Nashville, TN – The Tennessean reporter Holly Meyer first became acquainted with the Tennessee Walking Horse story on April 23, 2015, when she was assigned to go to West End Blvd in Nashville and cover some CITIZENS PROTESTING THE ANIMAL CRUELTY OF THE BIG LICK TENNESSEE WALKING HORSE.
MR. CLAY HARLIN AND MR. CARL BLEDSOE INTERVIEWED BY MS HOLLY MEYER
CITIZEN PROTESTORS ON WEST END BLVD IN NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE
Then on May 12, 2015, The Tennessean editors met with primary sources, Equine Vet Dr John Haffner, member of Horse Science Faculty at MTSU; former Big Lick Horse Trainer Carl Bledsoe; WHOA (Walking Horse Owners Association) President Dee Dee Miller; and Clant M. Seay, Spokesperson for the All American Walking Horse Alliance, all of whom want to eliminate the Big Lick Animal Cruelty.
At this meeting The Tennessean officials were told there was an atmosphere of lawlessness among the Big Lick supporters, and that people advocating an end to the Big Lick Animal Cruelty were at personal risk when they did so.
On May 29, 2015, The Tennesseean sent crack photographer Larry McCormack to the CITIZENS PROTEST AGAINST BIG LICK ANIMAL CRUELTY at Maury County Park in Columbia, Tennessee.
On the following day, May 30, 2015, things turned ugly when a Big Lick Horse Trainer Mr. Jamie Lawrence
drove a dually truck pulling a trailer at Ms. Teresa Bippen, President of FOSH (Friends Of Sound Horses) recklessly endangering her life and threatening her civil rights.
And about 30 minutes later, Big Lick supporter Mr. Mike Graves of Bell Buckle, Tennessee also drove his truck at a protestor, Ms. Brenda Lamb.
Both incidents were witnessed by law enforcement, and the matter involving Ms. Teresa Bippen was presented to the Maury County Grand Jury on July 7, 2015, and a decision on whether or not to indict is expected this coming week. The matter regarding Mr. Graves is pending being presented to the Grand Jury.
After four months of interviewing persons involved in the 2015 Tennessee Walking Horse dynamic, here is Ms. Holly Meyer’s story appearing in the The Tennessean newspaper on Sunday, July 19, 2015.
Walking horse group successful with flat-shod rules
Holly Meyer, firstname.lastname@example.org 9:20 p.m. CDT July 18, 2015
(Photo: Larry McCormack / THE TENNESSEAN)
When legislation to toughen federal protections against horse soring gained momentum last year, opponents said the proposed rule changes would decimate their walking horse show industry.
But a Murfreesboro-based walking horse group says it has found a way to thrive regardless of what becomes of those stiffer rules.
Dee Dee Miller, president of the Walking Horse Owners Association, said entries for its sanctioned shows across the country nearly doubled from 2012 to 2014. The number of shows were up, too.
“The popularity is just growing by leaps and bounds,” Miller said. “We just create a good time and a good place where everybody feels welcome and equally and fairly treated.”
But spectators at WHOA shows won’t see horses wearing the special shoes and metal chains that are a common sight in padded performance show rings. They’re not allowed.
Only flat-shod horses — those without materials between the hoof and shoe — are welcome to compete, Miller said. The proposed Prevent All Soring Tactics Act included a universal show ban of the pads and action devices that are used to artificially enhance the gait of a horse.
“We saw that we couldn’t be profitable with performance padded shows, but we had a great niche in the flat-shod industry,” Miller said. “If the PAST Act passes and the pads and chains were gone, the industry and the Tennessee walking horse breed will certainly survive.”
Animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, and some leading veterinary organizations have said the pads and chains are synonymous with soring, the intentional abuse of a horse’s front limbs to produce a higher gait. And some continue to make that a rallying point.
But the official breed registry and the industry’s premier show, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, have opposed those tougher rules. Instead, they advocate for objective, science-based inspections, which are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to combat soring.
Mike Inman, the Celebration’s chief executive officer, said eliminating the weighted pads and action devices — what the PAST Act calls for — would impact 85 percent of the show’s entries and classes. He cited an Auburn study that proves the equipment used by those who compete at the show do not harm the horses.
While inspectors find violations at the Celebration, Inman said the show’s compliance rate is in the high 90 percent range.
“If you went with science-based inspection, the blood is what the blood is. Either you’re in or you’re out,” Inman said. “Somebody’s opinion is one thing, but a fact from a digital X-Ray or from a blood test, that’s science. That’s objective and that’s what we’d like to see.”
A heated history
Tennessee walking horses have a naturally high gait that offers a smoother ride, but trainers use padded shoes and ankle chains to encourage a higher step, which is prized in walking horse competitions. Some figured out that the training could go faster if they abused the hooves and ankles — the practice known as soring.
The problem became so bad that Congress passed the Horse Protection Act in 1970. The federal law prohibits transporting a horse that has been sored or entering one into a show. Various state laws, including in Tennessee, also ban the practice.
The issue exploded into the national spotlight in 2012 after the Humane Society released undercover video of a West Tennessee trainer, Jackie McConnell, beating and overseeing the soring of horses. A federal court convicted McConnell, who was once a member of the Celebration’s hall of fame, of violating the Horse Protection Act.
Currently, the USDA is reviewing the issues identified in a September 2010 Office of Inspector General audit to determine what regulatory changes should be made to strengthen enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, said Andrea McNally of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The USDA continues to monitor its certified horse industry organizations, which are groups that promote horses and license those who inspect for sore horses at events. They also are documenting performance deficiencies in those licensing programs, McNally said.
“We continue to use sound tools such as foreign substance testing, thermography and digital imaging technology to identify and focus inspection on those horses most at risk,” McNally said.
While the flat-shod association adheres to strict rules at its shows, it doesn’t take sides in the debate on amending the Horse Protection Act because its members fall into both camps, Miller said.
Formed in 1976, the member-driven association hasn’t always been just a flat-shod organization. WHOA began its transition in 2010 when the USDA approved its application to become a horse industry organization and conduct inspections at horse shows.
Miller thinks the controversy surrounding padded performance horse shows has contributed to WHOA’s higher numbers, but she said there is more to it than that. The association shows focus on celebrating the versatility of the walking horse through an array of events, and allow riders and horses to compete in more than one event.
Inspectors at the association’s 2014 international show in Murfreesboro found no Horse Protection Act violations. Miller said everyone who participates brings a suitable horse that fits with WHOA’s business model.
“We just stand by our rules,” Miller said.
Last year, changes to the federal law banning the abuse known as soring seemed inevitable. But the two pieces of competing legislation that would alter how the USDA enforces the Horse Protection Act stalled in Congress.
The PAST Act garnered more than 300 bipartisan sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, but its momentum evaporated after the primary sponsor, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky, was accused of ethics violations. The allegations stemmed from how Whitfield’s wife was a lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which pushed the legislation.
So far this year, the PAST Act has only been reintroduced in the Senate, but a number of House members are working together to figure out how to reintroduce it, said Ben Gash Garmisa, the spokesman for U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, also has reintroduced the competing legislation backed by the Celebration that calls for improved scientific testing but would not prohibit the extra pads and chains.
Boycotts and protests
But some anti-soring activists and opponents of the padded performance horse shows aren’t waiting for Congress to act. A grassroots effort fueled by online petitions is urging the boycott and protest of Tennessee Walking Horse shows that feature the padded performance class.
They say that soring remains widespread and point to how even veterinarians are dropping their association with the Celebration and other events.
“We just don’t care what they do up there. We’re taking it to the people, and the people elect those folks (in Washington), and we’re going to get it decided right out in Middle Tennessee where the soring’s taking place,” said protest organizer Clant Seay, who is based in Oxford, Miss.
While thousands signed various Change.org petitions, the physical presence of the demonstrators is small. Seay, who is affiliated with the All American Walking Horse Alliance, said between eight and 31 people have shown up to the protests.
The campaign started in February with a petition targeting a Mississippi charity horse show that offered a padded performance class. The campaign’s focus shifted to Tennessee in April. Demonstrators held up anti-soring signs at Centennial Park in Nashville and outside two shows in Middle Tennessee.
Law enforcement had to intervene during the May 30 Spring Jubilee horse show at Maury County Park in Columbia. Teresa Bippen, a Missouri protestor who is also the president of the Friends of Sound Horses, a group that works to end soring, said she was almost run over by a truck driven by Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Jamie Lawrence, according to a Maury County Sheriff’s incident report.
The group’s next target is in late August at the 77th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, the industry’s premier show. Seay hopes the boycott campaign will convince 20,000 people to stay home.
“That will go along way toward letting them know that no matter what kind of legislation you block, you’re not going to be successful in perpetuating this animal cruelty,” Seay said. “The people are not going to let you.”
The planned protest does not faze Inman, who said it was the protestors’ right to demonstrate.
Carl Bledsoe knows what it takes to sore a horse and still pass a show inspection. It was a part of the Georgia walking horse trainer’s livelihood.
“I owned and operated a training facility here in Georgia for years until I decided to quit because I got to where I hated myself when I looked at myself in the mirror,” Bledsoe said. “I loved the horses, but hated what I had to do to be competitive.”
Despite his long family history in the business, he couldn’t take it anymore. But speaking up meant burning relationships and putting himself out of business. Bledsoe spoke up anyway.
He left the padded show world about two years ago. Today, Bledsoe continues to train Tennessee walking horses, teaching them to trail ride and fixing their gait issues. But the horses he works with now are unshod or only wearing the standard keg shoe, he said.
Bledsoe is busy rebuilding his business and his reputation as a sound horse trainer. It hasn’t been easy, but he wants his personal story to be proof that there’s life after the padded walking horse show world.
Reach Holly Meyer at 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.
Terms to know
Horse Protection Act: A federal law passed by Congress in 1970 that prohibits sored horses from participating in events or being transported to and from them.
Soring: Using harsh chemicals, overweight chains or other painful practices on a horse’s limbs to enhance its gait. The pain inflicted by soring causes the horse to lift its legs higher and shift its weight to its back legs, creating a higher gait.
•Walking Horse Owners Association’s 37th annual International Pleasure & Colt Grand Championship Walking Horse Show
When: July 26-Aug. 1
Where: Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro
•The 77th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration
When: Aug. 26-Sept. 5
Where: The Celebration grounds in Shelbyville
Nephew Eugene says for someone who didn’t know a whole lot about Tennessee Walking Horses in April, Ms. Holly Meyer has come a long way in a short period of time.