FRANKLIN, TN – W. W. “Bill” Harlin was there when the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors association got started in 1935. And he’s here in 2014, and he has something to say, and people, should listen.
Bill Harlin, 90 years old, endorses passage of HR 1518/S.1406, Prevent All Soring Practices Act presently before Congress because he wants to “save our breed”.
“A man whose name is synonymous with Tennessee Walking Horses says the inhumane practice of soring horses must end “” or the walking horse industry itself will die.
Bill Harlin of the famed Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, home of two-time world grand champion horse Midnight Sun, says the use of pads, chains and caustic chemicals to achieve the horse’s signature gait, known as “the Big Lick,” is wrong and efforts to stop the abuse aren’t working.
“Tennessee is getting a reputation as being a horse abuse state,” Harlin said. “Pads and chains are killing the industry. And I don’t know how long we can wait for proper enforcement before the industry dies.”
Walking Horse icon Bill Harlin joins the rest of the United States demanding the the sore Big Lick end forever.
“The practice of soring Tennessee Walking Horses has been a dirty secret in the industry for years, but it has received national attention after the release of a disturbing undercover video of a West Tennessee trainer soring a horse.
Trainers use mustard oil, diesel fuel and other caustic chemicals to make a horse’s skin sensitive, then they place chains or other “action devices” around the tender skin, causing the horse to develop a high step in response to the pain. Soring also has evolved into the use of “pressure shoeing” in which a foreign object or epoxy foam is inserted under the pad and shoe of the horse, causing extreme pain.
The time has come “” in fact, it’s long overdue “” for these practices to end, Harlin said. “We’re now in a fight for survival of the breed.”
Breed registry falls
Harlin cites figures showing that the number of registered Tennessee Walking Horse foals has dropped from a high of 15,526 in 2000 to just 3,358 in 2010. During that same period, the number of individual breeders fell from 9,306 to just 1,870.
It’s a terrible fall from grace for a distinguished breed that Harlin watched be established at a 1935 organizational meeting of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders Association.
The horse was flat shod, unlike today’s stacked platform shoes that alter the horse’s naturally smooth gait. “The Celebration was built on flat-shod horses,” Harlin said, referring to the industry’s top horse show held annually in Shelbyville, Tenn.
But through the years, trainers experimented with ways to exaggerate the horse’s gait, making it more exciting for spectators.
“In the mid-1950s there were small changes made to enhance their step,” Harlin said. “They started using the heavy bell boot and other measures.”
Soring was no secret
Harlin admits he and other owners knew soring was taking place. He was even part of industry regulatory groups to stop the practice under the federal Horse Protection Acts of 1970 and 1976.
“I can’t plead innocent,” he said. “We were supposed to enforce it, but we didn’t. It was unenforceable. No trainer will ever testify against another trainer. It’s (enforcement) got to come from outside.”
That is the key to reform in the walking horse industry, Harlin said. As it stands, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of inspecting and enforcing compliance with the Horse Protection Act, which stipulates that no soring techniques are to be used on horses. But limited funding has resulted in federal inspectors being able to monitor only a small percentage of the nation’s horse shows.
That being the case, the USDA allows the industry to license its own Designated Qualified Persons to serve as inspectors.
That’s a practice akin to putting the fox over the hen-house, Harlin says.
“Self-regulation will never work,” he said. “It hasn’t for over 40 years. There needs to be a super enforcement agency, independent and out of the hands of breeders, exhibitors and trainers, where money can change hands.”
Harlin supports H.R. 1518, a bill to amend the Horse Protection Act, “to save our breed.”
The bill, known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky, would ban chains and pads that are used to sore horses, improve enforcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and strengthen penalties on trainers and owners who violate the law.
Comfortable ride is natural
Eliminating soring and restoring the horses’ flat-shod gait would allow the natural features and abilities of the Walking Horses “” their endurance, good temperament and comfortable ride “” to shine through.
“The whole industry would be broader, but it would not have the peaks,” Harlin said, referring to the big money generated by the annual Walking Horse Celebration.
Returning Tennessee Walking Horses to their historic role “” and natural gait “” will make the breed more attractive and accessible to more people.
“They are great horses for trail riding, and they are known for their smooth ride and endurance.”
During Harlin’s lifetime in the business, he has seen the heights and current depths of the industry, and he wants to see his beloved breed thrive “” and not suffer abuse and pain.
“I’ve got the background to help fix this,” he said. “And I want to support regulations and individuals who will be on the forefront of bringing our breed back.”
When Bill Harlin speaks, people should listen.