Perception vs. reality as Tennessee Walking Horse industry faces adversity
Pageant and spectacle. Breeding and training. Loving and caring. Versatile and easy riding. Abuse and regulation.
Many words can be used to describe the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, the animals and the people who care for them. It's a way of life for many, a tradition that has been passed down through the generations.
Some say that tradition is in danger due to public perception of what they say are the practices of a few bad apples, although instances like the 2012 video showing a trainer abusing a horse provide damning evidence that a few of the apples are indeed rotten.
Signs of change
There is talk in the industry that some trainers are either retiring or scaling back on their operations, torn between a sour economy on one hand and the soring controversy on the other.
It's hard to verify, but one only needs to drive down a country road in Bedford County to see for-sale signs sprouting up like wildflowers in front of farms and training stables.
Bill Bobo, 66, said that although his barn is for sale, he does not necessarily plan to retire as long as he is able to work with a good horse.
"I've always sat here and waited on someone to bring me a good horse," Bobo said. "I've been fortunate over the years to have some good horses. I had 45 world champions. It's hard not to get up in the morning and feed your stock."
As much as walking horses are a part of Bedford County's heritage, they are also a vital part of the economy, county Mayor Eugene Ray said. However, federal legislation seeking to ban performance equipment threatens the local economy, he said.
"But I think the industry is working as hard as they can to punish people that do not comply with the law, and they are trying to clean up anything that needs to be cleaned up," Ray said.
The stakes are high. Last year, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration brought in an estimated $40 million directly to Bedford County, Mike Inman, the show's CEO, said. The Celebration is the largest agriculture event in the state.
That number does not include everything else walking horse-related: property taxes; real estate sales of farms, primary residences and secondary homes of owners and others in the industry; salaries for industry workers; and all the businesses that supply them, from tack stores to tire stores.
Nor does that number take into account the restaurants and stores the owners and workers shop at year-round. And, Calsonic Arena hosts events on most weekends throughout the year.
"The horse industry generates a lot of money for this county," Shelbyville trainer Mickey McCormick said. Losing even one of the largest training organizations would be "a pretty big hit on the economy."
Horse business is also big business for Bedford County's civic clubs -- they raise the bulk of their annual funds by running the concessions stands at the 10-day Celebration event, Inman said.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced on Friday that two men were arrested in connection with Maryville, Tenn., trainer Larry Joe Wheelon. Wheelon was charged in April with felony animal cruelty on suspicions of soring.
The Blount County Sheriff's Office issued arrest warrants for Randall Stacy Gunter of Louisville, Tenn., and Brandon Lunsford of Walland, Tenn., according to a press release from HSUS. The sheriff's office said HSUS has police powers and handled the case.
Both men allegedly were involved in training horses who were seized from Wheelon's barn by authorities on April 25, acccording to the HSUS press release. HSUS, along with the Blount County SPCA and Horse Haven of Tennessee, assisted authorities with the rescue of 19 horses.
The arrest warrants allege that Gunter and Lunsford worked with horses who had suffered serious bodily injuries, were discovered to have had chemicals and other foreign substances applied to their pasterns, and responded in pain when their legs were palpated by veterinarians. Additional arrests are possible, as the investigation remains on-going.
In the crosshairs
The equine economic engine could crash to a halt, industry workers say, because of legislation introduced in Congress. House Resolution 1518 was introduced in Congress in April. The so-called Whitfield amendment to the Horse Protection Act was filed by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn.
H.R. 1518 calls for the end of what are called performance devices, which are used to enhance many walking horses' distinctive gaits in shows. The bill also calls for the use of only U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors at shows to check for soring, instead of the horse industry's self-inspection process, and creates more stringent punishments for horse abusers.
H.R. 1518 will not accomplish what it supposed to do, Inman said, but it will destroy the walking horse show business.
The bill, which he said was written by the Humane Society of the United States, uses ambiguous language that could be used to call for abolishing any weighted shoe, basically anything above a bare foot, he said. That could mean the elimination of seven of the Celebration's eight divisions, including pleasure categories.
That could spell disaster for the breed, he said.
"If you eliminate the divisions, you eliminate the registry," Inman said.
Inman asks why people would breed a walking horse if they cannot show it. Eighty-five percent or more of sires come from a show background, he said.
Nor would the amendment end soring, said McCormick, who is president of the Walking Horse Trainers Association.
"People will try to get around anything," he said.
Industry leaders are working on counter-legislation, Inman said, but they are not ready to introduce it.
When asked if H.R. 1518 would pass, Shelbyville trainer Winky Groover replied, "I certainly hope not. I don't see how the bill helps."
At the worst, Groover said, he hopes that a compromise could be worked out.
It has been proven that pads do not hurt horses -- unscrupulous people do that, Groover said.
"I think the industry has done a great job policing people who are trying to cheat," he said.
But some people affiliated with walking horses say that perception is reality, and the reality is not going well for the industry.
A rift within the industry was illustrated last month when the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association executive committee voted to support H.R. 1518. The full board of directors overturned that decision on a 27-17 vote.
TWHBEA President Tracy Boyd, who voted in support of the federal amendment, published a heartfelt call for a change in the industry because of what he called a negative public perception toward the performance division.
"I believe our modern-day padded show horses are cleaner than they've ever been," Boyd's May 27 letter states. "The problem is that nobody outside our industry believes it. And when you've lost the public you have lost it all ... and we have clearly lost the public."
McCormick said the industry has lost some of the public.
"I'm not going to say we lost it all, but we've lost some," he said. "Not everyone is going to be for you."
The industry will survive when good people continue to do the right things, McCormick said.
"When it comes through at the end, it will be a lot better product than it is," he said.