National media reports regarding the training practices of trainer Jackie McConnell have played a role in influencing local public perception of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.
This week the Times-Gazette has invited public comment from readers, called upon local business people and solicited information in an online poll. Here's what they have shared.
Our online poll received 260 votes as of early this morning. Readers were asked, "How would you describe your level of support for the Tennessee Walking Horse industry?" and were offered six choices to measure their support.
Of those, 31.1 percent rated their support as "strong" or "very strong" (81 votes). Ten percent (26 voters) picked the middle of the scale, while the majority of voters (45.8 percent) termed their support as "low" or "very low." Finally, 13.1 percent qualified their response: "My support is dependent on changes" received 34 votes.
Readers were allowed to leave comments along with their votes, and 34 did. The responses varied, but agreed on a common theme: The Tennessee Walking Horse is a storied and treasured breed among horse enthusiasts. Any abuse must stop.
Respondents called on judges and trainers to 'clean up their act' -- (Comments within edited for clarity and punctuation only.) "Until they clean up their act, I will not support the Celebration or the TWHBEA (Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Assoc.) -- and hope that others will do the same."
"I support the industry -- with changes," said one, echoing the thoughts of several posters. "Unless they stop the abuse, I will never support this group," said another.
"The BL (Big Lick) show industry is destroying the breed, and I will never visit Shelbyville again."
"Soring must end and since it is the only way to achieve the Big Lick, that has to go! Love the TWH!"
"Come on," said another, warning, "The world is watching you now."
Online posters to our Facebook page spoke most often of sentiment. "The Celebration, for me, is a reminder of the great times I had as a teen showing horses," said Kaci Eden. "I love the Celebration. I moved away for three years, and it was one thing that brought me back home. Just because one trainer was caught does not mean that all trainers abuse their horses and I am hoping that the Celebration is here to stay forever!"
Another believes it defines the area, "The Celebration is what Shelbyville is about. I'm not much into horses, but I always look forward to the Celebration. I admire all of the competitors, the horses, and everything that goes into the competition, and I think it is a wonderful event even with the debate and news talk about it," said Cara Cantrell. "It brings thousands of people and an economic boost to town and helps to put us on the map for something other than pencils (which isn't a bad thing)."
Others spoke of the good the Celebration provides to local civic groups.
"The Celebration is probably the biggest fund-raiser for many civic and school clubs in this community," said Tiffany Stephens. "I know that the Shelbyville Jaycees depend on the money made from Celebration parking to help with the many service projects that they do -- especially the Christmas party for so many deserving children and their families.
"The Celebration should not be judged by one rare incident."
Van Vincent agreed, "The Celebration is great for civic groups to raise funds and show support for the community," she posted, speaking also of a couple her family rented their home to for more than 20 years. "It's just not the same anymore."
We called several locals for comment as well.
Jeffrey McGee, along with his family, own and show Tennessee Walkers. "As far as us as a family, it is a wonderful thing. My family has something to participate in together all year long -- as a family."
McGee is music minister at Egdemont Baptist Church, where his father Bobby serves as senior pastor.
"[The Celebration] impacts our community greatly. It's not just the money, people are buying homes here. If that went away, we'd have tax increases [across the board] like you wouldn't believe," said McGee.
According to McGee, both owners and trainers have to take ownership of the problem. "When you go into a barn, those trainers have to sign a contract laying out what they will do. We owners have to set expectations too, to state what we will, and won't allow."
"Some of the owners are part of the 'ignorance' problem. They allow this to happen. [But] if they don't like what is going on they have to pull their horses out of that barn. The horse owners may fuss, but they don't take their horses out of a bad trainer's barn."
"In the last 20 years the industry tolerated a lot. The trainers have got to be trained themselves."
The responsibility also rests on the judges, he says. "A good walking horse has a natural lick. You can look at two different horses and you can tell the one that has a man-made lick -- there is a true difference. You can tell. The judges can tell. This could change if judges would start excusing horses that clearly have a man-made lick."
"Listen, when a horse's rear end is dragging the ground, that horse is in pain. If these judges would start excusing these horses -- well, it's a chain reaction that would cause real change."
State Sen. Jim Tracy responded to the airing of the HSUS video with this, "Number one (it was) very disappointing and unacceptable."
"It's very disappointing to me that that one video has sort of put a damper on the walking horse industry. As a whole, the industry has done a lot better job in the last 10 years in how training is done. [Training is] done in a much different manner than what was shown on [television].
"We need to get the word out as much as we can to get [the media] to visit trainers that are not doing that -- to show the positive aspects of how [horses] are trained," he said.
Regarding the Celebration's impact on the local economy, Tracy said "It would be a tremendous hit economically -- to not only Bedford County, but Middle Tennessee -- if we don't get the word out and reeducate people of what the walking horse industry is all about."
Deb Insell, State Farm Insurance agent and wife of Celebration Board of Directors member Rick Insell, said anyone who lives and works in Shelbyville is affected by the Celebration. "It's mind-blowing when you look at the tax revenue and spending brought to Shelbyville by the industry."
"People should look around them at how their lives would be affected if the Celebration was no longer around. We're being judged because of one bad apple," Insell said. "Those folks who think it's just a horse show and complain about it and the traffic can't see beyond the ends of their noses."
William Christie at Callaway-Young Auto Sales said, "We sell a lot of trucks to horse people, the big 1/2 ton to 3/4 ton trucks. We sell a lot of trucks out of town as well as in Shelbyville. Look at what the show brings in each year to hotels and motels as well." Meghan Young-Callaway, the business' owner, is an active exhibitor and is married to trainer Bill Callaway.
"It helps our economy. Two weeks out of the year we're full. Any time there's an event at the Celebration Grounds we do well," said Rodney Thompson, general manager, Best Western Plus Celebration Inn.
Erik Decker, general manager of Legends Steakhouse on North Main Street agreed, "It affects us greatly," he said. "We come close to doubling our sales" during the two weeks of the Celebration."
A tone in many comments we heard this week pointed to a separation between the owners and the Celebration organization. "The Celebration is on one end. Horse industry morals are on the other end," said McGee.
"You know, box seat money is due the first of June, and people are worried, and they don't want to put that money in," he said. "But that's the worst thing we could do. No matter what happens, we will have a Celebration because that is what needs to happen -- we can't let the government win."
That the Celebration is a key element in the area's sense of tradition and identity seems clear.
"Without the Celebration, it would almost be like the heart of Shelbyville and Bedford County were missing. I hope the controversy passes and the Celebration stays here for many more years to come," said (Cara) Cantrell.
"As far as the horse industry goes, the ignorance of one or two people is overshadowing all the good," said McGee. "The story is not getting out about the good stuff -- like the Walking for Cancer horse show we had last weekend. It raises money for families with cancer, who are going through chemotherapy and can't work. All that money stays right here in Bedford County, serves local families.
"The [Central High] Quarterback Club funds their uniforms and out-of-town games through weekend shows.
"This whole industry, if you find one bad apple that's all people want to focus on. But no one is hearing the 'good' stories, all the positive things out there."
-- Editor Sadie Fowler, copy editor David Melson, and city editor John Carney contributed to this report.
The T-G strives to incorporate voices from various perspectives on community news. A community paper's most valuable asset is the open line of communication with its readers. Contact Fowler at 684-1200, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.