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John I. Carney

Loose Talk / Charge Complete

John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.

Actions of a few shouldn't taint entire horse industry

Sunday, August 16, 2015

From time to time, we get e-mails -- sometimes anonymous, sometimes not -- about the horse industry, criticizing the industry, the community and sometimes us here at the newspaper for supposedly turning a blind eye to cruelty.

I've never been a horse owner, and I've only been on a horse once or twice in my life. So I'm certainly not connected to the competitive side of the sport. But I do enjoy the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and attend the event each year.

I would not want to think of myself as endorsing or supporting cruelty to animals. I don't think any of us would.

I think everyone, on all sides of the issue, admits that there are bad horse trainers, trainers who use cruelty as a shortcut. It's a good thing that there are policies and procedures in place to try to detect those bad trainers and punish them.

The difference of opinion between the two sides is that the critics believe all trainers are bad because they believe that the performance horse gait -- the "big lick" -- is automatically and universally cruel, in and of itself. The e-mails from time to time labeling Shelbyville as a city full of sadists are based on this foundational assumption.

The industry and its defenders argue that the bad trainers are just a subset, and that there are good trainers who can achieve the big lick in partnership with the horse.

I'm an outsider, with no direct knowledge of this issue. But I always go back to a friend of mine whose daughter shows horses. This friend and his daughter were originally connected to a trainer who got into some regulatory trouble. They were eventually able to move the horse to a different trainer, and I remember my friend telling me that his daughter could tell a near-immediate difference in the horse. She enjoyed riding the horse under the second trainer in a way that she hadn't under the first trainer. This wasn't about big money or World Grand Championships -- it was about a young woman and her beloved horse.

I'm no expert, but that story, to me, says that the second trainer was a good trainer -- which suggests there are such a thing as good trainers and bad trainers.

There's all kind of room for debate about testing and inspection methods. The industry says that some of the current inspection methods are subjective rather than objective. It's healthy to talk about how to go about trying to find the bad trainers, and what to do about them when they are found.

But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Celebration, and the show horse industry, have existed for decades -- fueled, in part, by owners who love their horses -- and who ride them in the owner-amateur division.

I want to believe that there's good in that industry, and that if questions about the inspection and regulation process can be answered, it can continue as a vital part of this community.

-- John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.