Trainer Chad Williams trains The Lineman for the upcoming Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee. (Photo from The Tennessean newspaper)
Here we go. Every year about this time I wonder if should go to Tennessee. I have never been to the Walking Horse Celebration. In fact, I have never been to a walking horse show. As a result, I don't mouth off about soring and training techniques because other than a few horses I have seen while traveling in the South, I've still not seen these wonderful horses compete in an exclusive walking horse show.
Around here, walking horses are one of the most popular trail horses and far removed from the show culture in the south that gets the breed so much bad press...and yet maintains such a stalwart following. I imagine the atmosphere at a walking horse show is sort of like the lobster boat races in Maine or the oxen pulls in Vermont. If you're from there, you get it.
Except for the presence of inspectors. And the state police. Just a few years ago, the Celebration was stopped and public safety was an issue. That's how mad people were when USDA inspectors actually inspected the horses for soring evidence. The trainers said that the inspectors didn't use valid criteria and wanted their own inspectors back.
When USDA inspectors pulled up at a show, the trainers loaded up and pulled out, even when it was--as often was the case--a charity show to benefit a hospital or community organization's fundraising efforts.
In the past year, there has been massive restructuring and reorganization that might make this year's Celebration peaceful and profitable and a showcase for sound, safe horses. Let's hope.
The Tennessean newspaper published a lengthy article today that gives the background leading up to this year's new-rules show. It doesn't pull any punches or sugar-coat the issue.
Among the facts: abuse allegations by federal inspectors have sky-rocketed this year, even leading to the first lifetime bans. But pair that with this fact: 150,000 tickets have already been sold for this year's Celebration. How many people buy tickets to attend other breed horse shows, do you think? Or a dressage show? Even the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event attracts only about 20,000 people on its final day.
Walking horses remain the most publicized enigma of the American horse industry. The show horses and their culture are a lightning rod: Some shun them, some embrace them. Some say the trainers and owners are misunderstood, some say they are criminals.
And they've been saying that for more than 30 years now, since the Horse Protection Act was passed to prevent soring and abusive shoeing. And I'm still writing these articles. Still wondering how and why this continues to be a raw, open wound in horse showing's hide.
Read that article, but don't believe everything you hear. Like so many things these days, there's no easy solution to an old wound like this.
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