Tennessee Walking Horse legislation advances

    Move to curtail ‘soring’ process comes before Walking Horse Celebration

    Marty Irby and Rep. Steve Cohen in 2019 at a Capitol Hill press conference on soring and the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act. Photo Credit: Animal Wellness Action
    Marty Irby and Rep. Steve Cohen in 2019 at a Capitol Hill press conference on soring and the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act. Photo Credit: Animal Wellness Action

    Legislation to further boost the effort to protect Tennessee Walking horses took another step forward as Amendment 38, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-TN, won bipartisan support Friday in Congress as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2021 Agriculture spending package.

    The amendment would yield $750,000 in funding for the USDA’s Office of Inspector General to complete an audit report of the USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service’s Administration of the Horse Protection Program, Enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, and the Slaughter Horse Transport Program no later than July 31st, 2021. 

    The last audit, completed in 2010, failed to end the practice of soring, a technique used by some trainers and owners to augment the natural “high” gait for which Tennessee Walkers are known. In order to get the “big lick,” as the high gait is called in equine circles, horses’ hooves are exposed to harsh chemicals. In addition, sharp objects have been placed in the hooves. Heavy chains and tall, stacked shoes are often attached to the feet, as well. All of this in order to get that high step judges and spectators are looking for when they attend horse shows around the Southeast, such as the Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn.The amendment also provides funding over and above the $2 million Horse Protection Program funding provided for in the base bill. 

    “I’m pleased that, through my amendment, the Office of the Inspector General of the USDA will now be directed to do a rigorous review of the Horse Protection Program to help to end the barbarous practice of horse soring in Tennessee walking horse competitions,” said Rep. Cohen, who has fought for animal rights in Congress for many years.

    Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, a Washington, D.C.-based animal protection organization, is past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association and was raised in the soring culture. An eight-time champion on the walking horse show circuit, Irby once sored his horses, having been taught by his horse-trainer father at the age of 13. Over time, he says, his conscience got the better of him.

    Marty Irby, a former grand champion on the Tennessee Walking horse show circuit,is pictured with The Lion King following their 2006 Two-Year-Old Trail Pleasure Championship at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association’s National Futurity in Shelbyville. Lion King is a sound flat-shod horse in its natural form with no stacked shoes or ankle chains.
    Marty Irby, a former grand champion on the Tennessee Walking horse show circuit,is pictured with The Lion King following their 2006 Two-Year-Old Trail Pleasure Championship at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association’s National Futurity in Shelbyville. Lion King is a sound flat-shod horse in its natural form with no stacked shoes or ankle chains. (Photo: Marty Irby)

    “I began to see soring as a terrible plague and for the cruelty it really was,” he says. “Growing up, it was something we were numb to — it was part of our ‘everyone-does-it’ culture.”

    Since 2012, Irby has spoken out against soring and the wearing of stacked shoes and chains not only for Tennessee walking horses but for racking horses, another popular show breed in the South and the state horse of Alabama.

    The bill passed in the House last week still needs Senate approval before final passage, and this may not happen until well into the fall of 2020. But it may be a battle with a coalition of senators who have opposed other efforts for reform.

    U.S. Senators Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander offer another solution to prevent the practice of soring and the wearing of stacked shoes and chains while supporting one of the state’s major industries — the sport of Tennessee Walking Horse competition. Last year, the larger horse industry supported more than 20,000 jobs nationwide and boosted the national economy by $3.2 billion.

    The House of Representatives passed a bill in 2019, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act that would have strengthened laws against soring since it was first banned in 1970. But that’s as far as it went. Alexander and Blackburn proposed a bill that would use auditors appointed by the government as well as inspectors from the walking horse industry to inspect horses. Animal welfare advocates, such as Irby, feel this is a conflict of interest — self-policing, so to speak.

    Though soring for the purposes of showing and exhibiting, as well as the selling of sored horses is illegal on a federal level due to the Horse Protection Act of 1970, the use of stacked shoes and chains continues to be legal and remains a common practice because wording of the now 50-year-old bill did not include the elimination of stacked shoes and chains, Irby says.

    “Many Tennessee Walking horses are still judged on how high they can step with their front legs — the big lick,” he says. “The judging system is corrupt and also a major part of what keeps soring alive.”

    Irby says the only way to end soring is to end the use of stacked shoes and chains, practices that currently remain legal in the showroom.

    A horse's foot wearing chains and stacked shoes is still legal and is integral to the illegal practice of soring, says Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action. Photo credit: Bradley Dick
    A horse’s foot wearing chains and stacked shoes is still legal and is integral to the illegal practice of soring, says Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action. Photo credit: Bradley Dick

    Efforts to reach Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer’s Association president Bill Cantrell went unanswered. Cantrell is set to undergo a three-year USDA federal suspension for alleged horse soring after the 2020 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration scheduled to be held in Shelbyville at the end of August.

    Clant Seay, an attorney in Oxford, Miss., and former owner of Tennessee walkers, never practiced soring himself and says there is “no future for the big lick animal cruelty that continues to be perpetrated on the breed. 

    “Peaceful protests outside “big lick” horse shows by the Citizens Campaign Against “Big Lick” Animal Cruelty advocates, along with increased social media awareness,   have brought public participation in “big lick” horse shows to almost zero,” said Seay. “The Tennessee walking horse breed has no future until the ‘big lick’ is abolished once and for all.