Another bit from my website. Don Bell is no longer the Executive Director or part of NWHA, but it's important to hear his story about how NWHA came about and why he changed from soring to sound.
Into the Hurricane
Interview with Don Bell, Director of Operations, National Walking Horse Association
By Rhonda Hart Poe
As reprinted from The Gaited Horse Magazine in the NWHA National News
Permission to reprint granted by Rhonda Hart Poe
For those in the Walking Horse Show Scene, the name Don Bell undoubtedly roils up an instant image—from hard-working Sound Horse advocate for some, to charlatan or turncoat to others.
Understanding why Mr. Bell has found himself in such a flickering spotlight requires a little background in the Tennessee Walking Horse show industry. This is BIG business. Millions of dollars dally around top horses and trainers. Training, or better yet, owning, a World Grand Champion (WGC) is a holy grail. As the caliber of horses steadily improved through the 1930s and 40s competition began to heat up. Trainers sought “new and improved” ways of eliciting bigger and more exaggerated gait from their horses. At some point, someone figured out that applying a blistering agent to the horse’s front legs got them to hitting a lick like never before and the age of soring—along with all the bitterness and controversy the practice entails—was born. Artificial devices, chemicals, pressure shoeing, pain, and winning at all costs crept into the Tennessee Walking Horse show ring and have refused to disappear for decades.
Too many competitors looked upon soring, or “fixing” horses, as a part and parcel of the show ring and, even if they condemned it as a necessary evil, joined in. Some really ran with it, others ran from it, and few took a public stand against it. This is where the Sound Horse movement began.
Embittered passions run high. It is not uncommon to hear accusations flung about that “so and so” is only involved in the Sound Horse movement because they “couldn’t cut it” in the “Big Lick,” or that someone is a fraud, or playing both sides of the field. Little do those who “see no evil” in soring realize that it’s not that sound horse people can’t compete with them, it’s that they will not do to their horses what they have to in order to compete. Rather than focus on the negatives, many have sent their own personal course towards focusing on the pure positives of the Tennessee Walking Horse and other breeds shown within the same venues. They envision a day when no horse is put through the pain of soring.
Where in all of this will you find Don Bell? Right smack dab in the middle of it.
TGH: Don, tell us a little about your life and how you got involved in Walking Horses.
Bell: I have been in the Walking Horse business all but six years of my adult life.
I was born in Decherd, Tennessee. Dad was a livestock dealer, so I’ve been around horses all my life and Walking Horses were the horse people in that area had. I lived and breathed that all my life. I worked for some real prominent trainers, started out in the 50s working for Neil Branschum, who trained Sun’s Delight. Worked for him while I was in high school, he was really a great horseman.
TGH: Were you ever involved in soring horses yourself?
Bell: Yes, I did, I’m ashamed to admit it, but that’s the truth. It did it regularly.
TGH: Since you are now a leading advocate against soring, what happened to change that?
Bell: I did that for 28 years, but several things happened that made me really assess what I was doing. It wasn’t even a matter of conscience at first. Around Tennessee it was an accepted thing and people didn’t think much about it. But as I got older I judged a lot of Walking Horse divisions at multi-breed shows, and I began to be embarrassed as to what other people thought about what we were doing to our horses. I could easily see how people in other breeds looked down on us for what we did. But still, I continued.
Jane is my wife, we’ve been married...(turns to ask wife in the background “How long we been married?”)...for all our lives. We have one son, Don Bell, Jr. He was showing Walking Horses when he was a kid. He’s 30 years old now. The thing that really turned me around was that he had a real nice little pleasure horse that he rode and showed himself. One year he won 30 blue ribbons with this horse. Just a little flatshod horse, which, you have to understand, trainers weren’t training horses like that in those days. They stuck to the padded horses. In 1988 the Walking Horse Trainers Show in Decatur, AL, was shut down as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Horse Protection Association. The shows were shut down for a couple of months following the Trainers Show. By this time, I was already having problems with what I was doing.
When shows started back up, a lot of trainers started showing and training flatshod horses because they thought they were going to lose the pads and action devices, using the same [methods] on them they did on the padded horses. It got so bad my son couldn’t compete, because the trainers were soring the flatshod horses and he wasn’t. I told my son if he was going to have to fix his horse. My son said, “I don’t care if I never win another blue ribbon, I’m not going to do that to my horse.” When my son told me that I felt about two inches tall and I never sored another one. I couldn’t do that any more.
I tried showing sound for a few more months but wasn’t competitive, so I walked away from it. I got rid of all the Walking Horses I had. I bought my son a Quarter Horse because I did not want him to be associated with Walking Horses. At that time there was not an alternative [to the sore horse venue] in the Walking Horse industry like NWHA offers today. Had there been, my son and I would both be training Walking Horses today. Instead, my son trains Quarter Horses and is very successful having won multiple World Championships.
In other breeds, when they catch somebody doing something wrong they penalize them. In the Walking Horse [industry] if they catch somebody soring a horse they reward them. They (the TWHBEA) don’t even publish the suspension list.
TGH: So swearing off soring cost you personally?
Bell: Cost me everything I worked all my life for...and I have no regrets from walking away from it. My regrets are that I ever did it at all.
TGH: How did you find your way back to the Walking Horse industry?
Bell: After staying out of it for six years I didn’t even read or see anything at all about the Walking Horse business, didn’t go to horse shows, I walked AWAY from it and I wasn’t looking to get back in the Walking Horse business, it found me. I was asked to apply for a job as administrator and Director of Judges for NHSC (National Horse Show Commission, which oversees Tennessee Walking Horse Shows). I did this job from 1994 to 1997.
When I took this job I made up my mind that I was going to really try to make a difference in the Walking Horse industry. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep the job long if I did, what I was planning to do. I wasn’t planning to make drastic changes at first, just deal with the most flagrant problems, and gradually keep tightening up, make it legitimate. I video taped shows and called the judges in on the carpet about it. I showed those video tapes of bad image horses to the judges committee. They didn’t have a problem with this as long as it wasn’t the big boys. When I started stepping on the toes of some of the big boys, things got heated. But I really tried to do a good job there. I tried to make a difference but the powers that be did not want change and I became history there.
TGH: Based on your experience, what do you think goes through the mind of someone as he’s going through the motions of soring a horse.
Bell: Could be anything or nothing at all. The truth is, I can think back and remember what I thought, as far as a matter of conscience, I’m ashamed to admit it, but I really didn’t think about it that much. It was just what was done in that area where I was. It was pretty well acceptable.
The Celebration was the greatest thing in the world—in my mind at that time—and winning at the Celebration was the ultimate. To do that you had to push the line very hard.
You justify it at the time. I look back at what those horses did, and what you had to do to them, but having a horse make a great show at the Celebration eclipsed what you had to do to get there. A lot of people say it was [for] the money, it put food on the table, but it was the ego and the glory. I think back now at the really great horses I had, and it hurt me to look at their pictures because I know what I put them through to get them to do what they were doing.
TGH: So how did the path lead from leaving the NHSC to heading up NWHA (National Walking Horse Association)?
Bell: Within in a year or so of the experience with NHSC, some folks called and asked me to help them get something going for a sound Walking Horse organization. At first that didn’t work out, but then another group approached during the Celebration in ‘98, and asked me to meet with them in Murfreesburo, Tennessee. We talked about starting a new organization and decided it would be a membership organization, so that no one person controlled it. We all agreed to get organized. We had a meeting that fall at Indianapolis. About 50 people met and formed the NWHA. We got it up and rolling.
I didn’t have any Walking Horses at that time, but I was thinking that I wanted to do something—this doesn’t sound good, but it’s the truth—a little part of me wanted to do something to get back at the NHSC and those people—just a twinge of that. That [feeling] didn’t last long though, as soon as we got started, what others thought really didn’t matter to me. What those people think or say about Don Bell means nothing to me.
As it turns out, it just seems I can’t do anything but live and breathe this. I’m not sure how wholesome that is, but it’s like it’s my whole life and we’re in our seventh year.
TGH: So what exactly does NWHA do?
Bell: NWHA provides a place to compete on a level playing field where you know you are competing with sound horses. We offer an alternative to the Walking Horse organizations that continue to promote the sore (abused) horse. NWHA is the largest sound horse HIO (USDA term for Horse Industry Organization that affiliate horse shows) in existence today and it is making a difference in the lives of the horses and the people that love them.
NWHA’s rules are not that different from other show affiliating organizations, the difference is we enforce the rules. Everyone is treated the same. This is accomplished through a DQP (Designated Qualified Person—USDA term for inspectors) program with thorough inspections that insure all horses that show are in full compliance with the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and NWHA rules. The standard for NWHA DQPs is the highest in the industry and they live up to that standard at every horse show.
NWHA’s mission is to promote the naturally gaited Walking Horse in the show ring and on the trails and to eliminate the stigma of abuse that has plagued the breed for over five decades. NWHA now has a registry for Walking Horses that tracks their performances in the show ring and on the trails at NWHA affiliated events. This registry will also track the progeny of these horses. In future years, the data in this registry will be a gold mine for horse people looking for information on the true naturally gaited Walking Horses.
TGH: What types of classes are offered at NWHA shows?
Bell: When we first started we discussed whether to allow padded horses in our shows. At the very beginning we agreed that of the horses were sound, then they could show. We all agreed that the one thing we had to stick together on was sound, no sore.
Some trainers called and said they just wanted a place to show sound padded horses. We thought we could offer a safe haven for these horses, so we offered that to them, until last year. But they didn’t bring them. We know that there are some things we can’t change, we’ll do anything we can to bring change to the industry, the only thing we can do right now is offer an alternative.
So other than padded classes it’s up to show management. Our rulebook has several divisions and we give show managers a lot of flexibility.
The most obvious thing is that the trail pleasure division is growing by leaps and bounds. There are more amateur exhibitors; our biggest participation is people that train their own horses.
TGH: What type of horse do you prefer personally?
Bell: A true naturally gaited Walking Horse is probably the greatest animal you’ll find...[along with] the greatest disposition.
I’ve done a complete turn around from the type of horse I like. I used to really like that Big Lick horse (I can’t believe now that I ever did, but I did), buy my appreciation now is for the naturally gaited horse. We have some really talented horses.
TGH: What does it take to be a DQP (Designated Qualified Person to inspect for soring at shows and events) for NWHA?
Bell: We solicit people to be DQPs. We try to get all we can and our pool is not nearly enough. We need more in some areas of the country.
The first criteria is that you must be dedicated to what we’re all about, eliminated the sore horse. Those looking for the money need not apply.
Our success at NWHA is the job our DQPs do. They are key. They have done a tremendous job. All are really committed and do a super job. That’s the heart of our program right there. They eliminated [sore] horses at our very first show and never looked back.
TGH: Is it difficult to tell if a horse has been sored in a show setting?
Bell: We met two or three times with the TWHBEA’s (Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association) Unity Committee. They were trying to get us all back together. We told them, ‘that would be real easy. If you’d eliminate the sore horse, we could all get back together.’ Their comment was, ‘it’s real hard to make the call as to whether a horse is sound or sore.’ We told them eliminating the sore horse was not the problem, that was easy, making the decision to eliminate the sore horse was the hard part for them. A lot of people will tell you that these trainers are so sophisticated...you can’t tell [if a horse is sore or not], but it’s not that they are so slick, it’s that in those circles they want those horses in.
TGH: Say one of your field inspectors fails to follow the USDA field inspection rules, how are they disciplined?
Bell: If they don’t follow the rules they are dropped from the program, that simple.
TGH: People have called us from shows to relay what is happening when the USDA inspectors show up unannounced. At one last fall, at least a third of the trailers loaded up and left, presumably because they knew they couldn’t pass inspection by USDA Veterinary Medical Officers, even though they were confident they could get by the show’s DQPs. What is your experience with such “drive offs?”
Bell: Doesn’t affect our participation at all. What’s funny, a matter of record with the USDA, other HIOs have canceled shows because the government shows up and the trainers won’t show. They’re afraid of the new technology [for detecting soreness.] We tell them you can check any of our horses any where at any show.
TGH: Are there sore horses at your shows?
Bell: We had one [sore horse] to date this year, but we don’t have many because most people are very afraid to bring them here. They know they can’t get them in. Check the USDA statistics. Of all HIOs, NWHA is the only organization that has less violations written when the USDA (inspectors) are there than when they’re not.
TGH: How do you feel about formerly padded horses being rehabilitated and shown flatshod?
Bell: Early on we passed a zero tolerance scar rule; any horse foaled after Oct. 1, 1997, would be free of any scars, except scars caused by accidents and are not indicative of soring. It is very unfortunate that some horses can’t be rehabilitated and allowed to show, but the problem with this is as long as you allow scarred horses to show, unscrupulous people will continue to scar them. It has to stop somewhere and NWHA has already drawn the line.
TGH: So would you say NWHA is a success?
Bell: Definitely. We’re in our seventh year of existence. We have 60+ horse shows this year, 800 members and approximately 20 affiliated organizations, a very successful National Championship Horse Show, a growing youth program, a strong versatility program, a trail riders program and a new registry.
TGH: Last question. Overall, what do you see your personal purpose to be an how would you gauge yourself thus far in achieving that purpose?
Bell: The salvation of the Walking Horse is in our hands. That’s real clear to me. I see the type of horse we’re promoting as growing and being THE Walking Horse and this unnatural, sore horse is truly a dinosaur. I can see it just as plain as looking out the window. My personal purpose is, maybe, I will have played a part in bringing change to this breed, change that has been long overdue. After all, HPA was passed in 1970. Are we where we should be? Not even close. Even though we have eliminated the abuse of Walking Horses at NWHA affiliated events, the torture continues in other circles. Check the USDA’s own statistics. The job is not over until the abusive training practices are eliminated everywhere and the stigma that has plagued this breed for so long is erased.
"Today, Tennessee Walking Horses are known throughout the industry
as the breed that shows abused and tortured horses."
~ Jim Heird, Ph.D., Do Right By The Horse, February 2010
"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,
you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."
~ St. Francis of Assisi
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