Tennessee Walking Horses: Both sides speak out

Tennessee Walking Horses: Both sides speak out

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The Tennessee Walking Horse is a symbol of the Volunteer State, but should we be proud or ashamed? The Tennessee Walking Horse is a symbol of the Volunteer State, but should we be proud or ashamed?
HSUS is pushing for the passage of House Bill 1518 in Congress, called the PAST Act. Among other things, it would prohibit the thick, weighted shoes most walking horses wear to help them compete. HSUS is pushing for the passage of House Bill 1518 in Congress, called the PAST Act. Among other things, it would prohibit the thick, weighted shoes most walking horses wear to help them compete.
"This is an unnatural, exaggerated gait that they're looking for and its just what everybody has become accustomed to," said Leighann Lassiter, the Tennessee state director of the HSUS. "This is an unnatural, exaggerated gait that they're looking for and its just what everybody has become accustomed to," said Leighann Lassiter, the Tennessee state director of the HSUS.
"We think this is a history and a tradition and certainly a horse that's worth fighting for," Celebration CEO Mike Inman said. "We think this is a history and a tradition and certainly a horse that's worth fighting for," Celebration CEO Mike Inman said.

By JILL MCNEAL
6 News Anchor/Reporter

SHELBYVILLE (WATE) - The Tennessee Walking Horse is a symbol of the Volunteer State, but should we be proud or ashamed?

Blount County trainer Larry Wheelon is currently facing animal cruelty charges, accused of abusing walking horses in his care to make them perform better. He was a member of the trainer's association ethics committee at the time of his arrest, though he already had a history of violations at horse shows.

Cases like his have made the Tennessee Walking Horse a lightening rod for debate, and now The Humane Society of the United States is pushing for a new law that would change the sport forever.

At the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration grounds in Shelbyville every August, tens of thousands of fans from all over the country gather to cheer on this unique breed.

In recent years, it has also become a center of controversy. Members of their community feel increasingly persecuted, and say new legislation threatens to shut down their world for good.

The tradition dates back decades. The high-stepping horses thrill crowds and wins over judges. The dark side of the industry came into the national spotlight two years ago when The Humane Society of the United States released undercover video of West Tennessee walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell soring his horses.

Soring is the process of using caustic chemicals on the animals' legs to make them pick up their feet.

"This is an unnatural, exaggerated gait that they're looking for and its just what everybody has become accustomed to," said Leighann Lassiter, the Tennessee state director of the HSUS.

The group is pushing for the passage of House Bill 1518 in Congress, called the PAST Act. Among other things, it would prohibit the thick, weighted shoes most walking horses wear to help them compete.

"These are all things that are used to hide soring or to enhance and facilitate the soring," Lassiter said.

She believes walking horses should compete with their naturally unique gait, and some do. But taking away those weighted shoes would wipe-out most of the walking horse industry, says Celebration CEO Mike Inman.

"We think this is a history and a tradition and certainly a horse that's worth fighting for," Inman said.

He says the industry is against soring and supports an alternate bill that will be filed soon. It would allow the weighted shoes, but sharpen the inspection process to catch soring. 

"Our bill will ask to go to a strict, scientific-based objective testing method, such things as blood tests and swabbing," Inman said.

Winky Groover operates some of the biggest stables in Shelbyville and has been training walking horses for 40 years. 

"A really good Tennessee walking horse, he likes what he does and it's easy for him to do it," Groover said. "He is a true athlete."

Groover is also against the PAST Act and for a more objective form of inspection. He's faced multiple soring violations over his career. All but the very first one, he says, were false. 

"With a subjective test, what that tells you is that horse moved it's feet when somebody mashed on them," Groover said. "It doesn't tell you he was sore."

As for that first violation, "It was more young and dumb and somebody said try this, it'll work," Groover said. "I never found that it really worked that much."

Over the decades, Groover says he learned the key to a champion Tennessee walking horse is natural talent combined with gradual training, and that soring isn't necessary, but the weighted shoes the HSUS wants outlawed are.

The HSUS has an anonymous tip line to report soring. Call 855-NO-SORING or email equineprotection@humanesociety.org.

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