The walking horse industry is losing the battle of public opinion and must reform, the head of the Humane Society of the United States says.
Its president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, was commenting on the recent 11-day Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
Pacelle, writing in his blog, A Humane Nation, continued his offensive against soring, the illegal use of chemical or mechanical irritants in the training of walking horses to encourage the desirable high gait, known as the “Big Lick”.
Pacelle said he and the society’s director of equine protection, Keith Dane, a lifelong horseman, went one evening and saw some flat-shod horses exhibit a normal or natural gait.
“But seeing those animals only accentuated for us how bizarre it is to see horses with four-inch stacks and heavy chains on their feet, prancing into the show arena, raising their front legs high and unnaturally shifting their weight onto their back legs.”
Pacelle said attendance seemed way down on the night he attended, according to people who have attended for years.
“In a 25,000-seat arena, there were perhaps only 5000 people there.”
He suggested publicity around recent prosecutions over soring may have been a factor.
“Our investigation has roiled the industry and prompted calls for reform,” he said.
“The American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association have said it’s time to end the use of stacks and chains and to do away with industry self-regulation.
He suggested the industry was attacking the HSUS and the US Department of Agriculture, which is charged with enforcing the federal anti-soring law, because some Tennessee walking horse trainers had an economic stake in continuing their practices.
“With their attendance declining and the American public disgusted by the illegal soring behavior, what more incentive does the industry need to make real, fundamental, and enduring changes? As this year’s low attendance shows, it’s losing the battle of public opinion,” Pacelle said.
Commentator Roy Exum, a columnist with The Chattanoogan, said one source told him the Saturday night crowd, minus the freebie seats, was the lowest since the big oval was built in 1948.
There were only about 1500 entries that actually competed across 171 classes, which equated to 8.8 riders in each classes that always historically reward the top 10 finishers.
There were 2660 horses entered, meaning a significant number did not enter the competition ring, he noted.
In 2006, there were more than 6000 entries, he was told.
“While the Celebration has ended, the heat on the ‘Big Lick’ will surely intensify in the coming months,” he wrote.
“The 11-day media brawl between the Shelbyville crowd versus the Humane Society and USDA will surely wage on unabated – especially with the lawsuit against the USDA hanging low – and an ignited public is now more involved than ever in begging state and federal lawmakers for strict action.”