"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, August 26, 2013

THOUGHTS - Where Do We Go From Here?

It might be a bit premature to talk about this since the 2013 Celebration isn't over yet, but I'm doing so anyway.  I think it's time for everyone to really buckle down and think about this.  Please, hear me out...this is for the Lickers, the Flatters, and the Bunny Rubbers alike, all of us who have some kind of stake in the Tennesee Walking Horse, whether it's financial, emotional, or any other reason.  I'm asking that everyone take the time to chew on what I'm about to talk about here.

First, I want to share this with everyone.  (I know, crazy cat lady...just bear with me.)

The reason I'm sharing this is because I find it incredibly adorable, and it makes me smile.  I watch it whenever I'm a little blue, and it cheers me up.  I find myself whistling the song when I'm cleaning stalls, cleaning house, in the shower, in all kinds of circumstances.

I find, however, that I've been watching this little video a lot lately.  I've wondered why, but a conversation today and some conversations I've seen on Facebook and on forums has made me realize why.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Industry is currently going through a major change.  The Celebration, the Big Lick industry, TWHBEA...things are really shutting down for them.  People are selling their barns and horses, leaving the industry for other endeavors.  Some just won't work with the Big Lick anymore; others are changing breeds; and still others are just finding other work.

Outside of this, the sound horse side is seeing amazing victories.  McConnell has been severely punished; we have a good chance of seeing the Wheelon Case go to the Grand Jury; the judge in Texas rules in favor of the USDA over SHOW's lawsuit; Animal abuse, including soring, is now a felony in Tennessee; the TWHBEA Executive Director is supporting HR 1518/S 1406; the past president is supporting the amendment and ending the Big Lick; the Executive Committee of TWHBEA voted to support the amendment; the list goes on.

As all of this happens, David Howard and his bunch continue to squeeze everyone for every last possible penny.  They create an elite club and force their ideas down everyone's throats.  When they can't buy their precious performance horse from TWHBEA (for a measly $25,000), they tell TWHBEA they won't give them the class results and kick them off the show grounds.  They tell everyone that if they don't show with SHOW, then they can't show at the Celebration.  Shooting themselves in the foot is really an understatement; it's more like shooting themselves in the stomach and letting themselves bleed out slowly and die a horrible, painful death.

Reservoir Dogs, 1992
It seems that victory is near.  But...I realized that I'm just not really celebrating.

What I see are things that I have been told by former sore horse supporters and people who sored horses themselves.  What I see are people who are losing something that is pretty dear to their hearts.  Not the Big Lick--that can go away without impacting what I'm talking about here.  I'm talking about a fun time at a horse show.  Kids getting out of school to go socialize with friends and family.  Going to try so-and-so's awesome ham sandwiches and this-and-that's amazing lemonade.  Checking out scores of vendors and finding new tack.  Making new friends, sitting around and shooting the bull, and just having good clean fun.  Kids aren't exposed to drugs or violence, parents can let them go play all day without worrying about them because everyone keeps an eye on them.  The Celebration wasn't just about the horses.  It was a social event more than anything.  

I live in Arizona where the world-famous Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show is held.  It is very much like the Celebration (although the Celebration is larger).  Many of us horse people who don't even care about Arabians go because of the huge selection of vendors and just to watch the costume classes.  Some of us will watch the events we like most, like the endurance ride, dressage, jumping, reining, and Saddle Seat.  People come who don't even own horses just to get to see the pretty horses and to also shop.

I hear it's the same at the AQHA Congress--it's more of a social event than a show.  It's a place to relax and unwind and enjoy something so many people have in common: admiration of the horse.

The TWH industry is losing this.  They are losing not just a giant cash cow, but a huge place for people to just get together, take a vacation, enjoy themselves and not have to worry about the everyday burdens of regular life.  It doesn't help that horse shows are falling out of favor in general--they're no longer the family events that parents want to take their kids to with such spectacles as Disney on Ice and superhero movies being cranked out faster than you can say Lightning McQueen.  There are still those who go, but the crowds are getting smaller and smaller.

Saturday night, August 24, Celebration 2013

Wartrace show, August 2013
We are also seeing a huge decline in the price of Tennessee Walking Horses.  Some people are saying that they are still selling good trail horses.  But we need to be brutally honest: unless your horse is trained to do something besides be on the rail and is trained well*--such as a seasoned trail horse between the ages of 6 and 10--it's not going to sell well unless you put a bottom dollar on it.  The trail horses that are selling are ones that are nearly bombproof with no medical issues and are well trained.  Anything else has become nearly worthless.  This continues to be proven at horse sales, the auctions, and the slaughterhouses.

*caveat: I know show horses sell back East, but not in the majority of the United States.  I'm talking about the sale of TWHs overall.

Now don't get me wrong: I truly believe that the industry has caused this themselves. They can blame anyone they want, but the problem is still the same: soring is still rampant, and owners and trainers want their horses to be sored.  That's just what it comes down to.  The industry has been warned time and time again to end soring, and those who put forth the warnings were shunned, cast out, even threatened with their very lives.  Now the public is ending soring for them by talking with their pocketbooks...but it seems the industry still isn't listening.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." ~ Robert Frost
So my question is this: Where do we go from here?

In 1935, the Tenessee Walking Horse registry was founded, later changed to the current Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association.  In 1940, the American Quarter Horse Association registry was founded.  TWHBEA is older by a mere five years, so really, the two entities are about the same age.

Now I ask you to go out to your local Walmart, QT, Target, whatever.  Strike up a conversation with a stranger, then ask them this question: What breeds of horses can you name?

I can guarantee you, they're going to say at least three breeds: The Thoroughbred, The Arabian, and The Quarter Horse.

Why is this?  With Thoroughbreds, we all know about horseracing due to movies and television.  We all know about Arabian horses because of The Black Stallion and other children's books.  But the AQHA did something that TWHBEA didn't do: they promoted their horse as a family horse that anyone can ride in any discipline.  They continually focus on ALL aspects of the QH and what the QH can do.  I see ads for QHs in tons of varieties of horse publications: Dressage Today, Trail Rider, Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Equus.  I see ads and promotion of the horses in organizations such as AERC, NATRC, ACTHA, WEGs, USEF, USDF...the list goes on.  The AQHA spends their money and their time promoting the QH in every single aspect of the horse world in general.  They even promote QH crosses, such as Quarabs and draft crosses, and they see it as an improvement to their ranks.

So what did TWHBEA do?  Focus completely on the Big Lick horse.  They made the horse sound like you have to have special rider or trainer to make him gait.  The BL got popular, so they put their focus entirely on that, ignoring the majority of their membership that are trail riders and do other things with TWHs.

Outside of the show ring, the TWH industry made it sound like a TWH must have shoes to gait, that he must be at X, Y, Z angles in his feet, that you must used X bit (usually a shanked bit), that you must use a special trainer to make your horse gait, that the average rider can't do this on his/her own.

Now we're dealing with the backlash of this focus.  It got so bad that people like me have to dispel myths that TWHs can't ride on the trail, run barrels, do dressage...they're only good for the show ring.

There is another problem that has come up, and that is the lack of new leadership.  Everyone has their own ideas of how they think the TWH industry should be run, but there are two problems: many of them are not willing to step up to help, or the glaring lack of funds keeps those who are a poison to the industry in charge.

For many years, I thought that we'd always have the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) to step in alongside TWHBEA and take over once the Big Lick was gone.  For now, I think that NWHA has the best rules in the business, and they are members of the USEF, a huge step for the TWH in general.  If they would partner with TWHBEA for funds and registration purposes, we'd have quite a wonderful situation indeed.

However, both NWHA and TWHBEA have managed to isolate themselves away from each other and the general public.  TWHBEA sued NWHA for using TWHBEA papers to start their own tracking registry.  While TWHBEA only won one of the six points in the lawsuit, this forever put a wedge between the two groups.  TWHBEA also continues to vacillate on the amendment issue.  They have made no official statement that they support it, even though many of their members and the majority of the Executive Committee does.

In the meantime, NWHA has refused to support HR 1518/S 1406 stating they're worried about the "heavy shoes" portion of the amendment.  Clearly, shoes are more important than protecting the horse.  They have gone so far as to kick people off of committees who have publicly stated they are for the amendment.  The 2011 Nationals fiasco concerning a DQP using the hoof measuring tool incorrectly blew up into a crazy media frenzy and was not resolved in a quality or satisfactory manner.

What about Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH)?  Well, FOSH has also caused serious problems with their own ideas.  I don't agree with the extreme radical ideas that FOSH pushes, and I don't like their rulebook.  I have also seen evidence in videos that the FOSH judges do not understand their own rules and can't recognize a true flat walk from a pace.  At this point, without a championship show and without general support, they are not capable of picking up the pieces.

The shambles that the Lickers, the Flatters, and the Bunny Rubbers have created.
So what does it take to pick up the pieces?

I have a lot of ideas of how we can "save" the industry.  There are plenty of people who won't like my ideas, Lickers, Flatters, and Bunny Rubbers alike.  I'll post my ideas in another blog post, but right now I have more to say here.

Honestly, we are all guilty here.  The extremists who want their horses climbing over the rail are guilty.  The bitless and barefoot fanatics (like myself) are guilty.  The sound horse people who go to sore horse shows are guilty.  The sound horse people who trail ride, do endurance, dressage, etc. who just "ignore" what's going on in the ring are guilty.  Every single one of us is guilty.

Why are we guilty?

It's because we are forgetting the one element in this that is the most important: time changes all things.

To the Lickers:  It is time to stop living in the 60s, 70s, and 80s when the Big Lick was in its heyday.  Soring aside, it is just no longer popular, just like afros, ascots, and tye-dye.  Look around you; look outside Tennessee and Kentucky.  The Big Lick is not promoted in other areas of the country--or in the world for that matter--because it's no longer interesting.  In this day and age of technology, it's easy to look up what the majority of horse owners are doing with their horses and what they want to see in the show ring.  If you want to bring your crowds back, ditch the past and look to the future.  It's okay to make a change, and it will be a change for the better, I promise.

To the Flatters: Stop relying on shoes and bits to make the gait.  Start realizing that training horses properly comes from learning to be a good trainer yourself rather than relying on gimmicks to force what you want out of the horse.  For the past 20 years or so, we're learning so much from so-called "natural horsemanship" and the original, classical methods of training horses that creating a partnership between human and horse rather than forcing the issue; we're learning this absolutely is the right way to go.  I ask you to challenge yourself--think outside the box.  Study horse anatomy and horse behavior; learn how these things impact how you ride.  They key is this: good trainers who work with the horse rather than the gadgets will always prevail and will always have a steady income.  Fads and gimmicks come and go and will never have a strong foothold.

To the Bunny Rubbers (like myself): First, be the better person.  Stop attacking the Lickers and Flatters and start making a change to stop trying to force your ideas onto the TWH industry.  Yes, I'm tired of shoes and bits and gimmicks to make the gait.  I know as well as all of you do that the type of shoeing that goes on in the TWH industry is detrimental to the horse, Big Lick and Flat Shod.  But at the same time, we are better off LEADING the trainers and riders to knowledge rather than FORCING them to look at it.  This is our time to stand up and tell our experiences with bitless and barefoot and soft hands and mild bits, but we also have to be delicate with this time so we don't make the same mistakes that so many have in the past.  Give people information backed up with facts, then back off.  Let it be.  Some people will never drink from the pool of knowledge we have given them, and we just can't ever help those folks.  But more and more people will drink if we are polite and not rude.  Be patient, kind, and willing to listen, and more people than not will make the change.

Sad Looking Horse by Erik van Ekelenburg via Flickr
Click for link
I am sad right now.  Sad for the TWH industry, sad for the horses, sad for my friends who are watching things fall apart, sad for those who cannot seem to stop being so radical on either side.  My heart is broken because we can't find common ground.  My brain is tired, my mind hurts.

I do still have hope, though.  Hope that the infighting will stop.  Hope that the TWH will become an amazingly popular breed.  Hope that this time, the change that will come from within will be permanent.

The Flat Shod Tennessee Walking Horse model
by Deborah McDermott
click for link


Debbie Corum said...

Thank you for your post. I was raised with TWH's and going to the Celebration. I now have my own horses and am against the stacked shoes, twisted wire and extreme shank bits, and definitely any form of soaring, blinding, etc., used in "training". Yes, my family still has the box at the celebration that we have had for about 70 years. I almost gave it back this year, but, still hold hope that a new dawn will happen. I don't have a lot of hope for the celebration because the "way to do it" is so ingrained and of course, money is involved. I'm not sure yet what I will do for next year, but I can say that we went Friday night to a truly terrible show. We left early because it was impossible to sit there wondering which horses were in pain or have had to be in pain just to be in that arena. I would happily pay the bucks to see the shows with versatility, bringing in other breeds and activities, and even some flat shod if inspected by outside inspectors. I understand the explosiveness of the whole subject, but, am glad to see you put forth good points for solutions, not bashing. I LOVE my foundational TWH's and continue to strive to see this side of the TWH world grow. Like the American Quarter horse, their abilities are endless. It may take moving a national show for the TWH to another section of the country and take it out of the hands of those that greed and ignorance is bringing the celebration to it's knees. So sad, because as you pointed out, going to the shows were indeed celebration and joy of being together and loving horses for us. The "blinders" are off and if losing this tradition is the only answer to save the Tennessee Walking Horses, so be it. Hopefully, with everyone working together, we can change things for the better. Thanks for your blog. You are doing a good job!

For the Tennessee Walking Horse said...

Thank you SO MUCH Debbie for your comment. That really helps to solidify what I have been seeing, and what I believe others are seeing as well. I'm glad to hear from you and really appreciate your input. Let's hope we can see a new appreciation for the sound TWH soon.

JJ said...

This is such a well thought out post, I can tell that you truly put your heart and soul into this cause, which I think is just awesome!

I grew up riding AQHA and Morgan horses and then in middle school, my became best friends with a girl whose family owned a TWH farm. My friend (still my best friend in our 30's) :). dragged me to all of her shows in Michigan, and then when she got a fabulous mare, started riding Plantation Pleasure and equitation and just cleaning up. She showed the mare at the Celebration and actually took home the title of WGrandCha. on her plantation mare (NEVER sored).

I remember they purchased a padded mare one year in TN., and brought her back home to their farm. Before they took her pads off, I rode her. I'm ashamed to say :(. Anyway, they took her pads off and showed her flatshod until she was sold.

So...there is absolutely no point in my stories above...just thought I'd share :) Love the blog and wanted to just let you know! <---sorry, I'm at work and getting tons of interruptions.

For the Tennessee Walking Horse said...

No problem, JJ! I appreciate your story. It's great to hear that those folks took that horse off the pads and gave it a better life. Whether we like it or not, the stacks are not safe for a horse. They point the toe downward and the horse has to stand on them 24/7 with no relief. This can cause serious damage to the entire leg, shoulder and back. There is also proof that rotating the angle of the hoof actually cuts off blood pressure, and the letter that went with the Auburn Study in 1982 said that there are more instances of thrush, contracted heels, laminitis, and other lameness issues in horses that wear stacks.

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