It’s Sore Time Again in Shelbyville

“There once was a horse; a black stallion named Carbon Copy. Carbon Copy was a perfect model of the Tennessee Walking Horse. He knew voice commands and would respond to a whistle — so people say he could take himself around a ring to show off without anyone on his back. Carbon Copy was the winner of the stallion class of 1964 defeating 44 other top stallions. He continued to beat every other horse around and became the world champion. That same year George Lee Lennox of Memphis Tennessee purchased Carbon Copy. And then George Lee Lennox was found dead. They found his body slumped over in his gold Cadillac. The car was full of blood — he’d been shot in the head 2 times.

“A man came forward and confessed that he’d been paid $15,000.00 to kill George Lee Lennox along with 2 accomplices. The shooters identified themselves as members of the so-called Dixie Mafia and it was widely speculated that the reason the Dixie Mafia wanted George Lee Lennox dead was because George Lee Lennox had a problem with Tennessee Walking Horse tradition.”

These are the words of Phoebe Judge conveyed in the podcast Criminal: The Big Lick, episode 76.

And the tradition referred to is a practice called 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 an artificial high stepping gait known as the “Big Lick.” The Big Lick is rewarded annually at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (Celebration) that begins today in Shelbyville. It’s a cruel and violent culture that I grew up in, and for more than six decades soring has marred the Tennessee Walking Horse breed and stained the Volunteer State.

Every once in a while, someone from deep within the industry like George Lee Lennox comes forward and speaks out against the practice: Clay Harlin, Jerrold Pedigo, Pam Reband, Carl Bledsoe, me, and many others. The need to step forward and speak is something that grows over time, and generally after attempts to make change from within the breed have failed. There’s a gnawing of the conscience that eats away at the soul for quite some, and that erosion wore me down in 2013 just after I finished my final term as president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA), the breed registry, established in 1935. 

A group of us directors of TWHBEA rallied together and voted to support proposed new legislation: the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, a measure that would eliminate the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains on the horses’ feet that exacerbate the pain induced by chemicals; eliminate the industry’s corrupt self-policing scheme; and increase penalties for violators caught soring. Immediate vicious backlash and repercussions from others in the breed came quickly, including death threats, and with the known history of George Lee Lennox some of us retreated.  But a few of us kept pressing for change. Fortunately, many of our predecessors and others in the equine world helped make the personal sacrifices a little easier to bear with their kind and thoughtful words.

“I have known for some time that anyone who sits in the President’s seat and truly tries to do what is in the best interest of TWHBEA will eventually recognize what must be done to protect the future of TWHBEA, its members, and the horse,” former TWHBEA president Jerrold Pedigo wrote in a communique to me. “Whether or not they have the guts to try and do anything or simply keep the seat warm is another question.”

“The walking horse industry will one day return to what made it great: natural, flat-shod, and smooth gaited horses,” publicly declared Clay Harlin, a past vice-president of TWHBEA and member of the famed family owners of Harlinsdale Farm, and the legendary Midnight Sun – a name you’ll find on nearly every living Tennessee Walking Horses’ pedigree today. “I am grateful for a new generation of leaders who care about the breed and not their own selfish interest. There is hope for the Tennessee Walking Horse.”

Now seven years later, the PAST Act, since renamed the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics Act in honor of the late Sen. Tydings — a horseman from Maryland who ushered to passage the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970 — still hasn’t been signed into law, and the large stacked shoes and ankle chains will be hanging on the horses’ feet tonight, exacerbating the pain of horses performing on the grounds of the ‘Celebration.’ I’ve always found the event’s name to be quite ironic as the gruesome games of Ancient Rome were commonly referred to as a celebration as well.

The Tydings’ PAST Act did finally pass the House last July with more than 300 “aye” votes, and legislators from both sides of the aisle gave passionate speeches in favor of it. In the Senate, more than half of the lawmakers there have already publicly announced their support for the legislation as cosponsors of the bill led by Senators Mike Crapo, R-Ida., and Mark Warner, D-Va.  In short, we’ll win the vote in the Senate if leaders allow it to be brought to the floor.

That said, we are actively pursuing strategies parallel to our effort to pass the PAST Act. This year, we’ve been tackling the issue in many different ways: Monty Roberts,’ “the Man Who Listens to Horses” has stepped forward and is helping us create awareness about the issue at levels never seen before, even with Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II. In July, the House passed a new Amendment that provides $750,000 to the Dept. of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General to complete an audit on USDA’s failed Horse Protection Program and a second Amendment that provides the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) $1,000,000 to crackdown against cruelty and enforce existing laws like the HPA.

The House also recently doubled funding for 2021 to provide $2,000,000 for USDA to enforce the HPA; and included language urging the Secretary to finalize a regulation that would eliminate the large stacked shoes and ankle chains through the regulatory process.

Animal Wellness Action is also leading the charge on a new piece of legislation that our team conceived: the Animal Cruelty Enforcement (ACE) Act, that would create an Animal Cruelty Crimes Unit at DOJ and enable them to streamline their efforts to end soring and finally put abusers behind bars — I could name a dozen or more walking horse trainers that should have been locked up long ago. Thousands of you wrote to USDA APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea calling for the department to crackdown on soring, and the We The People Citizens’ Campaign with boots on the ground in Tennessee have been protesting “Big Lick” walking horse shows that have continued even amidst COVID-19.

You are making a difference, and we will see the end of soring soon — one way or another. Please join in helping today by clicking this link and asking your Members of Congress cosponsor the newly introduced ACE Act. We will continue to update you through the next ten days of the so-called Celebration with daily updates on our Twitter account @AWAction_News, and we hope you’ll follow along.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action and past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association, the breed registry established in 1935. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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