In a bid to encourage Washington to act on legislation to fight horse abuse known as soring, advocates for Tennessee walking horses plan a "Walk On Washington."
On Wednesday, the grassroots All American Walking Horse Alliance will gather in front of the U.S. Capitol to support a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, that would ban the use of pads and chains for achieving the exaggerated show gait known as the "Big Lick."
That gait is associated with illegal and abusive training methods — including painting chemicals on horses' front legs to make them sensitive and putting objects under the horse's front shoes to cause pain — all to encourage the horse to lift its feet higher.
Whitfield says his bill, known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, or PAST Act, would crack down on these practices and strengthen the federal Horse Protection Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Whitfield will speak at the rally, along with former U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, D-Md., the author of the original Horse Protection Act, which Congress passed in 1970.
"This will be a good opportunity for Congress to see the amount of support this bill has from within the Tennessee walking horse industry and from those who present sound horses without stacks and chains," Whitfield said in a statement. "We are exploring all options to move this legislation forward in the House of Representatives."
Clant Seay, a Tennessee attorney working with the organizers of the rally, said Whitfield's bill has extraordinary bipartisan support in Congress.
"That's unheard of, to have Marco Rubio and Dianne Feinstein on the same bill," Seay said of the Republican senator from Florida and the Democratic senator from California, both of whom are co-sponsors.
The legislation has been sent to the Senate Commerce Committee with a favorable subcommittee recommendation.
Advocates, who say they hope that Congress will take up the bill later this year, plan to have flat-shod horses at the rally to show that the breed has economic soundness outside of the "performance" side, which they say has been losing public support.
"It's the right thing to do for our horse industry, to grow our trails, increase sale prices, and get away from the stigma," said Gary Lane, a flat-shod walking horse trainer from Brodhead who teaches riding techniques at clinics all over the country. "The pad-and-chain horse, you can't market it anymore. It's just an albatross around people's neck. That industry's not growing, it's falling by the wayside. This is the right thing to do for our trail horses in Kentucky."
Lane pointed to declining attendance at Big Lick horse shows and the shrinking breed registry. By contrast, he said, flat-shod shows supported by the Kentucky Breeders' Incentive Fund "are doing fabulous."
Opponents of Whitfield's bill, including U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, both Republicans from Tennessee, say banning pads and chains will cause economic damage by killing off the walking horse industry's flashy performance show classes, which Alexander called "one of Tennessee's most treasured traditions."
But other show horse breeds say keeping the Big Lick is hurting everyone.
Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, said his group supports Whitfield's bill in part because public backlash over high-stepping walking horses "started to have an effect on other show breeds with an animated gait."
The public can't tell the difference, and criticism has spilled over, he said.
Whitfield's legislation has 288 co-sponsors in the House, including U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville; a companion bill by U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., has 56 co-sponsors in the Senate.
Not among them: Kentucky's Senate delegation, Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, and Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green. They, along with U.S. Reps. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, and Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, support the opposing legislation.
"Congresswoman Blackburn's legislation serves the same purpose as other legislation introduced in both the House and Senate: to eliminate the bad actors within the industry, ensure safe training of the horses and protect horses from abuse," Barr said in a statement in March.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said: "The legislation Senator McConnell supports would give state officials and experts — rather than the heavy hand of the federal government — the authority to ensure consistent oversight of inspections of Tennessee walking horses, an industry that has long flourished in Kentucky."
The American Horse Council has said the Blackburn/Alexander bills, which have few co-sponsors, would not help because they don't address the use of pads and chains.
"Such devices are an integral part of soring and facilitate the practice in the 'Big Lick' or performance horse segments of the walking horse industry, usually in conjunction with chemical irritants or substances," the council said in a statement. "The American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association have both called for a ban on the use of 'action devices' and pads or performance packages on walking horses because of the role such devices play in the soring process."
Veterinarians and former trainers who worked in the walking horse industry have come forward to say that the Big Lick cannot be achieved without soring the horse at some point.
Paul has said that no one wants to see horses mistreated, but the Whitfield ban is too intrusive.
Lane, the Kentucky trainer, disagrees.
"It's not about too much government," Lane said. "It's about protecting the horse. USDA has had 40 years of failure. They've tried but they can't do it. They are going have to have help."
Now the anti-soring lobby has some help, too: It has a high-profile advocate in Priscilla Presley, actress and ex-wife of the late Elvis Presley.
An owner of walking horses, she has been vocal in her opposition to soring on social media. Last year she took back a trophy named for the Presleys' Memphis estate, Graceland, that had been awarded at The Celebration, the walking horse industry's biggest Big Lick show of the year.
"If Elvis were alive today, he would never, ever have supported the torture that goes on behind the scenes to get them to prance the Big Lick," Presley told the Herald-Leader in a recent interview. "I've made it my mission to make the public aware. I'm trying to do as much as I can."
She won't be at the rally but went to Washington earlier this year to lobby individual lawmakers for Whitfield's bill.
Presley said she is mystified by Paul, McConnell, Barr and Rogers' support for the opposing legislation.
"It's a sham bill that will do nothing to end soring, and really sets back these efforts by further weakening the USDA's authority," Presley said. "I wrote Senator Rand Paul a passionate letter, explaining that I didn't think he understood the issue. And he never responded."
Paul's spokesman said the senator's office received an e-mail from Presley's assistant in March and responded the same day, thanking her for sharing her views.
Presley said the idea that ending the Big Lick will hurt the breed is ridiculous.
"It's not going to ruin it; it's going to save the breed," Presley said. "The Tennessee walking horse has a natural, beautiful gait. But the whole idea of the Big Lick is that they can't step down. That's torturing the horse — for people's entertainment."