Champions can command over $1 million in stud fees
SHELBYVILLE, TENN. — A blue-ribbon Tennessee Walking Horse stallion might be worth $1 million or more when put up for sale, but it can earn that money back for a new owner in a year through stud fees as others try to cash in on his champion bloodline.
That’s part of what makes the walking horse industry so lucrative for top breeders, trainers and owners, and what critics say drives a few unscrupulous horsemen to acts of soring to create high-stepping animals that appear to have a true champion’s talent, muscle and style.
“It’s all about money,” said Dr. Gordon Lawler, an Indiana veterinarian who has owned walking horses for 40 years and sits on the board of the Franklin, Ky.-based National Walking Horse Association, a rival group to Shelbyville’s industry.
“An owner will tell a trainer, ‘If you can’t do it, I’ll give my horse to another trainer.’ ”
Others say money doesn’t motivate the true sportsmen in the walking horse industry.
“They’re in it for the love of the animal,” said Chad Williams, a longtime professional trainer whose stables along U.S. 231 north of Shelbyville are used to train walking horses for top events like the annual Walking Horse National Celebration that put Shelbyville on the equine map.
“Some of the owners whose horses I train bought this farm just to have a place to come to five or six times a year, and we have horses brought to us from as far away as Minnesota,” Williams said.
While most walking horses that Williams trains to compete in shows sell for $30,000 to $100,000, he has seen them fetch as much as $1.6 million.
He has one animal in his stables now — he won’t divulge the name to protect the owner’s confidentiality — that sold for $50,000 as a 2-year-old but went four years later for $150,000 with a string of blue ribbons to its credit.
Stud fees for champion stallions can run as high as $4,000 per mate, though horse owners say fees typically average about $2,500. But a top stallion that nets $4,000 to sire a colt can be used perhaps 250 times a year, bringing in $1 million in stud money.
But whether those champions could win blue ribbons and command high prices — and big stud fees — without being subjected to thecontroversial practice of soring remains a controversial question.
Soring — painful cutting and chemical treatments on the animals’ legs to force the prized “Big Lick” high step that wins shows — is believed by many to be rampant in the industry. Some critics even say that no horse trained naturally, without abuse, could walk that way.
“That’s just not true,” Williams counters. “The horse doesn’t have to be miserable to step like that. We don’t abuse our horses, and anybody can walk into our barn and watch us ride these horses.”
Lawler, who has been around the industry for decades as an animal doctor and horse owner, scoffs at the notion that soring has been wiped out.
“I believe 90 percent or more are sored or pressure-shoed, or they can’t compete,” Lawler says. “They just can’t do the high leg kick without soring.”
The financial pressure is intense on trainers to prepare horses that can compete in shows such as The National Celebration, the top annual event held here in late August every year, Lawler says.
But horses in the Shelbyville Celebration and related events — considered the pre-eminent ones in the sport — and those sanctioned by the rival Franklin, Ky., association in which Lawler participates have vastly different rules.
While the Shelbyville shows allow walking horses to compete wearing padded front shoes, the Kentucky group doesn’t permit that, requiring all horses in its competitions to perform flat-shod. Formed in 1998 as a response to the growing criticism of the Shelbyville style of walking horse competition, the Kentucky association believes that even the padded shoes and the associated chains that the horses wear on their ankles are a form of abuse.
“We started out with padded shoes also but elected to eliminate that because too much can be concealed between the pad and the bottom of the foot, such as golf balls or pieces of metal to cause pain,” Lawler said.
Gap in prices
There is a big difference in prices — and stud fees that can be commanded — between high-stepping walking horses with padded shoes and the flat-shod ones that the Kentucky association favors.
“The top price for our horses is about $15,000, and most good ones sell for about $7,500,” Lawler said. “And the average stud fee is about $500. I have two that I get $200 for the stud fee.”
He says the big difference in costs — and expectations — is fueled by the rich owners of the Shelbyville-style horse industry.
“It’s a total culture,” Lawler said. “You have rich owners who only come to show their horses to compete for a blue ribbon. Now, I’m not against anybody being rich. It’s a free country. But for them, it’s all about the glory. I don’t have enough money (to compete on that level).”
Lawler says soring is used to take horses with less natural talent and make them into competitors, thereby boosting their value on the open market for sales and stud. But there’s really no way to turn an inferior horse into a champion, argues Bill Coleman of Shelbyville, a volunteer inspector for the industry — known as a Designated Qualified Person, or DQP.
Coleman works for the organization known as SHOW, which checks horses in competitions such as the Celebration.
The inspectors are hired by the horse industry to screen for compliance with federal and state regulations against soring.
Coleman said he has been around horses most of his life and decided to become an inspector because he got tired of abuse.
He believes the industry has cleaned itself up significantly since SHOW was formed in 2009 and that owners and trainers are now mostly trying to “do the right thing.”
“A champion horse, trained and ridden without artificial aids, will still make it to the top,” he said.
Still, Coleman said his regular business as a homebuilder has suffered since he started inspecting horses, because the rules checkups remain unpopular among people in the walking horse industry.
The Shelbyville area’s biggest breeder, Waterfall Farms, has seven champion studs in residence and four stables full of mares waiting to be bred or give birth to their colts.
Operations manager David Williams, who said he is not related to trainer Chad Williams, said: “I can tell you from my years of experience that soring is not going to make an inferior colt any better.”
Soring isn’t in the genes, so an average horse sored so it can win blue ribbons won’t be of much value as a stud, he argues.
“Soring is like putting a beautiful dress on an ugly girl,” David Williams said. “The only way to raise a superior horse is to breed a superior horse. We study bloodlines and try to keep our success rate high.”
Waterfall Farms has some of the most-recognized walking horse champions available for stud service, including He’s Puttin’ on the Ritz, which Williams called “the Secretariat of the walking horse world,” a reference to the Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred of the early 1970s.
Lawler takes a harsher stance but sees reason for hope. He said recent publicity and court action against soring “will be the best thing that’s ever happened to the walking horse.” “
It doesn’t mean the Celebration has to come to an end. It just means they will finally have to play by the rules. And I will commend them if they can do that,” Lawler said.
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