Possible TN Walking Horse Rule Change Brings Hundreds To Public Hearing

Posted at 9:33 PM, Aug 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-10 13:49:30-04

The Tennessee Walking Horse Industry is a big part of Bedford County, yet at the same time its drawn fire from critics who say the walking horses are routinely abused in their training.

A proposed change to how those horses are trained is getting people on both sides of this controversial issue riled up.

The USDA held a listening session inside a Murfreesboro hotel meeting room with more than 200 people showing up.  It was so packed, attendees spilled out into the hallway.

They were all there to weigh in on a proposed USDA rule change meant to cut down on an illegal practice called soring that is sometimes used to give Tennessee Walking Horses their distinctive exaggerated gait in competitions.

The use of chemicals that cause soring is already outlawed, but the rule change would also ban things like chains and hoof pads, and this is where the disagreement begins.

"It is animal cruelty, you can not do it without the suffering and pain of horses," said Clant Seay with the group Citizens Campaign against "Big Lick" Animal Cruelty.

But Jeffrey Howard, a member of the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration thinks differently.

"The equipment, if utilized correctly, absolutely provides no harm to the horse," Howard said.

Pro-Walking Horse industry groups say not only do the chains and pads not hurt the horses, but banning them would prevent the Tennessee Walking Horse from showcasing its prized exaggerated gait at competitions, essentially destroying the Tennessee Walking Horse industry's annual marquee event, the Celebration in Shelbyville.

"It does a lot of good things for a lot of people," Howard said.  "The Celebration itself gives a couple hundred thousand dollars a year in concession sales to civic clubs in Shelbyville."

Animal rights groups who say the devices amount to animal cruelty say that's no excuse.

"There's no justification for hurting animals for charitable purposes," Seay said.

Another part of the rule change would give the USDA more control over the training and licensing of horse show inspectors.

Those opposed to the change say they are weary of the intentions of some USDA inspectors, pointing to video posted online that horse industry supporters say shows an inspector deliberately pinching a horses nerve to get the horse to act like it's been aggravated by soring.

"We've documented many cases of it, we've sent it to [the USDA], they continue to ignore it," Howard said.

But those in favor of the more restrictive rules say the video of the encounter is likely the exception, not the rule.

"I don't think that's reflective of the overall inspection process," Seay said.

The USDA is holding five total listening sessions at locations across the country regarding the proposed Tennessee Walking Horse industry rule change, but Tuesday's listening session was the only one scheduled in Tennessee.