Big Lick Animal Cruelty: Walking Horse Trainers Ride Tomorrow

In March 1984, only four years old, I made my first public show-ring appearance aboard Carbon Princess at the annual Walking Horse Trainers’ Show, the kickoff to each show season, that begins tomorrow night at Calsonic Arena in Shelbyville, Tennessee. She was 18 hands tall and had the heart of a champion. Most of all, she was a friend to me, until the moment she died while I laid beside her on the dirt floor of our barn hallway.

During that era, my competitors came from far and wide – many of them the sons and daughters of Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who still either train or compete today. We showed all across the region, from Pin Oak, Texas to Jackson, Miss., Montgomery, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga.

Yet not even one of those horse shows exists today. Why? Because rampant soring has tarnished the sport.

As I described in the previous four pieces in this series, soring is the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front limbs by means of applying caustic chemicals such as croton oil or kerosene, or by cutting the horses’ hooves down to the bloodline, known as “the quick” and then driving nails into that soft tissue, making it hurt when they touch the ground.

By August 1985, I made my debut at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration aboard my tall black mare, and I recall standing amidst the middle of that show ring with thousands of people cheering. With double-sided tape in the saddle and my seat, rubber bands around my feet in the stirrups, and loop reins I could hold, I had already become an addict of the “Big Lick,” an artificial pain-based high-stepping gait that can only be produced by soring.

I was one of many people intense about competition and winning, but later realized that we were all in competition to out cheat each other, at the expense of horses’ suffering in agony. 

In prior writings, I provided background on the history of soring, my own experiences, and our efforts over the past decade to eradicate the practice. Pushing for the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act over the past eight years has been terribly frustrating, and frankly, the prospects for moving that original bill in the 117th Congress are very slim indeed.

There are three potential pathways forward to end soring.

The first is the USDA’s regulations to ban large-stacked shoes and ankle chains in the show ring. That effort died in 2017—a catastrophe born out of incompetence, laziness, and political back-scratching. Of course, there’s a chance those regulations can get done now with Joe Biden in office, but without any rehauling of the anemic penalties, enacted half a century ago, it seems that USDA and federal law enforcement are very unlikely to step up and crackdown on violators.

What’s more, the walking horse industry is poised to challenge the regulations with two lawsuits, at the very least delaying any implementation of the measure for years.
The industry has had a run of successes in the federal courts, blocking other rulemaking actions or getting rare enforcement actions by the federal government tossed out with cases like Rowland Vs. USDAContender Farms Vs. USDAMcSwain Vs. VilsackHumane Society of the U.S. Vs. USDA, and again last month in the case of Fleming Vs. USDA

The second option is to pressure the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (the breed registry for the industry) and the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (the world championship event) to implement rules that disallow the use of the large-stacked shoes and ankle chains. Any voluntary rule like this is only as strong as its weakest link.

The Walking Horse Owners’ Association has not formally adopted policies against the big lick, but it only holds horse shows with sound, flat-shod horses exhibiting and competing. This group is making great progress on its own with little help from animal advocates or the big lick faction – they’ve set an example that others should follow.

And the third option moving forward is in my view, the best option of all, but it requires setting aside ego for the betterment of the Tennessee Walking Horse: passing a modified PAST Act through the House and Senate. Its terms are already established, but there are some groups who insist it’s the decade-old original PAST Act or nothing.

Wayne Pacelle and I sat down with the industry and quietly worked for nearly eighteen months in 2019 and 2020 to forge a compromise. The Tydings family, my friend Monty Roberts, the Horses for Life Foundation, Carl Bledsoe, and dozens of other animal welfare groups and rescues endorsed our effort and the final draft of the bill. In the end, together, we secured a deal to ban chains and other “action devices” and the use of tail braces; to shrink the size and weight of the shoes dramatically and make them removable; to eliminate industry self-regulation, and to put USDA in charge of a comprehensive, science-based inspection program; and to impose felony-level penalties for the new federal crime of soring and increase the funding authorization for enforcement eight-fold.

But as we gained support from some, we lost support from others – and the effort ultimately failed in the 116th Congress. Wayne and I continue to talk with the industry, the PAST Act sponsors, and the Administration about reforms that will bring animal advocates, walking horse industry enthusiasts, and other stakeholders to the table to achieve the end result we’ve been after – the eradication of the 60-year-curse of horse soring.

This is not that hard. Lawmakers who have led on this issue and the key stakeholders just need to get together and recognize that 90 percent of the loaf is better than no loaf at all. The reality is, while the Democrats control the Congress and the White House, their margins in the House and Senate are razor-thin. The Senate has always been the key impediment for progress on the PAST Act. But those Senators opposed to the PAST Act have signaled they are ready to turn the page on soring and end the practice, and key players need to come together and close the deal. That’s not too much to ask, given that generations of horses have suffered under a statutory and enforcement framework that has not delivered protections for them and put a halt to the abuse.

It’s time for everyone to lay down their swords and get something practical done to alleviate the pain that’s scourged these horses for more than half a century.

Marty Irby is a former 8-time world champion equestrian, and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association who currently serves as executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and was recently honored by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II for his work to end soring. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook @MartyIrby.

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