Will U.S. Supreme Court decide the fate of the Tennessee Walking Horse?

September 3, 2022 7:00 am
2014 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. (Photo: Margret Wood/Flickr)

2014 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. (Photo: Margret Wood/Flickr)

As the curtains close on the 84th Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, I am reminded of the World Grand Champion crowned in 1992:  Dark Spirit’s Rebel, who claimed victory with the late Bud Dunn, his first World Grand Championship at the age of 74, and who wore the rider number 1865 to win the roses.

That night, Celebration announcer Bobby Sands pointed out there was in fact “some irony there,” regarding the number –  symbolic of the year 1865, when the Confederacy surrendered and ended the Civil War. The connotation was at the time very fitting, especially with the fans of Bud and Rebel who waved Confederate flags all around the 30,000-seat filled stadium that night. One fan was so enthralled he dressed in full Confederate uniform with a 20-foot-tall giant rebel flag of his own. 

Only 13 years old, I was there that night, watching the crowd while my father judged the event. The roaring fans that screamed for Bud and Rebel were something I’d never seen at that level before. Quite frankly, the judges feared they’d be mobbed if Bud and Rebel didn’t win. But they did, and the cultish world of “Big Lick” Tennessee Walking Horses and the animal cruelty associated with it, continued on.

Bud Dunn and Dark Spirit's Rebel in 1992. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Bud Dunn and Dark Spirit’s Rebel in 1992. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The “Big Lick” is an artificial pain-based exaggerated version of the Tennessee Walking Horses’ natural gait, bastardized by the practice of soring — the intentional infliction of pain by applying caustic chemicals such as kerosene, mustard oil, croton oil, and abrasive hand cleaners to the skin or by inserting sharp objects into the hooves. Once sored, the pain is exacerbated by the use of ankle chains placed around the burned skin, and large stacked shoes strapped to the hooves.

Soring has persisted since the late 1950s, despite the enactment of the Horse Protect Act (HPA) in 1970 designed to stamp out the practice. It has persisted because of the political power held by a few members of Congress from Tennessee and Kentucky, and an irresolute U.S. Department of Agriculture that has regulated soring for the past 52 years rather than stamping out the practice.

What’s most interesting is that the USDA, now led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, has allowed the use of those ankle chains and large-stacked shoes in the showring just as they were in 1992, the very same torture devices we’ve seen since they were last downsized in 1988. While the Celebration belatedly but rightly  condemned the Confederacy and Confederate battle flag in recent years, it is still lagging on the moral problem of soring. The torture devices affixed onto the forelimbs of Bud and Rebel in 1992 are still a feature of the Celebration 30 years later. In fact, ankle chains and stacked shoes will be fastened to the feet of the World Grand Champion crowned tonight, with Gov. Bill Lee standing at the winners’ side presenting the trophy.  

The torment persists despite an overwhelming vote in the U.S. House of 333 to 96 in 2019 to ban those devices. The Senate failed to act.  And so has the USDA, which as long ago as 1979 warned about the use of ankle chains and large-stacked shoes. 

And there’s still no pathway in the Senate for the PAST Act as introduced despite both Chambers of Congress and the White House being controlled by Democrats, who’ve been the primary champions of the legislation. 

The federal courts have not generally been a productive pathway for the critics of soring, as the industry has parried attempts to attack the problem of soring through that channel. One court ruled against the USDA’s imposition of mandatory penalties for those caught soring. Another court ruled in support of the Big Lick World Grand Champion “Honors”  being allowed to show and compete even after the horse had been deemed scarred from soring abuse. Even Judge Oliver Gasch’s attempt to end the Big Lick failed in 1988.

But there’s been a new development, that quite frankly, most everyone was surprised to see. The Federal Court of Appeals recently ruled that the USDA’s withdrawal of a regulation that would have banned soring devices in 2017 was improper, and in violation of the federal Administrative Procedures Act. The act has the potential to end the use of ankle chains and large stacked shoes once and for all. 

There’s still an opportunity for further appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the land, which seems very likely to occur. My late friend, Bill Harlin, the proprietor of Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, predicted such a scenario long ago. He was present for the founding of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, the breed registry established in 1935 in the Lewisburg Courthouse, and he frequently said to me “It all started in a courthouse, and it’ll end in a courthouse as well.” 

Regardless of who is crowned World Grand Champion tonight, the PAST Act, and every other approach to stamp out soring, I am looking forward to the Tennessee Walking Horses having their day in court, and I hope Bill Harlin was right – that we see the end of this half a century long debate on soring brought to a close with SCOTUS’ ruling on the matter.

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Marty Irby
Marty Irby

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and an eight-time World Champion equestrian who was named as one of The Hill's Top Lobbyists for 2019 and 2020, and was recently honored by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II for his work to protect horses. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @MartyIrby.