The Big Lick: Horse abuse for fame and fortune

nobiglickUPDATE:Federal legislation to ban soring has been introduced since this post was written; details at bottom of page. Please contact your senators.

The Big Lick. For most of us, it’s a good thing. It’s what we get when we come home to our wildly-ecstatic canine companion: the full-body wag and the slobbery, big lick.

Unfortunately, there’s a sinister “big lick” lurking in the horse industry. (Does it ever turn out well for animals when their name is coupled with the word industry?) While I hate to be the one to reveal a whole new realm of animal abuse, you’ll find its motivation to be the same old same old: humans exploiting animals for ego, entertainment, and greed. Prize money here, blue ribbons there, and horses whose forefeet are injured or destroyed for coerced performances while spectators roar their approval of the pain-induced, artificial gait called the Big Lick. ABC’s “Nightline Investigates” aired the topic last May (a must-watch six-minute video), featuring undercover video from the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS).


Click image for video of the radiography process that produced this X-ray

The Big Lick is breed-specific abuse: Tennessee Walking Horses are the usual victims in the quest for this exaggerated, high-stepping gait prized by owners and rewarded by judges in Big Lick competitions (video example here–note the horse’s name, Big Time Money). Something similar can be achieved through a horse’s natural ability, lengthy training, and some permissible mechanical means (“action devices” for which a ban is proposed)–chains and stacked-platform “performance shoes” or “performance packages,” but hurrying the process along at the horses’ expense means a more timely payout for trainers and owners:

The Horse Protection Act of 1970 specifically outlawed chemical soring of the front feet, but like any regulation, it has to be enforced to be effective. The horse industry has created its own professional groups–Horse Industry Organizations (HIOs)–to police its ranks for violations. The president of one such HIO, S.H.O.W. (Sound horses, Honest judging, Objective inspections, Winning fairly), tells the ABC interviewer:

American Farriers Journal-click image

According to Keith Dane, HSUS Director of Equine Protection and a Tennessee Walking Horse enthusiast himself, “the practice has continued unabated for the last 42 years” in spite of the Horse Protection Act. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, in a 2010 audit, said that “the industry is mostly self-regulated by inspectors hired by walking horse groups and USDA inspectors only attended 6 percent of the over 400 horse shows in one year.” That amounts to fewer than 24 shows inspected by federal regulators! Says Friends of Sound Horses, a gaited horse advocacy group, “If the USDA could afford to inspect 100% of the Tennessee Walking Horse shows, the total Horse Protection Act violations could be as high as 10,000 or 20,000 per year!” Instead, industry insiders are handed the task in a “clear case of the fox guarding the henhouse,” according to an HSUS fact sheet on soring.

Shelbyville, TN is home to the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the grand-daddy of walking horse competitions heading into its 75th year. According to a board director for another HIO–the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization–the annual Celebration “contributes nearly $40 million to the town’s economy every year.” It’s a cause for concern when major sponsors pull out, as Pepsi did after ABC’s “Nightline Investigates.” One industry strategy is to trot out (as it were) accusations against HSUS for caring only about generating publicity to use in fundraising. Another is to hire a public relations firm. Hey, if you can put a good spin on the Gulf oil spill, imagine what you can do for sore feet.

Other counter-strategies include silencing the opposition. HSUS advocates have attempted to “publish editorial columns and paid advertisements in Shelbyville’s local paper, the Times-Gazette, but both the columns and the ads have been refused.” A local diner owner has found himself blacklisted for failing to purchase a $40 “proud sponsor” sign for his diner’s window–that campaign yet another “small part of a public relations blitz expected to pick up speed…intended to divert attention from recent revelations about abusive practices in the multimillion-dollar walking horse industry” (source).

Spin the story, divert attention, deny access–this is exactly what we expect from those who profit from exploitive industries where animals are merely means to ends–their lives and their pain inconvenient detractors from the bottom line–when taken into account at all. The cynicism will crush you if you let it; that’s why it’s nice to end somewhere else…with Jenny, a walking horse trainer of almost 40 years who defected from the dark side and is now trying to “clean up the mess” she was part of (she’s interviewed in the “Nightline Investigates” video). She speaks about having pursued the Big Lick with a whatever-it-takes fervor. “I couldn’t believe how vicious I had become, the cruelty, the monster I turned into to make those horses do that thing. And it just rips my heart apart because I know what those horses are going through. For what? For a blue ribbon that cost a dollar ninety-five?”

Her sincerity is real. Still, it’s hard for an animal rights adherent to embrace the idea that breeding horses–breeding any animal–to conform to artificial standards is somehow a good thing. The human obsession with breeds–their appearance, their performance, their prestige–has resulted in woe for animals–from cosmetic “fixes” like docked tails and cropped ears to more serious ailments bred into them like fragile bones and breathing problems. Gas chambers and slaughterhouses are kept full and busy with discarded lives that didn’t measure up, that broke down, or–simply put–that were scrapped.

And then there’s the sordid business of the Big Lick–cruel, freakish, mercenary, depraved. A fantasy scenario of justice served: When unrepentant Big Lick perpetrators (knowing spectators included) go to their Final Reckoning, they find that the gatekeeper is a Tennessee Walking Horse attended by a bottle of caustic chemicals and a bucket of nails. Behind him, a pathway stretches into eternity.
TAKE ACTION:Visit the Other Nations Act! page (find it in the menu bar) to support federal legislation: the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act.
*Tennessee Walking Horse Pastern Action Devices and Hoof Pads Ban Endorsed by AVMA, AAEP
*Four indictments for soring; “The Big Lick Shows Big Changes Are Needed to Stop Horse Soring” from HSUS.
UPDATE, 4/29/13: Nineteen sored horses seized – article here; Horses with bolts through hooves…video here
UPDATE, 8/26/15:“Graphic video shows abuse of TN walking horses” news report

This post also appears at animal law blogAnimal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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