Tennessee Walking Horse Soring May Be Motivated By Big Money

Written by G. Chambers Williams III of the The Tennessean

Champions can command over $1 million in stud fees
David Williams, the operations manager at Waterfall Farms, leads Lined with Cash to a pen at the farm in Wartrace, Tenn. The horse’s father was a champion in the ring. / Sanford Myers / The Tennessean

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.

Bloodlines credited

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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  1. There is a lot of information in this article from people in the walking horse business who should know what is going on. Most people don’t know that there are two organizations, one in Tennessee and one in Kentucky, that have different rules and ways of doing things.

    Jackie McConnell is a monster,but what he was caught doing has done horses a favor in a round about way…..the HSUS and ABC News have shone light on the monster and his abuse, thus causing more reform in the walking horse industry.


  2. There is nothing new here…breeding show horses has it’s dark side be it TWH or other gaited show horses!!

    And yes it is all about $$$ at the expense of the horses.


  3. Making money from animals being tortured is disgusting and disgraceful
    I say do the same to the humans doing it
    fine them big time and confiscate their horses it is animal abuse period!


  4. Many many years ago I attended some horse shows and saw magnificant horses in “park” classes (very high stepping) and others in western classes where the poor horses had their heads pointed way way down and in my opinion both of these are extremely unnatural for any horse. No more going to “abuse shows” for me! These days, my horse shows are on the range with what’s left of our wild ones as mother nature intended them to live.


    • Grandma, I couldn’t agree more. Why can’t we wake the judges up on this torture that the horses are going through and have them judging on the natural movements of the animals? (And the grace they provide instead of the extreme things we humans put them through). I could answer this myself but don’t think it would come across very nice. Being able to watch the ones still running free in the wild has really become an obsession for me also.


      • The judges already do KNOW whats going on, however, they also know “which side their bread is buttered on” too. If they do not place the powerful elite trainers, owners and breeders horses, they WILL be blackballed from judging the big shows with the big money judging fees. And since they probably now have put all their eggs in one basket and primarily make their money from judging, they’d be seeing their income go down the toilet if they don’t go along with placing with top honors the powerful elites horses.
        My post below outlines some ways to get people involved in the industry to step up and “do the right thing”, but it would involve money incentives or rewards, and also a guarantee from being prosecuted themselves because they do not have “clean hands” themselves in most cases and would fear they will land in jail and/or hire an attorney in order to defend them from big trouble for their involvement.


  5. I agree to some extent regarding the horses. If you watch some of these horses as foals and yearlings, you sometimes can see them showing their stuff in the pasture. But again, its all about the money! People will always try and come up with gadgets to inflict on the horses to make them perfom better, which is sick! So why do some horse men and women allow it? Shackles, stacked up and weighted shoes are not normal for a horse. The Arabian breed has gotten after some of their trainers too for the weighted shoes. I believe some of the owners of these horses are just as responsible as the trainers. They condone the actions and put out big bucks for someone to inflict pain on their horse. Why??? Money, Money, Money!!! This is nothing new for the Walking horse breed, they have been known to do this for as long as I know. But it is true some shows have gone to the flat shod style…Until horse men and women STOP promoting and supporting this type of action someone somewhere will come up with some way to get an edge up. We are terrible here. We break throughbreds when they are barely out of infancy and expect them to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stake. Other saddle horses are break at just about the same time and are competing in the show ring when barely over 3. These are baby horses and yet they are
    expected to function within a short period of time as seasoned horses. Is it any wonder some of the horses don’t last beyond 6 years old or lucky at 10. Our horse industry needs to take a serious look at how we train, promote and care for our horses. This deal with the Walking horses is just the tip of the iceberg…


  6. I heartily concur with Gail’s comments with one exception: I believe ALL of the owners are responsible, not just some. The definition of “own” is (a) to have or hold as property; possess (b) to have power or mastery over. These poor horses are at the mercy, or lack thereof, their owners provide. Period. If they stopped paying trainers to abuse their horses, that would solve the problem tomorrow! I also agree with Gail’s comments about the entire horse industry abuses horses because they race/show them when the are far, far too young. It is truly sickening what people have done and will continue to do to innocent animals for the almighty dollar.


  7. I drove through Shelbyville last summer and many of the horse farms are vacant and for sale. I guess only the cruelest survive.


  8. Duh! Its exactly what I wrote yesterday about it being mostly about MONEY for the breeders, trainers, grooms, horse show management and promotors, judges, personel at horse shows, etc, etc. For the owners who quite often actually make their money in other businesses, I disagree that it has anything to do with love and everything to do with pumping up their egos, the glory of winning, and the power they gain in the industry as the owners of these top horses—-its like “keeping up with the Jones'” horsie style—-these people live for having the best horses, no matter what has to be done to the horse to win.
    And for the judges, the only way change will take place is if the judges speak-up, stop placing altered horses and horses that are being abused. Of course, that will be suicide for their wallet if they STOP placing horses in the Big Lick stuff that quite clearly are severly altered. They will also lose “standing” in the TWH show “cult” too and will be ostercized. Most judges couldn’t deal with that happening to them because these people are also their social friends, like family in some cases, and there IS also a lot of money on the line.
    If this exposure in this undercover video could force some judges to grow some cojones and ethics, intergrity, compassion and a conscience, then we would see real honest to goodness change in the Walker industry. One other way to do this is to appeal to them somewhat through money incentives or “rewards” leading to the arrest and prosecution of those who are abusing the horses. It could be anonymous and since many people will never be motivated to “do the right thing” unless there is money involved, and they are also guaranteed they will be safe from prosecution (this would need to be included mostly because if they are in the TWH show industry/Big Lick arena as a trainer, groom, stable personel, horse show employee, etc, there is a good chance they do not have “clean hands” most likely and might not come forward with info on abuse and illegal activities for fear of being prosecuted themselves), then I believe more people would come forward then if they are asked to “do the right thing” with no motivations or incentives other than it is what needs to be done in spite of repercussions that WILL be aimed at them.
    When BIG MONEY is involved, things get really ugly, and often dangerous, really fast…….been there, done that, and had to make it clear to some low-lifes who posed as the social elite that I was armed, I had guard dogs patrolling my property, and if anything suspicious happened on my property day or night, I was prepared to defend myself and my animals from harm….it was very tense for several weeks and this wasn’t even the kind of money we’re talking about in the TWH show industry. People get crazy and do crazy things when big money is involved, so its unfortunate to have to offer people money as incentives and immunity from prosecution to do whats right, but it is the reality.



    Take Action TODAY: Protect Wild Horses in Northeastern California

    Public Comments Must Be Received By Thursday, May 24, 2012.
    Despite the small size of the herds, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is planning the massive removal of wild horses from the Buckhorn, Coppersmith and Carter Reservoir Herd Management Areas (HMAs), located in northeast California and northwest Nevada. The roundups are being scheduled for November 2012 (Buckhorn and Coppersmith HMAs), and July 2013 (Carter Reservoir HMA).
    The BLM is now accepting public comments during the scoping period. This enables the public to tell the agency what issues should be addressed and what alternatives should be considered when developing an Environmental Assessment on the capture and removal plan.
    According to the scoping notice, the BLM may permanently remove more than two-thirds of the estimated 425 wild horses in and around the three HMAs if the agency plans to reduce herds down to the low end of the “Allowable Management Level” (AML) of 140 horses. While AWHPC supports using the safe and reversible fertility control method (PZP) for managing population growth of wild horses on the range, we oppose the proposed removal of horses from within and outside the 259-square-miles of the HMAs.
    Please oppose this unnecessary action by personalizing the sample letter below and clicking the “send your message” button to submit your comments. Be sure to include your mailing address so that the BLM does not have an excuse to dismiss your comments, and please submit your comments by May 24th.
    Thank you for continuing to take action to protect wild horses and burros.


  10. I’m glad to see this industry is being exposed for what it is….money and greed. If horses are to be shown, their training and breed should be accompolished by natural means, which is the true beauty and quality of a horse. Shame on the trainers that feel they have to perform such horrible practices, to win.


  11. Here ya go folks; the link below is an article in the Chattanooga News and spells out a lot of the dirty laundry and skeletons in the closets of judges, association board members, show management, etc. This link was sent to me from a Natural TWH list I’m on because I do have a handsome foundation bred classic champagne stallion named “Chilled Champagne” who has never even worn a pair of shoes in his life (he’s 17 years old and I’ve had him since he was 2), let alone keg shoes or “stacks”. We haven’t done any breeding in several years, however, being true to the breed, Chilly is a perfect gentleman and resides next to geldings and my big pet steer (Chilly’s really good buddy), so there has been no need to geld him.
    This facet of the TWH world is definetely like the “foxes guarding the hen house” when it comes to the big money level of competition TWH’s and the powerful elite turning a blind eye, perpetrating abuse crimes against TWH’s, lying and corruption, and I hope all the negative publicity they are receiving will finally expose them for the monsters they truly are when money, power, glory and egos are involved:


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