"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

Monday, December 17, 2012

GUEST BLOGGER and THOUGHTS: A Response to TWHBEA and A Message To All TWH Enthusiasts

A Response to TWHBEA

TWHBEA posted this small blurb in the latest issue of The Voice this past week.

Our new guest blogger Elizabeth L. Jones has an excellent response to this below.  I think she's right on the money and I hope others understand and heed her message as well.


In the latest issue of the Voice, outgoing president Marty Irby issued a somewhat vague call for training that “ensures the future and longevity of the breed.” Since the article title refers to the “elimination of soring,” I will work from the assumption that this means more humane training practices for the Tennessee Walking show horse. But this call highlights some of the main problems of the breed. First of all, the vague language reflects the lack of transparency regarding the training of Walking Horses. Second, the language in the article implicitly focuses on the trainers. Here is where I think TWHBEA has gone wrong.

The Walking Horse is one of the most tractable and easiest to train of horse breeds. The secret that many people in the Walking Horse world don’t want to admit is that almost anyone with sufficient horsemanship experience can train a Walking Horse – not just to ride but to execute a smooth gait. No special equipment is needed, nor is any special knowledge.

The fact is that many trainers around the country are already doing the right thing, but if they don’t train padded horses, they are barely recognized by the industry. A few names of flat-shod horse have emerged, but many left the traditional Walking Horse years ago and now show in alternative venues like NWHA and FOSH. Many of these people are horsemen and horsewomen first, and Walking Horse trainers second.

I recall some discussions a few years ago about the “industry” investigating new training techniques. In fact, NO new techniques are necessary. The principles of classical horsemanship, dating back thousands of years to ancient Greece and revived during the Renaissance, work with ALL horses, including the Tennessee Walking Horse.

Although I have no special training in horse training, have taken only a few riding lessons and attended a few clinics, I have trained a few Walking Horses to saddle, and I have also developed a smooth, correct running walk for my horses. Over a decade ago, I tried the “traditional” gaited horse techniques of changing hoof angles and bits, but with very limited success. Eventually, I discovered, as have many others, that a Walking Horse can gait correctly in a plain, loose-ring snaffle and a good, basic shoeing or hoof trim.

So why do trainers of the breed get so much attention? One reason is that a trainer is “necessary” is to create the show ring fads because their training methods. In a way, it is a form of protectionism since most horse trainers are not willing to subject horses to the extreme shoeing and the necessary action devices of the Big Lick show horse. Indeed, to get a trainer’s license with the Walking Horse Trainer’s Association doesn’t require a test of horsemanship but the recommendation of other licensed trainers.

Some people were impressed that 2012 World Grand Champion Walk Time Charlie was worked on a regular basis for only five months before he won the title. What it may really show is that the level of competition in the Walking Horse world just isn’t that high. Some people in the “industry” claim it takes more than the pads to create the reach and action of a padded Walking Horse, but a video available on YouTube seems to prove that the pads and action devices are indeed a major factor. This video shows a mare, Dust Bunny, performing a pacing gait in lite-shod or keg shoes. She is reshod with heavy shoes, creating more action, and then reshod again with pads and ridden with a set of chains. The difference in just one day is dramatic and proof of the effect of pads.

This article advocates “programs that recognize and promote the natural abilities of our talented horses,” but these already exist – they are called Versatility, TWHBEA Trails, and the high point programs for Versatility and Pleasure Horses. The most talented horses are those individuals that perform in a variety of divisions and activities, and the most talented trainers and riders those who work with these horses. Instead of trying to encourage the “traditional” Walking Horse trainers to change, TWHBEA should recognize those who are already doing the right thing.

If TWHBEA wants to promote sound horses, they need to recognize the everyday owner/trainer and amateur rider. They need to pay attention to what small training operations around the country are doing. They absolutely MUST reduce the emphasis on showing and pay attention to the average Walking Horse owner, who may spend most of their time trail riding. These people don’t want to be part of an “industry” but part of a “community” of fellow Walking Horse owners. They want national leadership, not an organization controlled primarily by one region.

~ Elizabeth L. Jones

Ms. Jones has ridden and owned Walking Horses since she was seven years old and has competed in pleasure classes, equitation, and gaited dressage. Most of her dressage competition has been at open schooling shows where she had the only gaited horse. She has also ridden trails on her Walking Horses and other breeds in Missouri, Colorado, California, and Illinois. She edited the Sound Advocate for two years, and also contributed articles to The Gaited Horse. Ms. Jones is currently working full-time as a college instructor while she works on a Ph.D. in English. She has conducted some preliminary research into the rhetoric of horse welfare and hopes to incorporate further research in her dissertation. She is also an avid snowboarder and qualified for the NASTAR Nationals (amateur ski and snowboard racing) in 2011.

A Message to All Tennessee Walking Horse Enthusiasts

Hello again, friends and sound horse warriors.  Many of you follow our Facebook group and know of a lot of the current happenings going on within the TWH world with H.R. 6388 quietly waiting to be approved.  I've been thinking a lot these past couple of weeks about what's been going on.  I know I've started sounding perhaps more than a bit crazy sometimes on the group, so I decided I need to explain to all of you where I come from on the issues concerning the TWH.

I have been riding horses since I was 3 years old, but I didn't start owning horses until the late 90s.  I was originally taught the "cowboy" methods to train a horse: kick him belly when he won't suck in, jerk him in the mouth when he's bad on the trail, hit them in the head when they won't take their deworming paste, beat them when they won't stand still to be saddled.  But my husband and I both felt that something was really wrong, and it needed to change.  So we started looking for trainers and other methods to work with our horses.  Now, we have realized that training has everything to do with partnering with your horse and to communicate to him the way horses communicate with each other.  Our cardinal rule is never do anything to a horse that he wouldn't do to another horse.  Yes, if he bites me, I'll bite back (which I have literally done before--bit a horse on his nose and he never tried to bite me again), but that doesn't mean I'm allowed to grab a shovel and hit him in the head if he bites me.  Our goal is to always look at our own behavior first when a horse doesn't understand something and see where we're communicating wrong.  Yes, I still make mistakes, and yes I'm still learning (anyone who thinks they know it all is a fool in the true definition of the word).  Yes, I will kick a horse if he kicks me, or threaten to kick him if he threatens me.  I will protect myself.  But I will never go beyond the punishment fitting the crime.

I named the blog "For the Tennessee Walking Horse" for two reasons.  First, I always heard things like I'm for the sound horse or I'm for the performance horse, but no one ever said they were For the TWH.  Second, that is truly how I feel.  I am literally for the horse and no one else.  I am not for X HIO, I am not for the flat shod horse, I'm not for the barefoot horse, I'm not for dressage, I'm not for John Doe's training methods, I'm not for the horse show world.  I'm for the health and well being of every single Tennessee Walking Horse, and all horses in general.  So if the U.S. government has to ban TWH horse shows to end soring, then I'm all for it.  If ending soring means people like Jackie McConnell and Barney Davis and Chad Way are going to lose their jobs and have to work at Walmart, I'm all for it.  If ending soring means sound horse trainers are going to have to switch breeds, I'm all for it.  This is not about what size shoes your horse wears.  This is not about who's footing the bill for a horse show.  This is not about which HIO has the least amount of violations reported.  It's about two things that are extremely simple: the welfare of the horse and upholding the law.  And if the bad guys are going to continue to break the law to where the toys have to be taken away form both the bad guys and the good guys, then so be it.

Here's the rub: All of us have chosen to own Tennessee Walking Horses.  No one is putting a gun to our heads to make us put them in the show ring.  It is our choice to do so.  So truly in my honest opinion, if exhibitors/owners/trainers/breeders cannot choose to obey the law AND give up vanity, pride and greed, then we are ALL guilty of not caring about the welfare of the horse.  Competition does horrible things to people, but what's worse is forcing our vanity, greed, and pride on other beings that have no choice in the matter.  Showing horses is a luxury, not a necessity, and if we stop caring about the welfare of the horse merely because of shoe size or bit type or how much the horse can do, than the horse loses every single time.

I'm going to be brutally honest right now.  In all this time in the gaited horse world, I have found that no HIO is truly for the horse, even those that have sound venues.  In the sound horse world, being for the horse isn't about bashing other people and HIOs to get what you want.  In the sound horse world, being for the horse isn't about worrying about the shoes you want to put on your horse's feet in the show ring when heavy shoes are a luxury, not a necessity.  In the sound horse world, being for the horse isn't about allowing BL horses at shows even when you think they're sound because we all know what stacks can do to a horse long term.  HIOs no longer exist to protect the horse, but to protect and coddle those who want to show or force their ideas on other people, whether sound or sore.  I think ALL of the HIOs have lost their vision as to why they were started in the first place.  I think ALL HIOs are not capable of thinking past the end of their own noses.  I think ALL HIOs have become places where new ideas are shunned.  If you don't think they way they do, then to hell with you.  And at this point, that means we don't need HIOs any more than we need horse shows.

I'm tired.  I'm tired and I'm angry and I'm very hurt by the simple fact that pride, vanity and greed are prevailing right now.  We live in an heavily social society right now that rewards excess and fast results.  Whatever happened to pride being based in bringing a horse along from the bottom up, turning him into a master when he's in his teens rather than assuming he's finished at 4 years old?  Whatever happened to pride being related to the best quality ride being rewarded in the ring rather than the horse that's doing the most or the trainer that paid the judge the most?  What happened to training that isn't based in bits, equipment, and shoes but rather on communication and fairness to both horse and rider?  I think I echo Elizabeth's response above in saying that all of that seems to be gone, and it's most prevalent that it's gone in the gaited horse world.  No one cares about the horse--they only care about showing off as to how much their horse can do, how fast he can go, how much he can crouch, and all of it by the time he's 4 years old.  And this mentality has GOT to change for the sake of the horse.

I learned a very valuable lesson after I sold a very, very special horse to me.  Indigo was my pride and joy.  After years of trial and error, I had finally found my perfect show horse that was also a trail horse.  I did everything with him--went to clinics, went to lessons, and showed.  We were always in the top three and I have a lot of blues from showing him.  I had a strict training schedule that I stuck to, and I had a hell of a walkin' and noddin' horse in simply an off-the-shelf keg shoe and a snaffle bit.  I was so proud of Indy and me.  But eventually, Indy developed ulcers.  I was able to get them under control, but riding him became a battle.  He would fight me and buck and our training sessions became lessons in frustration and embarrassment.  I decided that showing him wasn't worth it anymore because he was so miserable, so I sold Indy to a guest ranch where I have sold them 21 gaited horses.  When I went to see Indy, I discovered a very, very happy horse.  He is carrying kids and timid adults on trail rides, and he carries handicapped riders in the arena.  He is turned out in a very large pasture with dozens of pasture mates and gets to "be a horse" when he's not on duty.  I could see in his eyes that he is happy and content, and that in the end I had done what was right for him.  It was not about me all along.  It was about finding Indy's happiness.  This also led to me getting my beautiful mutt mare who was my very first horse back home, who is my soulmate.  I realize now I never should have sold her in the first place.  I accept her that she is not a show horse and just loves to trail ride, just as she accepts my flaws in the saddle.  We are perfect partners together.  I had let pride and vanity get in the way of what was right for the horse.  Apache is and was everything I need in a horse, and I finally learned it.

So, a question we can all ask ourselves: Why do I own a horse?  I think everyone can answer that it's truly for self-satisfaction.  So, ask yourself this: where does my self-satisfaction come from?  Does it come from getting a blue ribbon at any cost?  Does it come from sitting in the field reading a book while you hand-graze your horse?  But overall, does my self-satisfaction benefit the horse in any way?  If it doesn't, then I believe we must ALL take responsibility and rethink why we're doing this in the first place.  And perhaps we need to rethink whether or not we should be horse owners in general.

Indigo, who changed my road to horse victory, 2008

Apache, my soulmate and my horse victory, 2010

EDIT 12-18-12:  With my last sentence, I am not suggesting that all horses should run wild and free and never be "owned."  What I mean is that they have been domesticated by man's hand, and therefore we must take responsibility for their health and well being first and foremost.  If a person's desire to own horses is based in self-satisfaction only, then it's time to rethink that particular person's ownership.

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