Hearing draws walking horse lovers speaking on proposed ban on pads, chains

In this 2013 file photo, horses are shown to prospective bidders during the Kentucky After Christmas Sale of Tennessee walking horses in the Alltech Arena at Ky. Horse Park. Lovers of these horses spoke at a USDA hearing in Lexington Wednesday.
In this 2013 file photo, horses are shown to prospective bidders during the Kentucky After Christmas Sale of Tennessee walking horses in the Alltech Arena at Ky. Horse Park. Lovers of these horses spoke at a USDA hearing in Lexington Wednesday. Herald-Leader

Dozens of speakers passionate about Tennessee walking horses spoke at a 2 1/2-hour public hearing Wednesday in Lexington on proposed rules changes that would ban pads and chains and turn inspections over to federally licensed veterinarians.

The hearing, the second of four, was held by the USDA, which proposed amendments to the Horse Protection Act in July.

People can also submit comments online by Sept. 26.

The new rules are designed to strengthen existing requirements to “protect horses from the unnecessary and cruel practice of soring and eliminate unfair competition,” according to the USDA. Soring involves deliberately injuring horses’ front feet and forelegs to encourage a high-stepping show gait known as the “Big Lick.” Performance horse trainers often use tall stacks of pads and heavy chains, which would be forbidden.

The rules are supported by many in the horse industry, including the American Horse Council, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association and numerous state veterinary groups.

The changes mirror legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, who is retiring this year under the shadow of a Congressional ethics investigation that found he improperly allowed his wife, Connie, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the U.S., to work on the bill.

The hearing in Lexington opened with a representative of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, reading a five-minute statement decrying the rules as “unnecessary, heavy-handed regulation” designed to intimidate and dismantle most of the walking horse industry.

It “will impose significant and severe economic hardship on families, small businesses and communities across Kentucky, Tennessee and other states that depend on this industry for their livelihoods,” Rogers said in the statement.

That was echoed by other speakers who said that although only a minority of trainers use illegal methods, banning chains and pads would eliminate much of the current show horse structure and devastate the economy around it.

Roger Varney, president of the Kentucky Horse Industry Organization that provides inspectors for shows, said that the rules will send more walking horses to slaughter or result in more people leaving horses to starve on strip-mined land in Eastern Kentucky.

“These horses will not have a place to show,” Varney said. “If you have to hire veterinarians and vet techs to come in and inspect, they are not going to be able to have a show and pay those entry fees.”

Dale Smith of Eubank said that the rules may force him to either send his horses to slaughter or euthanize them.

“If this rule stands, it will devalue my horses to the point that my finances will collapse,” Smith said. “What terrifies me is what to do for the care of my horses. ... Hopefully I can find homes for some of them. Ironic ... the agency in charge of protecting these horses is imposing a rule that will be a death sentence for many of them.”

But many supporters of the proposed rules hailed them as long overdue changes that will protect horses currently being subjected to widespread inhumane practices.

Kathryn Callahan, Kentucky state HSUS representative, said that while “Big Lick stalwarts have filed comments that a change in the law will harm the industry, they fail to see how they’ve been harming their own industry for years.

“Growing numbers of the public are outraged by the infliction of pain on these horses, by trainers and owners who value show ring awards more than the well-being of their horses,” she said. “More and more people are avoiding the Big Lick horse shows and this outraged public is flooding the USDA in-box with requests to make the abuses stop.”

Jeannie McGuire, president of the All American Walking Horse Alliance, said that there are two sides to the livelihood story. She said many people she works with have lost their livelihood “as a result of the reputation of the performance horse. The stigma. The soring. The Big Lick.”

Only by addressing this will the walking horse industry bring fans back to shows, she said.

Margo Kirn, 77, of Paris, said that she came to appreciate the breed as a senior rider looking for a gentler horse. She loves riding dressage with her walking horse but is limited to very few opportunities because the USEF, which sanctions shows, will not associate with the breed.

Once that is gone, more markets will open up, she said. “You’ve got to do something about your image. It is so terrible that those of us who want to go and do the diversified horse, those who want to compete in USEF and (U.S. Dressage Federation), we can’t do it because of your image. So you’ve got to clean yourselves up.”