In Shelbyville, Tenn., the Tennessee walking horse is an icon and a way of life. For 10 nights in August, thousands of fans cheer from their box seats as well-manicured horses prance around a dirt oval track.
But the 75-year-old tradition has come under a cloud. Animal rights groups say the most spectacular high-stepping comes from inflicting pain on the horse. Congress has chimed in, and the walking horse industry is trying to show it's cracking down.
The 'Big Lick'
When Tennessee walking horses show off their smooth, high-stepping gait, their powerful back legs swing forward, reaching well beyond their front hooves. Those front hooves then kick up and out, with the knees reaching above the horses' chests, while the horses shake their heads in cadence.
Mike Inman, director of the annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, says the unmistakable gait comes naturally. "That's what they do," he says. "It is actually in their genetics. No other breed has that, which is what separates this walking horse."
But for years, trainers have been pushing horses well past genetics to get that eye-catching step called the "big lick." One banned practice is called "soring." Trainers make tiny cuts on a horse's ankles and splash diesel fuel or mustard oil on them. The pain is believed to make the horse step even higher.
The Humane Society of the United States has been trying to end soring for years. "This is an industry that has been based for over 40 years on intentional infliction of pain and cruelty to animals," says Keith Dane, the organization's equine specialist. "And it's so widespread in the 'big lick' segment of this industry that it's got to stop."
Soring was outlawed by Congress in the '70s, but enforcement has been spotty. The Humane Society has gotten fresh traction with new legislation that would give more teeth to the law; dozens of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have signed on, but it's been fought to a standstill by the industry.
On The Watch For Horses In Pain
Trainer Sylvester Skierkowski, watching his horses go through some final paces before competition, says he's worked with horses that have won "just about every class" at the Celebration.
There's money at stake, though not huge sums. The top prize was $15,000 last year. Skierkowski says it's really about being named "World Grand Champion." He helped train one in the late '70s.
"We worked more keeping that son of a gun sound than we did trying to hurt him," Skierkowski says.
Still, there have been some high-profile soring cases. Just two years ago, one trainer was indicted on more than 50 counts of abuse.
"Nobody is denying that there are people that will try to game the system in any competition," says Celebration director Inman. "But the best way to make it so they can't game the competition is through objective testing."
This year, for the first time, the Celebration will use blood tests to screen for pain killers that may have been used to mask that a horse is hurting, and X-rays to find other banned practices, like shoeing horses so tightly that they step higher out of pain.
Dr. Jerry Johnson, who chairs this new enforcement panel, says, "We feel like now, with what we're doing, that they're really going to have to clean up their act, because I think we can really get a handle on just about anything they can come up with."
But Dane, the Humane Society's equine specialist, is skeptical. "This looks like one more attempt by the Celebration to try — at the 11th hour — to suggest that they are serious about reform and about protecting the horses," he says.
He points out that results of the drug tests will take three weeks to get back, well after everyone's gone home.
As The Horse Owners See It
In Shelbyville, the Humane Society is widely seen as an unrelenting pest. Leading her horse to its stall, Lauren Hamilton suggests the organization should move on to a different issue.
"Race horses — they're falling out on the track," she says. "Do you see these horses die out there? That's when I get upset."
But even among walking horse owners, there are a few voices calling for an end to the obsession with exaggerated high-stepping. Van Barnes competes in what's called the "flat shod" division. He says those horses don't have a problem getting through inspection, but in order for the walking horse industry to survive, trainers, owners and fans are going to have to move away from the "big lick."
"I think for the industry to survive, you're going to have to," Barnes says.
If it's any indication, at this year's Celebration, the number of horses competing is down at least 10 percent. So is attendance — even after ticket prices were slashed.