The World Equestrian Games Foundation has decided to allow Tennessee walking horses to join in demonstrations at the 2010 World Games, not in spite of, but perhaps because of controversies that has surrounded the breed.
"We have agreed that they will be participating, and I think it's a good thing," said John Long, WEG Foundation chairman and CEO of the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
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But the participation comes with a mandate: "We will not be embarrassed. I will not allow any demonstration event, any participation in any way, to embarrass and put the WEG at risk," Long said.
He said the history of abuse of the breed and recent events in Kentucky originally made him wary of allowing walking horses.
The federal Horse Protection Act was passed to outlaw the practice of "soring," which involves deliberately injuring a walking horse's front legs to achieve an exaggerated gait for competitions. The federal Agriculture Department enforces the law by conducting inspections at walking horse shows.
At several Kentucky shows this summer, exhibitors left rather than subject their horses to federal inspections. In mid-October, the president and the first vice president of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association resigned as officers amid increased scrutiny from regulators of a state breeders' incentive fund.
Both officers also had been the subject of Herald-Leader articles. Then-vice president Gary Oliver, a trainer in Garrard County, was sued in 2007 by the owner of a horse that had to be euthanized. Oliver was ordered to pay $3,500.
Then-president Earl Rogers Jr. was investigated by the USDA for failing to protect federal veterinary inspectors at a 2006 horse show in Owingsville.
Rogers also had told state officials that no breeding fund payments had been made to Horse Protection Act violators, although Herald-Leader and state investigations found 12 to 15 payments to violators, prompting a new regulation to explicitly prohibit such payments.
So when the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association expressed interest in being involved in the Games' Equine Pavilion and demonstration events designed to showcase horse breeds that won't be involved in the sporting competitions, Long said, he was against it. In fact, he said, WEG originally returned a deposit for booth sponsorship.
But association leaders from Tennessee convinced him that Games participation could make a difference.
"The WEG can help rehabilitate the image for that breed," Long now says.
He sees it as more than a public relations move; he sees it as a push toward eliminating soring.
The federal Horse Protection Act, which is enforced through inspections at horse shows, is designed to prevent soring, but problems persist in Kentucky and elsewhere.
"If the WEG's involvement with TWHBEA, and vice versa, is a way to help demonstrate that they are now heading in the right direction," Long said, "and there is a plan for the future, and that treatments that were quasi-allowed in the past will not be allowed in the future ... if that's what comes out of their participation and involvement in the Games, then I think we will have made the absolute right decision and can say that we helped put it back on track again."
David Pruett, president of the walking horse association, said his group knows the breed has problems and is working to fix them, including putting together an equine welfare committee and a task force to look at new recommendations from the American Association of Equine Practitioners on how to eliminate soring.
And between now and the 2010 Games, Pruett said, "we're going to continue to work and to fight it, and we're going to go to the World Equestrian Games, we're going to take our breed up there, and we're going to show the world what a great horse that we have."
"We're there to promote the positive image of the horse, their versatility, and what we're doing to address the welfare and to eliminate any unfortunate situations like that which was in Kentucky." said Stan Butt, the association's executive director. But "what we are presenting has nothing to do with the sore horse. It has everything to do with presenting the Tennessee walking horse in a favorable light."
At the request of WEG, they will not bring any horses wearing padded shoes or chains around their front legs, both often used to exaggerate the gait of show horses.
Long said that Pruett and Butt have guaranteed him that all walking horses "will be completely and totally sound."
He said the bar will be high and that for the breed, as well as the Games, a lot is at stake.
"They understand that they can't fail here. They can't make a mistake here. ... There can't be one unsound horse here because this is going to have the whole world looking at them," Long said.
"This is an opportunity to change the image if they get this right, and I think they will. This is what might be the beginning of the solution to the places they need to go."