“Banned for life” trainer passed out a trophy
SHELBYVILLE, Tennessee––Just what was celebrated at the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration?
It wasn’t certainly wasn’t either ethics or economic success.
Attendance, participation, and prize money claims included in Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration publicity appear to distort reality at least as much as the “stacked” or “keg” shoes on the equine competitors distort the horses’ natural gaits to produce the goose-step-like “Big Lick” favored by the show judges.
Since no horse normally struts to polka music or parades like Nazi soldiers in front of Adolph Hitler, many walking horse trainers compound the effects of the abnormally high shoes by soring the horses’ feet and legs, and painfully “bracing” their tails, to give them the preferred look in show ring competition.
In May 2012 the Humane Society of the U.S. released undercover video of one such trainer, then-Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame member Jackie McConnell, soring a horse at his stable in Collierville, Tennessee.
Barred from grounds
McConnell and two of his employees, John Mays and Jeff Dockery, were eventually convicted of federal Horse Protection Act violations.
McConnell was expelled from the Tennessee Walking Horse Hall of Fame, fined $75,000, and barred from keeping horses for 20 years.
According to a May 22, 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration media release, the Celebration board of directors voted to “suspend McConnell for life and suspended McConnell for life from entering the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration grounds for any and all events, regardless of the event’s affiliation or ownership.”
Yet McConnell was photographed at ringside on September 3, 2021, having reportedly donated a trophy for the Three Year Old World Grand Championship horse class.
Responded Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration chief executive officer Warren Wells, to questioning by “Big Lick” critic Clant Seay, “Jackie McConnell remains suspended from owning, training or showing any horse at The Celebration or any Celebration sponsored event. In addition, McConnell remains removed from the Hall of Fame and is banned from being in the barn area, warm-up area or anywhere other than spectating in the seating area.
“The USDA order against McConnell prohibits him from having anything whatsoever to do with a horse show other than being a spectator,” Wells said, “and the Celebration is in full compliance with this policy with not only McConnell but any other violator of the HPA during their suspension.”
But McConnell et al apparently can pass out trophies as “spectators.”
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration itself annually passes out “over $650,000” in prize money, according to Wikipedia and news media.
Don’t bet on that, though. The actual sum of “show premiums” distributed in 2019, the most recent year for which the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration has filed IRS Form 1990, was just $373,294, down more than $50,000 from two years earlier.
Held over an 11-day span from late August into early September each year since 1939, climaxed by crowning the World Grand Champion Tennessee Walker on the Saturday night before Labor Day, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration “draws an estimated 2,000 horses and 250,000 spectators to Shelbyville [Tennessee] each year,” according to Wikipedia.
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration filings of IRS Form 990 from 2016 through 2019 claim, in identical words each year, attendance of only 175,000, to watch “approximately 4,000 horses and 400 mules” competing for the money.
In other words, according to IRS Form 990, 30% fewer people than Wikipedia stated watched twice as many horses and jackasses goose-stepping to try to win 43% less prize money than advertised.
But that was relatively early into semi-retired Mississippi lawyer Clant Seay’s now seven-year-old Citizens Campaign Against “Big Lick” Animal Cruelty, and before COVID-19 hit.
COVID or Clant?
Of the two, Seay and COVID-19, probably most of the walking horse industry would prefer to take their chances with COVID-19, unmasked and unvaccinated, with or without Ivermectin, the horse deworming drug touted by much of the radical right as a miracle cure, even though COVID-19 is an airborne virus, not an intestinal parasite.
Seay, 74, a former walking horse breeder who turned against the “Big Lick” in earnest after adopting the former “Big Lick” show horse Gen’s Ice Glimmer, campaigns on social media under the screen name BillyGoBoy.
Back in 2018 the BillyGoBoy page on Facebook had 7,450 “followers.”
As of the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, BillyGoBoy had 16,291 followers.
More BillyGoBoy followers than general admission spectators
That happens to be nearly twice as many people as verifiably occupied seats in the West Grand Stand of the Maverick Arena in Shelbyville during the five nights of peak attendance at the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
The West Grand Stand is the main general admission spectator seating section for the main venue hosting the premier event on the “Big Lick” show circuit.
Also known as “The big oval,” the facility has been called the Maverick Arena since horse owners Keith and Lorraine Rosbury won naming rights in a 2018 auction.
The Rosburys named the arena after Gen’s Black Maverick, their 2017 World Grand Champion walking horse, trained by Bill Callaway––who allegedly sored Gen’s Black Maverick at the 2016 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
“To the shock of many people,” reported Clant Seay at the time, “Bill Callaway started serving a federal suspension for alleged horse soring within 24 hours of winning the 2017 Celebration.”
Following the 83rd annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, wrote Mark McGee for the September 5, 2021 trade periodical The Walking Horse Report, “It was announced the paid attendance showed an 8% increase over 2020 with 114,647 attending for the 10 nights” of events open to the public.
But Clant Seay photographed the West Grand Stand crowd each night and then did a head count.
Posted Seay, with the photographic evidence, “The relentless advocacy of the grassroots Citizens Campaign Against ‘Big Lick’ Animal Cruelty reduced public spectator attendance at the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration to an all-time low.
“The weather was fine”
“The Maverick Arena,” Seay explained, “has a total seating capacity of 30,000. The largest block of seats is the West Grand Stand bleachers, which seat 12,000 persons.
“The four biggest nights of the ten-day Walking Horse Celebration are the first Friday and Saturday nights,” August 27 and 28 in 2021, “and the second Friday and Saturday nights,” September 3 and 4 in 2021.
Over the five nights of peak attendance, Seay found, “There were 60,000 total seats available [in the West Grand Stand], and the total cumulative number of persons sitting in those seats was 2,233. The weather was fine all five nights.”
In short, Seay documented attendance of just 3.72% of the general admission capacity.
“No different from cockfighting or dogfighting”
“Tennesseans are no longer attending the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration because they consider the ‘Big Lick’ featured there to be animal cruelty, no different from cockfighting or dogfighting,” Seay said. “And they no longer want any part of it.
“Neither do reputable companies like Regions Bank, Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, John Deere, Ford Motor Company and Cracker Barrel, all of which once sponsored the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, but no longer provide any support to an organization which features and promotes ‘Big Lick’ animal cruelty to Tennessee walking horses,” Seay said.
“By contrast,” Seay noted, “in 2004, the documented turnstile overall spectator attendance was 162,176, and there were 29,015 people in attendance for the crowning of the new World Grand Championship Tennessee Walking Horse.”
Cockfights draw bigger crowds
Seay had no way of knowing that some recent illegal cockfights in the Adirondacks have actually drawn more spectators than sat in the West Grand Stand during the three lowest nights of attendance at the 2021 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, but Showing Animals Respect & Kindness video suggests this was the case.
Further, those cockfights also appear to have outdrawn the six lowest nights of attendance at the 2020 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
Continued Seay, “The downward spiral in Celebration attendance is also mirrored by the drastic decline in the number of members of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association,” from more than 22,000 members in 2000 to just 2,450 in 2020.
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is still far from broke, with assets of nearly $5.4 million in 2019, according to IRS Form 990, but that was down by $640,469 in just two years.
Mirroring the losses was a 20% decline in the compensation paid to former Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration chief executive Mike Inman, from $182,997 in 2016 to $147,038 in 2019.
Warren Wells succeeded Inman in June 2021. Wells’ salary has not not been disclosed.
Ruth Steinberger says
Excellent article. Hopefully this miserable spectacle continues to decline and does so beyond the point of financial viability. Thank you for a great piece.
Elizabeth Clifton says
Thank you Ruth! ♡
Annoula Wylderich says
Thank you for this coverage. It’s appalling that McConnell had the audacity to show up at a recent event – even as a spectator. Glad to see this horrific treatment of horses being condemned by more of our media; good job.
Jamaka Petzak says
The South. Beautiful land. And since my mama taught me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything, I’ll stop there except to say that people and culture are supposed to evolve.
The more things change…
Sharing to socials with gratitude.