After more than 30 years, the N.C. State Fair will no longer offer the show featuring performances by the high-stepping Tennessee Walking Horse.
The decision comes in the wake of a protest at the fair during the October show and a petition with 19,700 signatures demanding the State Fair ban the performance category for the breed. Protesters claimed that the training methods to prepare a horse for this type of show are cruel and inhumane.
The protest, the petition and many emails calling for its cancellation were all factors in the state Department of Agriculture’s decision to ban the performance category, said Chief Deputy Commissioner N. David Smith. But he added, “It was a culmination of many factors including a lack of horses that participated, and the added cost of those particular shows when we had to bring in vets to certify the horses.”
Tennessee Walking Horses will still be welcome at the fair’s non-trotting, open-horse shows, but the breed is known for its unique high, quick-step gait. During performance category shows, the horses trot around the ring raising their feet as high as possible, a gait nicknamed the “big lick” that has drawn criticism.
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“The big lick is a pain-induced gait. You cannot have a big lick without pain,” said Clant Seay, spokesman for the All American Walking Horse Alliance, a national group of professional horsemen and owners of Tennessee Walking Horses.
The high step is achieved by stacking the horse’s shoe, making it heavier to exaggerate the steps. Advocates to end big lick shows allege some trainers use what are called soring techniques to sensitize the hooves and ankles to pain, resulting in more dramatic steps.
They also claim that some trainers use chemicals such as diesel fuel and kerosene to create blisters on the horse’s ankles and attached chains to the stacked shoes designed to irritate the sores. They say some trainers will even stick sharp nails or tacks into the sensitive area of the hoof to increase pain.
These allegations led to increased inspections of the horses before and after shows by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Seay said this does not stop soring; it only causes trainers to abuse their horses further so that they will not react to pain during inspections.
“These horses are trained sore at the barn, and then they are brought to shows and manipulated to pass inspection,” he said. “Often the trainers use pain-masking numbing agents so the soring is difficult to detect.”
Petition prompts action
Jeannie McGuire, founder of the All American Walking Horse Alliance, said she has rehabilitated retired big lick show horses with not only physical scars but also mental damage similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We are very pleased that the big lick horse and the abuse that goes with that has been taken out of the view of families and children that attend the North Carolina State Fair,” she said.
The Change.org petition and protest to end the big lick event at the State Fair was spearheaded by Raleigh resident Michelle Disney, who was unaware the fair held the big lick event until last fall. But she never expected the petition to get more than 1,000 signatures.
“I was surprised how it took off,” Disney said. “I really want to thank the fair and Department of Agriculture for their great response. They already reviewed their policies and did the right thing and made the right decision.”
With victory in North Carolina, these advocates are taking their cause to Washington, D.C.
Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said North Carolina was the last state fair in the nation to hold the big lick performance category. But there are many other Tennessee Walking Horse competitions across that U.S. that are federally regulated.
A bill in Congress to ban abusive tactics had strong, bipartisan support in 2013 but was not voted on, Dane said. He expects it to be reintroduced in both houses this spring.
The bill would strengthen enforcement of the federal Horse Protection Act of 1970, by eliminating in-house industry inspectors and putting the USDA in charge of oversight. It aims to end the use of stacked horse shoes, chains and other devices attached to the shoe. And the bill would heighten the penalty to a felony for violators of the Horse Protection Act, according to Dane.
“There is no question that this will pass as soon as it goes to a vote,” Dane said.
In 2012, the Humane Society conducted an undercover investigation into a major big lick training barn in Tennessee and released the video to ABC news, which brought a lot of negative publicity to the industry. The organization caught trainers on film soring the horses’ hooves and beating them with rods.
The president of the Walking Horse Trainers Association, Bill Young in Shelbyville, Tenn., acknowledges that there has been horse abuse in the big lick industry in the past.
“There is no question that in the industry, many years ago, there was horrific abuse to our horses. I cannot tell you in all honesty that that never happens anymore,” Young said in an interview Friday.
“Whatever sport you are in, some people are not going to follow the rules. We try to weed those people out, but there are people that are going to cheat,” he said.
Young said there is a lifetime suspension penalty for those caught pressure shoeing – inserting sharp objects into the sensitive part of the horse’s hoof.
Young denied the claim that soring techniques are essential to training. A horse with a big lick gait is achieved through a combination of selective breeding and weighted horse shoes, he said. The shoe weighs between 3 and 5 pounds and is 2 inches thick, and a band on the top of the hoof is used to hold it in place. Young said the shoes do not harm the horse.
“I think the longevity of our horses that are showing today would prove that there is no damage done to the horse,” he said. “Some show until they are 20 years of age.”
Young said negative public opinion is probably the main cause of the decision to end big lick at the N.C. State Fair, and added that the industry has not done enough to discredit some of the allegations.
The Walking Horse Trainers Association is in favor of federal legislation. Young said they hope to work with Tennessee representatives to introduce something that would bring scientific objectivity to horse show inspections, including blood testing of the horses.
“Hopefully that day is coming,” he said. “Our compliance rate in 2013 to the Federal Horse Protection Act was 98.6 percent. That figure has been much lower in the past.”