The sentence “correlation is not causation” is used as a sort of shorthand for explaining to the rest of us, those who are not statisticians, why pseudo- statistics that are used to make a point may simply be based in opinion and have no provable validity. Events or actions that take place can be strung together to make a point, yet doesn’t mean that the point that they make is valid. This is why legitimate polls or studies are constructed to be scientifically accurate within a plus or minus margin of error, even as other polls and studies are constructed with questions or directed research producing the result that the commissioners of the poll hope to achieve.
In order to track what’s really going on in breed registrations and in membership numbers, Debbie Fuentes, the registrar of the Arabian Horse Association based in Aurora, Colorado, recently released the results of her statistical gathering of information obtained directly from a variety of equine breed registries in the United States.
Ms. Fuentes’ numbers are the best indicator that horsemen now have of current trends and health within the larger equine industry because the American Horse Council last published its own survey on the subject in 2005, ironically, the year that America’s economy came close to meltdown. Gathering data directly from the breed associations , Ms. Fuentes distilled the numbers into revealing percentages (and yes, the AQHA with its versatile Quarter Horse breed, continues to lead the pack as America’s favorite horse, according to the data.)
Ms. Fuentes has released figures and stays away from opinions. Her findings should be cause for concern for the TWHBEA and for all who love the Tennessee Walking Horse.
It has become habitual for industry leaders to point to the economic downturn in the country as the primary cause of both lost revenue and a decline in the breeding for walking horses. Many have also habitually ignored the elephant in the room: the steadily gaining perception in America, based on evidence and the official positions of the American Horse Council, the AVMA and the AAEP regarding soring and the need for corrective federal legislative action. These organizations and many others realize that a particular aspect of the Tennessee Walking Horse demonstrated in the show ring is not only unsightly, but is produced through techniques that at the worst constitute animal cruelty and at the least use practices that enlightened horsemen have discarded.
Trying to coax change from this element of the walking show horse faction has proven to be largely a frustrating waste of time, but a look at the facts might make an impact. If you are a business person with an investment in the walking horse "industry", economics rather than emotion should be driving business decisions.
The Great Recession began in 2005 and, using standard economic indicators, is commonly held to have ended in 2009, although the economy has been slow to recover in many parts of the country. The recession undoubtedly did play a part in declines in horse ownership, breeding, showing, membership in equine organizations, and falling sales prices across the spectrum of the horse world; now, however, six years into recovery, according to Ms. Fuentes, some organizations have started the slow climb back to profitability and show increases in breeding, sales, and membership or at least the leveling off of losses. The TWHBEA and by extension the Tennessee Walking Horse as a breed is not on either list. Inquiring minds should be asking why?
Correlation is not causation, but a case can be made that through the leadership of the executive committee of the TWHBEA, actions like the construction of recent by-law changes and the ‘disciplining’ of members who have chosen to speak out on issues that are verboten , are the result of conscious decisions made to relieve the TWHBEA of the burden of having to deal with those who continue to raise questions about this sort of training, the presentation of this particular type of show horse, and the determination of a small but powerful few to persist in its promotion. The Welcome mat is definitely not out in Lewisburg for "you people" who don't see it "our way" or don't support "our horse".
The recent news that the TWHBEA is seeking potential candidates for its 2016 Executive Committee term, asking for a blend of “new and experienced executive committee members” with “geographical balance of representation to be placed on the nominating slate” and “a mix of breeders, show horse owners, and pleasure horse riders with a variety of business backgrounds so that all executive committee members are competent to address all aspects of TWHBEA business” , sounds encouraging. Then you realize that many of the people who could once have actually filled those positions, bringing new ideas and a new perspective , as well as a social conscience, to the table have either never been able to get elected to the board of directors in states dominated by the show horse faction or have already walked away from the association, tired of coming to Tennessee and leaving poorer for hotel and airline expenses while having achieved nothing that meant anything to them.
TWHBEA talking about inclusivity while drawing from an exclusive pool makes a good sound bite but over the years the outsiders, the "you people" have gotten wiser about where they will invest time, effort and money. Many former devoted TWHBEA supporters now participate in alternate horse show venues and are among the most active supporters of the PAST Act.
While the TWHBEA prefers to play the part of another animal with a swingy gait , the ostrich, the registrar of the Arabian Horse Association is focused with laser precision about what is going on in the macro world of horses. Why would she care? Could it be that the AHA having suffered, long before the Great Recession, its own spectacular meltdown in sales and breeding, thanks to speculation driven prices and a series of its own breed scandals that eroded trust in the brand, learned from these lessons and vowed never to be blindsided again?
Correlation is not causation but whatever her reasons, Ms. Fuentes has done the equine world a favor by eliminating the spin put out by breed organizations and focusing simply on the numbers. Liars may figure, but accurate figures don’t lie and that’s why her research should be a jolt by ice water for the TWHBEA.
According to an article published in TheHorse.com Ms. Fuentes found that in 2013 TWHBEA registered (defined as foals and young horses and ownership transfers) 4,152 horses. In 2014 that number decreased to 2,825, a decrease of more than 35%.
As to membership in the breed registry, in 2014 the actual number of TWHBEA members was 5,019, the biggest decline of any breed registry organization, surpassing a loss of 22% in actual members. (By comparison, at one point in the late 1990s the actual membership of TWHBEA was reported to exceed 21,000 and equine journals talked about the walking horse as one of the country’s fastest growing breeds. What a difference less than 20 years can make. )
To repeat, in 2014 TWHBEA had a decrease in registrations of more than 35% and a decline in membership of more than 22%, the highest decline of any of the breed organizations that Ms. Fuentes included in her statistical sampling.
As other breed organizations and their related breeds have begun to climb out of a deep hole or at least began to hold level, the TWHBEA and the Tennessee Walking Horse continued its slide, down, down, down.
The “supporting all disciplines” faction of the walking horse breed refuses to acknowledge that one particular aspect of the show ring business may be taking the horse itself down with it. Those who do acknowledge the problem in private, have a public attitude that holding the line even with diminishing returns is preferable to making the changes that would restore respectability to the brand and bring back the members who have voted with their feet because of the ongoing issues, including:
Ø The continued presence of abusive training methods and the sored horse in the show ring
Ø The elevation of HPA violators to leadership positions and the use of these individuals as both judges and committee chairmen and women
Ø The preference for an aberrant gait and unnatural shoeing techniques,
Ø Cronyism between the breed registry and a particular aspect of the show world and preference for a particular HIO at the expense of the interests of a broader range of members
Ø A growing realization and resulting disillusionment on the part of many members that no meaningful change would be effected within the breed registry.
When these former members and some directors fully understood that money they spent with the registry and the established show circuit was being used to promote and to protect a small aspect of the breed, at the expense of the breed as a whole, they determined that in conscience they could neither endorse nor support practices which they felt were abusive. Some of these owners changed breeds, as Patty Beaty recently told Congressman Duncan of Tennessee , to get away from the stigma associated with the walking horse business.
In thinking about sentences that are used as shorthand, here’s another one: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” As the statisticians tell us, “correlation is not causation”, but there are times in insane situations where correlation points the way to discovering why different results can’t be achieved.
The reality is that the march into negative numbers began all the way back in the early 2000s, well before the Great Recession was contemplated and long before Jimmy McConnell became on ABC the poster person for the problem. The decline has not been externally driven; it began with an internal revolt that has become a public discussion.
As with any addiction, hitting bottom is necessary to finally sobering up. Ms. Fuentes’ numbers should be a wake-up call for the TWHBEA and its declining band of old-faithful’s but it’s unlikely that necessary change will be made without further implosion. Things aren't great but they haven't seen the bottom yet.
The property rights and true believers now in charge are still looking for all of the outside reasons why the business is on the skids. They have yet to take a hard look at themselves to determine if maybe, just maybe, the problem is of their own making, of wanting a change without making the necessary ones.
(This might also be the reason that the nostalgic tune historically played by the organist at the end of each Celebration session, “ I love you just the way you are”, continues to be a favorite with the performance horse crowd. It is reported that Nero, too, fiddled while Rome burned. )