $1 million to $2 million. The House also provided $750,000 in additional funding for USDA's Office of Inspector General to complete an audit on the Horse Protection Program enforcement. The last such audit was made in 2010 and proved the current program ineffective. And the House provided another $1 million in additional funding for the U.S. Department of Justice to better enforce animal cruelty laws.
It is long past time for these beautiful and gentle horses to be treated humanely and prized for their wonderful natural gait. Get after your senators and representatives — especially Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn.
This story was updated at 8:24 a.m. on Sunday, August 30, 2020, with more information. The value of the industry is in dispute and a reference to it in the original editorial has been deleted.