Horse Health

NC State Fair Cancels Walking Horse Show After Protest

as published in the The News & Observer

Advocates say unscrupulous trainers use painful tactics to achieve the ‘big lick’ gait the Tennessee Walking Horses are known for…

After more than 30 years, the N.C. State Fair will no longer offer the show featuring performances by the high-stepping Tennessee Walking Horses.

The decision comes in the wake of a protest at the fair during the October show and a petition with 19,700 signatures demanding the State Fair ban the performance category for the breed. Protesters claimed that the training methods to prepare a horse for this type of show are cruel and inhumane.

The protest, the petition and many emails calling for its cancellation were all factors in the state Department of Agriculture’s decision to ban the performance category, said Chief Deputy Commissioner N. David Smith. But he added, “It was a culmination of many factors including a lack of horses that participated, and the added cost of those particular shows when we had to bring in vets to certify the horses.”

Tennessee Walking Horses will still be welcome at the fair’s non-trotting, open-horse shows, but the breed is known for its unique high, quick-step gait. During performance category shows, the horses trot around the ring raising their feet as high as possible, a gait nicknamed the “big lick” that has drawn criticism.

“The big lick is a pain-induced gait. You cannot have a big lick without pain,” said Clant Seay, spokesman for the All American Walking Horse Alliance, a national group of professional horsemen and owners of Tennessee Walking Horses.

The high step is achieved by stacking the horse’s shoe, making it heavier to exaggerate the steps. Advocates to end big lick shows allege some trainers use what are called soring techniques to sensitize the hooves and ankles to pain, resulting in more dramatic steps.

They also claim that some trainers use chemicals such as diesel fuel and kerosene to create blisters on the horse’s ankles and attached chains to the stacked shoes designed to irritate the sores. They say some trainers will even stick sharp nails or tacks into the sensitive area of the hoof to increase pain.

These allegations led to increased inspections of the horses before and after shows by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But Seay said this does not stop soring, it only causes trainers to abuse their horses further so that they will not react to pain during inspections.

“These horses are trained sore at the barn, and then they are brought to shows and manipulated to pass inspection,” he said. “Often the trainers use pain-masking numbing agents so the soring is difficult to detect.”

Petition prompts action

SoringJeannie McGuire, founder of the All American Walking Horse Alliance, said she has rehabilitated retired big lick show horses with not only physical scars but also mental damage similar to post-traumatic stress disorder

“We are very pleased that the big lick horse and the abuse that goes with that has been taken out of the view of families and children that attend the North Carolina State Fair,” she said.

The petition and protest to end the big lick event at the State Fair was spearheaded by Raleigh resident Michelle Disney, who was unaware the fair held the big lick event until last fall. But she never expected the petition to get more than 1,000 signatures.

“I was surprised how it took off,” Disney said. “I really want to thank the fair and Department of Agriculture for their great response. They already reviewed their policies and did the right thing and made the right decision.”

With victory in North Carolina, these advocates are taking their cause to Washington, D.C.

Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, said North Carolina was the last state fair in the nation to hold the big lick performance category. But there are many other Tennessee Walking Horse competitions across that U.S. that are federally regulated.

A bill in Congress to ban abusive tactics had strong, bipartisan support in 2013 but was not voted on, Dane said. He expects it to be reintroduced in both houses this spring.

The bill would strengthen enforcement of the federal Horse Protection Act of 1970, by eliminating in-house industry inspectors and putting the USDA in charge of oversight. It aims to end the use of stacked horse shoes, chains and other devices attached to the shoe. And the bill would heighten the penalty to a felony for violators of the Horse Protection Act, according to Dane.

“There is no question that this will pass as soon as it goes to a vote,” Dane said.

In 2012, the Humane Society conducted an undercover investigation into a major big lick training barn in Tennessee and released the video to ABC news, which brought a lot of negative publicity to the industry. The organization caught trainers on film soring the horses’ hooves and beating them with rods.

The president of the Walking Horse Trainers Association, Bill Young in Shelbyville, Tenn., acknowledges that there has been horse abuse in the big lick industry in the past.

“There is no question that in the industry, many years ago, there was horrific abuse to our horses. I cannot tell you in all honesty that that never happens anymore,” Young said in an interview Friday.

“Whatever sport you are in, some people are not going to follow the rules. We try to weed those people out, but there are people that are going to cheat,” he said.

Young said there is a lifetime suspension penalty for those caught pressure shoeing – inserting sharp objects into the sensitive soring_2_01part of the horse’s hoof.

Young denied the claim that soring techniques are essential to training. A horse with a big lick gait is achieved through a combination of selective breeding and weighed horse shoes, he said. The shoe weighs between 3 and 5 pounds and is 2 inches thick, and a band on the top of the hoof is used to hold it in place. Young said the shoes do not harm the horse.

“I think the longevity of our horses that are showing today would prove that there is no damage done to the horse,” he said. “Some show until they are 20 years of age.”

Young said negative public opinion is probably the main cause of the decision to end big lick at the N.C. State Fair, and added that the industry has not done enough to discredit some of the allegations.

The Walking Horse Trainers Association is in favor of federal legislation. Young said they hope to work with Tennessee representatives to introduce something that would bring scientific objectivity to horse show inspections, including blood testing of the horses.

“Hopefully that day is coming,” he said “Our compliance rate in 2013 to the Federal Horse Protection Act was 98.6 percent. That figure has been much lower in the past.”

13 replies »

  1. The gait of a Tennessee Walker is a wonder to behold in its natural state, dont completely stop its showing, but only except walkers who are natural wonders …… The Natural Gait is Beautiful…………………………….


  2. To date the laws have been grossly inadequate and enforcement has been lax. Let’s hope that they beef it up and end the horrible abuse that these horses suffer through during their show lives. These horses have a special gait but were not intended for the gait in shows. The people who support the unnatural gait either don’t know (which I doubt) or just don’t care. I’m glad to see that something has been done. It’s gone on for too long already.


  3. It’s good to hear that the public’s petitions and emails were finally heard and taken seriously and made a difference.
    Years ago I have saw Arabians in the show ring at the very high stepping park gait – assume they got the same abusive treatment?


  4. It seems that this organization could help do some major clean-up in our own country.

    From Horseback Magazine
    Lexington, Ky. – In an unprecedented move, the FEI has suspended the national federation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) following a thorough investigation into major horse welfare issues and rule non-compliance.
    UAE has been suspended for an “indeterminate period” from attending FEI meetings, organizing international events, and participating in international events.
    However, UAE athletes – in disciplines other than endurance – competing in international competitions outside of the UAE may participate under the FEI flag.This decision to suspend the UAE was made after extensive efforts to curb catastrophic horse injuries and rule non-compliance failed.
    The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) has and will continue to support fully the actions of the FEI and applauds their positive and aggressive action. As President Ingmar De Vos states, “Sadly, this is the only option left…Where horse welfare is concerned, the FEI has to show leadership and solve problems in a structural way without making any concessions.” “Having spent many years addressing this issue within the FEI Bureau, the USEF is proud to stand with the international equestrian community in condemnation of horse abuse,” stated Chris Welton, USEF CEO.


  5. Thanks Louie for this information. Not that it matters, but what type of abuse was taking place? If I were a breeder none of my horses would leave for that part of the World. So much for the life of the horse. The Tennessee Walkers do have a very natural gate which is beautiful. Again, you have a bunch of trainers and low lifes doing anything they can to win. The sick part is that the others followed and did not do the moral and just thing by turning them in. I am tired of seeing some of these so called western pleasure horses. Heads down so low they can’t see where they are going. Here again, some idiot got the idea to tie their heads down instead of teaching the horse to work thru their body. And what does it all boil down to? The almighty dollar at what ever cost to the poor horse. Sorry the breed association allowed this to happen.


      • Dear Susan both of us forgot to mention to those that have not had the absolute pleasure of riding one of these stunningly beautiful Tennessee Walkers, they are the Cadillac of rides…………………………… also their sweet trusting despositions……………………


  6. Glad to see that the NC State Fair is taking some action. Time to remember that the TWH was bred for a smooth gait to maintain long distances in the saddle. Let’s all work to make sure that the training returns to natural methods. Soring and the other abusive methods that have become accepted are ABUSE and these horses deserve our support and protection. Many TWC trainers have now turned their back on their own association/sport and regrouped to protect the horses.


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