Friday morning, both the Humane Society of the United States and the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization held press conferences in Murfreesboro aiming to rein in the public's perception of the walking horse industry.
While both groups assert that they have the best interest of the walking horse in mind, their stances differ.
Without doubt, both stand to profit -- quite literally -- from swaying sentiments of the public to their side. The HSUS operates thanks to donors who endorse their policies while TWSHO consists of members vested in the walking horse industry, fighting for their livelihood.
TWSHO insists that transparency and the promotion of the sound horse are the true targets of the industry, while the HSUS argues that trainers work to evade detection rather than comply with federal law.
The HSUS held their conference first, utilizing the much-publicized testimony of convicted felon and Horse Protection Act violator, Barney Davis.
Davis was found to be in violation of the HPA when a bolt he left in the sole of a flat-shod spotted saddle horse's hoof was discovered by SHOW inspectors. As part of his plea agreement, he was ordered to produce a video describing the practice of soring.
Davis maintained his stance that performance walking horses must be sored, whether chemically or mechanically, in order to produce the "big lick" gait. His statements were echoed by HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle and Director of Equine Protection Keith Dane.
"To get the 'big lick' they have to be sored," Davis said. "That's the only way. I know in my case, I went to prison for a year for something that everybody does."
"When horses exhibit this high-stepping gait, that is an induced behavior," said Pacelle. "That is not something that results from some sort of positive reinforcement program. That is an animal behavior that comes as a consequence of injuring a horse's feet."
However, TWSHO claims that this is part of the HSUS's "misinformation campaign."
"That is an outrageous claim," TWSHO communications director Jeffrey Howard said. "Many independent veterinarians will tell you that is completely false. Those horses will go through the most stringent inspection of any equine breed in the world before they compete."
TWSHO cites the HPA to prove that the "big lick" is possible to attain with the proper, humane training methods.
"The horse's distinctive 'walk' may be achieved through patient, careful training, and is the result of both the trainers' skill and the horse's natural breeding," the HPA reads.
However, it follows that statement with the point that the gait can be created artificially.
Pacelle, Dane and Davis continued to bash the industry from every direction. Pacelle went as far as to say that the industry itself is involved in a "conspiracy."
"We have an industry in denial engaging in a coverup and conspiracy in order to continue to sore horses for ribbons and profits," he said.
"There's not a coverup," Howard responded at the TSWHO press conference. "We're very transparent. I invite anyone to come to the Celebration tonight to see for themselves."
TWSHO contests that they are serious about reform, and point to the number of suspensions that they've issued as proof. According to TWSHO, industry inspection organization SHOW has suspended 155 trainers -- more than any other HIO or the USDA in its history.
However, Dane says that self-regulation is inadequate.
"The industry has a vested interest in getting these horses into the ring, overlooking violations, claiming high compliance rates, and then saying that soring is a thing of the past," he said.
Following the HSUS's press conference, TWSHO took a different approach across the street. They invited a handful of young exhibitors to the podium to discuss the joys that they've experienced showing their beloved breed, and why it should be saved.
From 7-year-old Jessica Lawwell of Shelbyville to 18-year-old Maggie Mae White of Michigan, the young walking horse enthusiasts each took their turn at the mic in front of television cameras and a host of media members.
White's horse was disqualified last weekend before an equitation class where the rider is judged, not the horse. White and Dr. Stephen Mullins, President of SHOW, both feel that she was the victim of prejudiced USDA inspectors.
Allison Thorson, a 17-year-old from Ohio, added that she's "learned great life skills" through her involvement with Tennessee Walking Horses.
"Responsibility," she said. "Horses are athletes -- you've got to take care of them."
With the final days of the Celebration here, the HSUS has taken an aggressive approach against the industry. But, Howard has said that he is skeptical of the HSUS's intentions at the Celebration this weekend.
"A lot of groups use the Celebration as a forum for their message," he said. "Reform in our industry is a 365-day-a-year task. We're serious about it -- it's not just at the Celebration."