Political columnist & senior attorney both think so
CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee––Could being associated with soring horses to induce the “Big Lick” goose step favored at walking horse shows cost the Republican candidates the 2018 Tennessee gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections?
Roy Exum thinks it could. And attorney Clant Seay, a 72-year-old walking horse show breeder turned industry critic better known as BillyGoBoy, who is like Exum a voice from the flag-waving right, telephoned ANIMALS 24-7, even before seeing Exum’s October 11, 2017 column, to explain that Exum tends to know what he is talking about concerning Republican politics in Tennessee.
The Celebration slides downhill
Exum, in 36 years as sports editor of The Chattanoogan and 17 years as political columnist for the Patriot-Post and the Chattanoogan.online, has accustomed readers to outspoken opinions, seldom favoring Democrats, but his October 11, 2017 denunciations of Republican candidates Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black for their defenses of walking horse industry soring practices were strong even for him.
Exum had already had a laugh at Black’s expense back on August 4, 2017, three weeks before the 10-day National Walking Horse Celebration held annually in Shelbyville, Tennessee.
The Celebration, founded in 1939, was once the largest sporting event in the state, but by the mid-1960s had already become internationally notorious for hosting and condoning some of the most blatant examples of horse abuse, short of bulls goring horses in Spanish bull rings, that anyone pays admission to watch.
Goose-stepping to music
The Celebration walking horse show judging centers on the “Big Lick.” Each competitor, grouped in divisions demarcated by age and gender, lopes around the outer perimeter of the show ring at various speeds and gaits demanded by the announcer, occasionally reversing directions, all to jaunty instrumental music selected to create the illusion that the horses are moving with high-kicking dance steps.
“What makes the ‘Big Lick’ controversial,” explained Rebecca Martinez and Eric Hodge of radio WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on October 6, 2017, “is putting caustic substances—mustard oil, kerosene, croton oil—on horses’ front ankles and hooves. The substances irritate the skin, making the horse sensitive to the touch. Trainers then strap heavy shoes and chains on those [sored] hooves, and the horses react in pain to the pressure.”
“Walking over hot coals”
Elaborated former Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association president Monte Irby, “The horses throw their legs in the air to get away from the pain. So it would be like if you were walking over hot coals. Think of it as walking across black hot asphalt barefooted. You would want to run really quick, or step really high, and you wouldn’t want to just put your foot on the ground. So that’s what each of these things achieves and the more that the trainers add to it, the higher the horses step.”
“Irby’s wife, Ashley Forman, left him after his stance threatened her favorite event,” Martinez and Hodge mentioned.
“I did try for a little bit to be supportive,” Forman affirmed to them, “but at the end of the day you know big licks are what I love.”
Exum interviewed barn full of horses
Increasing awareness of abuses introduced to achieve the “Big Lick” led to the 1970 passage of the federal Horse Protection Act. But the Horse Protection Act is so lightly enforced, with most levels of inspection delegated to the walking horse industry itself, that many walking horse industry leaders openly mock it––much to Exum’s disgust, and Seay’s.
Wrote Exum on on August 4, 2017, “There was a crowd of Tennessee walking horses gathered at the barn when I got there because the rumor was I was bringing some big news. So I looked at the horses and said solemnly, ‘Diane Black has announced she is running for governor,’ and there was instant pandemonium. Suffice it to say Diane Black is easily one of the most wretched politicians on earth as far as Tennessee walking horses are concerned. ‘Neigh! Neigh! Neigh!’ screamed the horses in unison.”
“Seedy side metastasized”
Elaborated Exum on October 11, 2017, “The seedy side of the horse industry is so horribly metastasized inside the state Republican leadership that it could be fatal in both the Senate and the governor’s race. Both Blackburn and Black have taken tens of thousands from the sickos at the National Walking Horse Celebration, which has been controlled in the last five scandalous years by Republican fundraiser and Dirty Lick overlord Steven B. Smith,” a walking horse breeder elected to the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame in 2001.
“Steven B. rose to heights as Lamar Alexander’s state campaign chairman,” Exum wrote, in a state that Alexander represented as governor before his 2003 election to the U.S. Senate, “and Lamar has rewarded him richly, blocking any and all effort in the state to eliminate the sadistic and nauseating soring of walkers.
“Three years ago,” Exum recalled, “legislation to reform the 1970 federal Horse Protection Act was introduced,” called the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, or PAST Act for short. “An undercover tape of Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell brutalizing a walker had inflamed horsemen around the world – literally — and thus the PAST Act has enjoyed wide bipartisan approval every year since.”
Jackie McConnell and two of his employees, John Mays and Jeff Dockery, were eventually convicted of Horse Protection Act violations. McConnell was expelled from the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame, fined $75,000, and was barred from keeping horses for 20 years.
But the rare convictions did not lead to the passage of PAST.
Alexander, Mitch McConnell, & the “Dirty Lick”
Instead, Exum recounted, “For three years the majority of Congress and the Senate have co-sponsored the bill, only to watch Alexander and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell (U.S. Senate majority leader) block every attempt. Why? Alexander and McConnell have each accepted obscene donations that can be directly traced to the Dirty Lick every year.
“Two years ago,” Exum fumed, “when Ohio’s John Boehner was Speaker of the House, campaign donations from the Shelbyville types flooded his campaign coffers – this in Ohio! — and Boehner, to no one’s surprise, refused to call the properly documented and prepared bill to the floor. Not one of Tennessee’s seven repugnant Republican members of Congress, nor either Senator, have ever endorsed the PAST bill.
“Tennessee is a red state,” Exum concluded, “and the only option for conservatives, outside of Blackburn and Black, is to vote for Democrats. Marsha Blackburn and Diane Black are most assuredly not our kind of human beings.”
“Soring quite entrenched”
Blackburn, as a Tennessee member of the U.S. House of Representatives, cemented her reputation as hard on walking horses with a 2014 attempt to rewrite and effectively dismantle the PAST Act.
“As of mid-March 2014,” explained Malinda Larkin in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association online periodical JAVMAnews, “the PAST legislation had 47 senators and 267 representatives as co-sponsors. Every state Veterinary Medical Association, 52 horse organizations, and 77 veterinary and animal health organizations had endorsed it.
“But soring is still quite entrenched in the walking horse community and, by extension, the state of Tennessee,” Larkin wrote. “Evidence of that fact was made apparent when Blackburn introduced amendments to preserve the action devices and performance packages that mark the Tennessee walking horse’s performance division,” and to turn the development of a new set of criteria for identifying soring over to a yet-to-be-created unified governing body for the horse show industry.
Trump administration dismantles horse protection
The already difficult political climate for walking horses became worse on January 20, 2017, Seay blogged as BillyGoBoy, when “The Donald Trump administration stopped a new federal regulation from going into effect which would remove the pads and chains,” commonly used to help make walking horses high-step, along with soring tactics, “to end the ‘Big Lick’ animal cruelty.”
As well as blocking implementation of the federal regulation (see Did Trump kill rules to protect walking horses?), the Trump administration on February 3, 2017 deleted Horse Protection Act enforcement data from the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service web site. (See Is Protect the Harvest behind USDA purge of Animal Welfare Act data?)
Seay and the Citizens Campaign Against “Big Lick” Animal Cruelty that Seay founded responded by taking their case directly to the people of Tennessee and the ten other states that host major walking horse competitions: the eight states that border Tennessee, plus West Virginia and Florida.
Focused boycott hits hard
After picketing at several smaller walking horse shows, the focal part of the CCABLAC campaign became organizing a boycott of the Celebration.
“CCABLAC ran ads in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper before the Celebration asking Tennesseans to boycott the 10-day event,” Seay blogged.
Attendance, already dropping each year since 2004, plummeted to as little as a quarter of what it had been at peak.
“Sources in the know,” Seay reported, “estimate actual attendance of 35,000 to 40,000. The overall first Friday attendance was 15,691 in 2007,” whereas, based on a head count made from a CCABLAC video, “it was approximately 2,500 on Friday, August 25, 2017.”
Help from Hurricane Harvey
Seay acknowledged that the advance of Hurricane Harvey toward Tennessee during the Celebration had something to do with the depressed attendance, but numerous CCABLAC videos showing the audience suggested that the boycott appeal and years of publicity about walking horse abuses had also had considerable effect.
For decades the Celebration arena on peak show nights was an important place for people aspiring to social position in Tennessee to see and be seen, and was a popular dating venue as well. Even on off-peak nights the arena drew crowds.
But the audience who once attended the Celebration has aged and dwindled.
This year, especially on off-peak nights, more smartly dressed young people might have been seen betting on an illegal dogfight.
“Wrong Side of History Award”
This observation, though Seay phrased it more delicately, inspired Seay and CCABLAC to “honor” U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander with a “Wrong Side of History Award,” consisting of statue of a flat-shod walking horse, looking as walking horses normally look when not forced to goose-step.
When Alexander did not appear at the Celebration to accept it in person, Seay and a CCABLAC delegation took it to him in Washington D.C. in person, presenting it on September 14, 2017.
“Sadly, Senator Lamar Alexander––a Phi Beta Kappa at Vanderbilt University––gets a failing grade on dealing with the stain upon the State of Tennessee that is the Big Lick,” Seay said in his award speech. “Senator Alexander apparently does not know that the “Big Lick” gait performed by Tennessee Walking Horses is Animal Cruelty per se – intrinsically – in and of itself.
34 years since Alexander visited in person
“Senator Alexander, who will be 78 years old on his next birthday, has not attended the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration since 1983,” Seay said, “yet he has referred to it as a ‘Tennessee Treasure’ and ‘Tennessee Tradition.’”
Seay invited Alexander to watch a CCABLAC video featuring “an abused Big Lick walking horse named Gen’s Ice Glimmer. Gen’s Ice Glimmer,” at age 11, after having been exhibited in more than 40 walking horse shows, “was saved from going to slaughter at Cookeville, Tennessee in 2015,” Seay recounted, “when CCABLAC and the Horse Plus Humane Society of Hohenwald, Tennessee partnered to rescue him.”
Contributing to the fund to buy and rescue Gen’s Ice Glimmer was the incident that turned Seay into an anti-Big Lick activist, after having previously been best known for his enthusiasm for football at Ole Miss, his alma mater (and that of his father, Clant Seay Sr., who was the Ole Miss football team manager in 1934.)
“Not just a few bad apples”
“It’s not just a few bad apples hurting Tennessee walking horses, and consequently, the entire Volunteer State,” Seay continued. “The whole barrel of apples is rotten.”
By way of example, Seay named Charles Gleghorn, senior vice president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breed Registry Association, who is “serving a three-year federal suspension issued by an Administrative Law Judge,” Seay said, “for having two sore Tennessee walking horses at the 2016 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. Over 25,000 persons have signed a Change.Org petition asking Gleghorn, to resign his position, as the Tennessee Walking Horse Breed Registry Association’s bylaws require. So far, Gleghorn has not done so.”
Gen’s Black Maverick
“Gen’s Black Maverick, with trainer Bill Callaway in the irons, won the 2017 Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Championship,” Seay continued. “On Monday, September 4, 2017,” 24 hours after the Celebration ended, “Callaway went on federal suspension for allegedly soring a Tennessee Walking Horse at the 2016 Celebration.
“Gen’s Black Maverick is owned by wealthy Lamar Alexander campaign contributor Keith Rosbury of Bell Buckle, Tennessee, formerly from Texas where he was President of HTNB Corporation. Rosbury made a $2,000.00 campaign donation to Senator Alexander,” Seay noted.
“Gen’s Black Maverick” was sored in 2012,” Seay alleged, “to allow the Mississippi Charity Horse Show in Jackson, Mississippi to make a $50,000 charitable donation to the University of Mississippi Medical Center Children’s Hospital.
Distinguished Legislative Service awards
“The CCABLAC Animal Welfare Advocates also met with Republican Ted Yoho of Florida and Democrat Kurt Schrader or Oregon,” Seay said, “and presented them with CCABLAC Distinguished Legislative Service Awards. Each of these Congressmen are large animal veterinarians who are joint co-sponsors of the PAST Act,” Seay explained.
Seay believes that walking horse show attendance could recover if the industry as a whole could learn from the experience of the Walking Horse Owners Association. Founded in 1976, the Walking Horse Owners Association has prohibited use of pads and chains, and other so-called “action devices” to make horses high-step since 2010.
Walking Horse Owners Association president Dee Dee Miller told Holly Myer of The Tennessean in 2015 that entries in WHOA-sanctioned shows “nearly doubled from 2012 to 2014. The number of shows were up, too,” Myer wrote.
“Participants crooked & game is rigged”
“There’s a ready explanation for the fans’ waning interest,” wrote Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle in his September 12, 2017 blog posting, endorsing Seay’s analysis without crediting it. “Many of the participants are crooked and the game is rigged. And it goes all the way from the top to the bottom rungs of the industry.
Also noting that Bill Callaway took the top honors at the 2017 Celebration despite facing a USDA suspension, Pacelle mentioned that although “The USDA purged a good deal of Horse Protection Act violation data from its website earlier this year, we’ve managed to dig up quite a bit of Callaway’s violation history, as well as the history of members of his family, who all train out of the same barn – Allan Callaway Stables. In addition to citations at the 2016 Celebration on which his current disqualification was based, he’s amassed other citations, and the family has a long history of repeat violations – with his father Allan disqualified at least twice over the years.
“Utter disregard of the law”
“As if this utter disregard of the law wasn’t bad enough,” Pacelle continued, “the Walking Horse Trainers Association presented its Pleasure Horse Trainer of the Year award to one Patrick Thomas, who, along with Howard Hamilton, was recently found guilty of soring by a USDA administrative law judge. He appealed the decision (which is pending), so was allowed to show and win big at the Celebration.
“The association also named as their “Performance Horse Trainer of the Year” Jimmy McConnell, brother of Jackie McConnell, who himself has received numerous Horse Protection Act citations and is believed to have his own federal case pending against him.
“Recently released USDA statistics from random testing for prohibited foreign substances used to sore the legs of horses, or mask the evidence of soring, at horse shows in 2016 show that a whopping 75.4% of all samples tested were positive,” Pacelle finished, “including 89.5% at last year’s Celebration. This is an increase over 2015, when 65.1% of all samples tested positive, including 87.5 percent at the Celebration.”
Why pay to see stacked horse shoes?
Demographic factors, including the fast-falling number of young Americans who ride, or have ever ridden a horse, suggest that walking horse show attendance will continue to drop, just as horse racing attendance has been falling for several decades, no matter what the governing bodies of the industry do.
But making the ethically correct decisions, to favor horses running and walking as nature and breeding designed them to run and walk, could slow the free-fall somewhat.
Those who want to see stacked horse shoes and chains can see them for free on the shelves and display hooks at a tack store.