“Big Lickers” hold out hope for a Congressional reprieve
SHELBYVILLE, Tennessee––A legal showdown may be coming soon over enforcement of a new USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service rule meant to protect show horses, but not just yet.
The mood midway through the 2022 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, supposed to climax on September 3, 2022, might be described as the calm before the storm.
Or it might be just as the last shuffle of the “Big Lick” old guard through the Shelbyville Calsonic Area on their way to oblivion, along with their high-stacked horseshoes and the whole notion that watching horses goosestep to polka music might be more entertaining than watching paint dry.
New Horse Protection Act rule to take effect later in year
A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 22, 2022 ruled in effect that a 2016 rule governing USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service enforcement of the Horse Protection Act will have the force of law sixty days after the verdict.
The rule prohibits the use of ‘stacks’ (heavy platform shoes), chains, and other devices and practices used by walking horse trainers to produce the ‘Big Lick.’
Enforcement has been delayed for nearly six years because the rule, which had otherwise cleared every hurdle to be enforced, had not yet been printed in The Federal Register when the Donald Trump administration took office and froze all new rule-making.
PAST Act still pending
In the interim, Congressional debate continues over the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, an even stronger measure to protect horses from the deliberate injuries that are inflicted to make walking horses step unnaturally high.
Offered arch-conservative Chatanoogan.com columnist Roy Exum on August 22, 2022, three days before the 2022 National Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration started, “For many years a scurrilous faction of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry has tortured and maimed these majestic animals. They use chemical irritants to sore the hooves and forelegs of these horses in order to achieve what’s known as the ‘Big Lick,’ a gruesome and unnatural prance some twisted trainers and owners adore.
“The Dirty Lick group”
“Now,” fumed Exum, ripping into fellow Republicans including U.S. Senators Marsha Blackburn, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Bill Hagerty, though without naming them, “there is talk of a ‘compromise’ of sorts that would leave the scoundrels some wiggle room. The ‘Dirty Lick’ group is seeking legislation that would force the USDA to undo reforms of the widely supported PAST Act, which ends self-policing in the industry.”
Exum then turned the rest of his August 22, 2022 column over to Keith Dane, senior director for equine Services for the Humane Society of the United States, himself a former director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association who has long opposed the “Big Lick.”
The PAST Act, Dane pointed out, “passed the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming 333-96 vote in 2019, passed the Senate Commerce Committee by voice vote in 2014, and passed the House Energy & Commerce Committee by a vote of 22-0 in June 2022.”
The difference between PAST & the “compromise” bill
The PAST Act, Dane continued, is “endorsed by hundreds of groups in the animal welfare, veterinary, law enforcement and horse industry spaces––including many walking horse organizations. It would accomplish everything the USDA rule contains and then some, including implementation of stiff penalties and making the act of soring illegal.”
But Blackburn, McConnell, Paul, Hagerty and others hope to derail passage of the PAST Act by the current Congress with an alternative bill, called the Protecting Horses from Soring Act, introduced on April 14, 2022.
The critical difference between the PAST Act and the Protecting Horses from Soring Act is that unlike the PAST Act, the Protecting Horses from Soring Act would leave enforcement of the law with the walking horse industry, where it has been for 52 years already.
Alleged horse “sorers” hired as judges
Charged Dane, “The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association has allowed individuals with histories of federal disqualifications for alleged Horse Protection Act violations to serve in key leadership positions. They’ve consistently rewarded trainers, breeders and owners with awards for horses who have been sored.”
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, Dane continued, has hired “alleged horse ‘sorers’ as judges, who have consistently rewarded trainers who have served, or are about to serve, long federal disqualifications for alleged Horse Protection Act violations.”
Concluded Dane, “We know these organizations will seek to perpetuate soring because that’s what they’ve been doing for years. Their compromise is a Trojan horse gambit to short-circuit the momentum gathering in Congress and once again in the regulatory sector. The PAST Act and tougher regulations are the only solutions to close the loopholes that have allowed soring to continue – precisely why they oppose them, and all the more reason for Congress to pass the real deal this year.”
“Stars” of the show horse circuit are the protesters
That the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association and Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration have Senators Blackburn, McConnell, Paul, and Hagerty aligned behind them shows that the “Big Lick” industry still has plenty of money behind it.
But other indications from Shelbyville as the 2022 National Celebration gets underway suggest that maybe the Celebration organizers should be celebrating the nightly protests led by Mississippi lawyer Clant Seay, founder of the Citizens Campaign Against “Big Lick” Animal Cruelty, because hardly anyone else seems to be paying any attention at all.
Indeed, “Billygoboy” Seay and his rescued former walking horse show competitor Gen’s Ice Glimmer appear to have become the biggest names, human and equine, in walking horse exhibition, just because they visibly give a damn, posting frequent updates about the non-goings-on.
Upstaged by a dogfight
Time was when the ten-day National Celebration, founded in 1939, was reputedly the top-drawing sporting event in Tennessee, but most evenings lately the horses have not outdrawn junior high school football and hanging out at shopping malls.
Neither does the National Celebration attract much media notice any more.
On August 29, 2022 the National Celebration ranked a distant runner-up on local broadcast media news lineups to a dogfight just across the Tennessee state line on Stone Lane in Christian County, Kentucky.
A woman who tried to break up the fight between her two dogs was helicoptered to the Skyline Medical Center in Nashville with reportedly “severe injuries to her arms and leg.”
Can flat-shod shows save the show horse industry?
Defenders of the “Big Lick” argue that it is necessary to keep the crowds coming. But the crowds quit coming, years ago.
Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association, in an August 4, 2022 media release touted an “all-flat shod event” at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which “With more than 60 entries and $50,000 in prize money” was “the richest purse in the history of Tennessee Walking Horse competition.”
But will flat-shod walking horse shows recapture the public fancy now that the “Big Lickers” have squandered the prestige of the whole horse exhibition industry?
Horse spectacles limp into history
The odds are heavily against it. Horses have not been a regular part of mainstream American life for generations now. Horse ownership and recreational horseback riding have been in decline since the mid-1980s. Horse racing attendance and betting have plummeted for as long.
Even the Omak Suicide Race, which once drew as many as 2,000 to 3,000 spectators for the grand finale charge down “Suicide Hill” and across the Okanagan River in Omak, Washington, and claimed to draw ten times more, attracted barely 600 people in 2022, by actual head count from photographs.
There are still people who passionately care about horses, but fewer and fewer of those people passionately care about doing things that exploit horses, a lesson the horse exhibition industries should have learned long before little was left in the arenas except limping horses, riders and owners performing for each other, and of course a great deal of horseshit.