New Show Season with Variations on the Same Old Song and Dance

Isn’t human nature the most consummate sham & lie that was ever invented? Isn’t man a creature to be ashamed of in pretty much all his aspects?  Is he really fit for anything but to be stood up on the street corner as a convenience for dogs?”


Mark Twain in a letter to a friend, 1884




The diminished but not defunct performance /big lick segment of the walking horse world started its 2015 show season with two events: the Mississippi Charity Show and the 47th Annual Walking Horse Trainers Association Show.


One took place in Jackson and, after public outcry, found that its charity partner, the Batson Children’s Hospital, declined to accept its donation.  The other moved from its traditional Shelbyville, Tennessee, home to another Celebration arena, this one located in Decatur, Alabama.  The Trainers’   Show is the WHTA’s primary fundraiser, making the event its own favorite charity. 


In both Mississippi and Decatur something new happened this year.  The shows were met with hard- hitting billboards, the majority of them paid for and then erected by sound horsemen and women with another funded by the HSUS.  Their message was to ask the potential audience for the shows   to consider   how the horses came to look the way they look, hitting a lick, that no one can deny, is a totally unnatural parody of the breed’s natural gait.  Show officials and participants also found themselves face- to -face with reporters that had done some homework about what’s going on in the walking horse show world and had found other sources than the obvious ones.  


The prospect of harder questions didn’t stop Trainers’ Show manager Billy Morgan from telling the Decatur Daily, in essence, that though there was a public outcry, that the folks doing the yelling didn’t really know anything; that there was nothing to their outrage, that all that bad stuff that they were protesting happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, and that Darth Vader had left the building; that all the trainers and exhibitors and horses that they would see in Decatur were both  clean and pure.   The do-gooders, in Mr. Morgan’s worldview, were simply uninformed, misinformed, or purposefully attempting to destroy the reputation of the good people showing these fine horses.  


The   big lick clan is nothing if not consistent with the story that they tell the public.  This practiced charm comes from 40 years of experience denying the existence of soring, of abusive training practices, and the fact that honored, name brand trainers and owners and exhibitors continue to be repeat violators.  


When Jackie McConnell, by any definition an industry insider, was caught red -handed on undercover video soring horses even as he served a federal suspension for previously being caught soring horses, other trainers and industry spokesmen were shocked, simply shocked! McConnell went from being a big apple in the business to being a bad apple overnight. His mistake was not what he did, because what he did is what they all do. His mistake was in hiring someone to work for him who caught it all on video.  And, contrary to what Mr. Morgan wanted the public to believe, what took place at McConnell’s training facility took place not that long ago.  


If a reporter had only asked Mr. Morgan to explain, why, if Jackie McConnell, a multi -time winner at The Celebration, a Hall of Famer with big name and big money clients, a man who   had access to what the industry considers to be the “best “ horses, had to do these horrible things with chemicals, cattle prods, ax handles, etc., to his horses in order to get through inspection and win in competition, how are other trainers are duplicating    that big lick look without doing the same things to their horses?  And, as a follow- up question, why do the leading trainers in the Riders’ Cup money chase each year continue to gather up HPA violations?    It would have been instructive to hear Mr. Morgan answer questions like these.


 Meanwhile, The Celebration’s new PR Firm, the Ingram Group,  with offices in Nashville and Washington, DC, should appreciate the ability of all of these folks to look the public straight in the eye and tell whoppers. It’s a talent that not everyone has. Usually, PR firms have to conduct media training to teach people to face a camera without flinching when they know that they are prevaricating or giving statements that that have been carefully weasel-worded for effect.  Not with this crowd; they come pre-prepared through years of experience.  It's no  coincidence that Ingram is the firm tapped by The Celebration Inc., to make the bad news go away.


Tom Ingram founded the Ingram Group in 1983 after he left his post as Deputy and Chief of Staff to then Tennessee governor, now senator, Lamar Alexander.  Alexander, the same senator who blocked the PAST Act and believes that the big lick horse is an iconic Tennessee tradition, is a friend of the founder of the firm charged with changing the conversation about the big lick horse. The firm’s goal is to return   The Celebration to profitability and to restore the performance horse to its “rightful” position of leadership in the show world.


The ability to deliver consistent messaging is part of all re-branding campaigns.  Like Sea World, the walking horse industry is fighting back from its own version of three years of “Blackfish” type coverage that has the general public asking questions about what’s going on with these horses and whether or not entertainment based in abuse or coercion is all that entertaining.    


Members of the news media, too, are starting to scratch, figuratively, more than the surface of the skin to find out who these performance people are and what their histories are.  It’s no surprise that Ingram Group has already met with the editor of The Tennessean whose paper was pretty plain spoken about support for the PAST Act in 2014.


The pros from Ingram haven’t fully gotten the message reins under control, yet,  and doing so may not be an easy task because actions, which the industry feels are normal, are precisely the things that make the public say “What?”


As an example, the Trainers Show had   4 of 4 of its  “honorable” judges with HPA violation histories; the WHTA hauled out for an Alabama TV crew, a fellow trainer who works for another trainer, with a federal case from 2013 (plus a history of other HPA violations over the years) as the demonstration team for all that’s right with the industry; finally, the grand champion title of the show was awarded to an individual whose extended family was  involved in one of the more interesting federal HPA  cases ever prosecuted , with a  personal history of repeat violations of the HPA, riding  a winner that passed inspection but certainly bore no resemblance to a horse with a natural gait.


The people involved in the SHOW HIO hired to inspect the Trainers Show  were totally supportive of the efforts to end USDA mandatory penalties for soring violations and rejoiced over the 5th Circuit’s recent decision that allowed them to do exactly that. Since then, through its legal team of Kelley Drye and Warren LLP, The Celebration, which owns SHOW, demanded on March 9, 2015 that the USDA go back and remove all of the scar rule violations given out since 2009 from the records of trainers, owners and   exhibitors.  This came about after a blatant effort was launched in January   at a SHOW hosted DQP training session held in Shelbyville by the USDA to ambush and   trip up the USDA’s lead VMO, Dr. Baker, regarding inspection techniques related to the scar rule and the USDA’s position on enforcement of same.



At the conclusion of the Trainers Show, industry media trumpeted the successful co-operation between the USDA and the SHOW DQPs, resulting in 96% compliance for the event with the Horse Protection Act.  (They did not broadcast the results of an opinion poll in the Decatur paper that found that 71% of the respondents felt that the county had made a mistake in letting the show be held at the arena.) Lack of public enthusiasm, notwithstanding, more horses in the class, but almost no bottoms in the seats (Mr. Morgan had predicted crowds in the thousands), the Decatur outing was considered to be an auspicious start for the 2015 season after last year’s disastrous outings. 


It soundsgood and things that sound too good to be true usually aren’t.  A close look at the USDA’s after- action- report reveals that the 96% compliance number is another example of not –so- fast.


According to the USDA report, there were 79 padded horses and three flat shod horses inspected pre-show by USDA VMOs at the 47th Annual Trainers Show.   There were 10 violations of padded horses and one violation for a flat shod horse discovered by the USDA.  They also examined 39 padded horses and one flat shod horse post-show, finding two violations for scar rule in   padded horses.  The VMOS,   inspected    a total of 122 horses in pre and post show inspections,  finding 12 violations,  resulting in 11 disqualifications.


There were a total of 289 entries inspected during the duration of the show and the DQPs checked all of these entries.  232 of the entries were padded horses. On this much larger group, the DQPs found only 8 violations in pre-show inspections and none on post-show inspections, for a total of 8 violations and 8 disqualifications.  Once again, on a smaller sample of horses, USDA VMOs found more violations  than SHOW DQPs wrote for the larger population.


Thermographic imagining is part of the USDA report. Thermography shows the presence of abnormal inflammation in the lower leg and pastern area. Inflammation at this level is considered in standard veterinary practice to be consistent with a pain event.  The evidence of scarring patterns consistent with soring practices also show up  through  the use of thermography cameras. In the USDA report 226 total horses, including 183 padded and 43 flat shod, were subjected to thermographic examination.   51 padded horses showed " "significant findings" with thermography and one flat shod horse showed significant findings. Just over 25% of the horses that underwent thermographic examination showed significant findings of inflammation.


 Swabbing for foreign substances was done on 30 horses. The results won’t be back from the lab for weeks, but it is likely, if history is a reference point, that many of these swabs will come back positive for the presence of illegal substances. At some point , owners, trainers and exhibitors will receive 7060s, informing them that their horses are believed to be in violation of the HPA based on lab results.   When that happens, those numbers will never make it into the public discussion or into the “compliance rate” for the show. That 96% number, however, will already have been spread far and wide to demonstrate that there is no problem with walking horses exhibited in shows.


The industry that   show manager Morgan calls his own, has had its spokesmen, for years, sincerely   tell any politician or news person that would listen that the USDA VMOs are not as good at detecting a sore horse as industry  inspectors known as DQPs; that USDA VMOs  lack credentials; that they are prejudiced against the industry; that too many of them aren’t even horse vets but chicken vets; and, that they incorrectly interpret the Horse Protection Act which they are required by federal law to enforce.


Before the official event  report for the Trainers' Show  came out but at the moment when having the USDA certified seal of approval (as if show horses were pork chops) was important to the industry narrative, it was a different story: the USDA became the imprimatur of all things good related to the walking horse business. 


Mr. Morgan told the Decatur Daily, “ We’re regulated by the US Department of Agriculture. They inspect our horses. When they check them, they’re in compliance with the Horse Protection Act. They will not let an unsound horse in the arena. The horses in the arena have been checked.”



How did Mr. Morgan do on the truth-o-meter? 


Ø  Claim: “ We’re regulated by the USDA”. Although the USDA is required to enforce the HPA, which applies to all breeds of horses, it does not regulate the walking horse industry or any other horse showing operation.  It does not establish rulebooks; it does not certify judges; it does not operate the inspection programs known as HIOs.  Only after a protracted time did it weigh in on a limited basis concerning shoeing and action device weights and measures used in high action performance horses.   Nor does the USDA give out “violation tickets” at horse shows; it does, when it feels that DQPs have failed to enforce the law, take information for possible federal cases against potential violators.  That information may or may not ever result in a court case.  It can, however, take years for such a case to be brought and more years for it to be settled.  During that time, exhibitors continue to show horses, receive awards, and be honored by the industry that regulates itself.

Ø  Claim: “ They inspect our horses.”  Mr. Morgan made it sound as if the USDA VMOs picked up the feet of every horse on the grounds. Not True. The USDA, because of budget constraints, attends very few of the actual events that feature walking horses. Privately managed Horse Industry Organizations are hired by show managers to inspect horses. When USDA VMOs   turn up at a show their function is to be observers and only to intervene when they feel that a violation has been overlooked, ignored, or not cited appropriately by the HIO DQP.  The decision of the USDA to take information at a show is usually marked by a degree of contention from the DQP and the exhibitors, and frequently marked with interviews, post show, and sometimes even during multiple day events, in newspapers friendly to the industry, about how wrong the VMOs were and how nobody else can see what they supposedly saw during inspection.  After the aforementioned DQP clinic, according to a well-known industry spokesman, SHOW DQPs were actually told to ignore the opinions of the VMO when it came to scar rule violations.

Ø  Claim: “When they check them, they’re in compliance with the Horse Protection Act.”  Not so much. In the main, when the USDA VMOs start picking up feet, it’s because the VMOs believe a horse is NOT in compliance with the Horse Protection Act.

Ø  Claim: “ They will not let an unsound horse in the arena.”   That’s closer to a true statement but the devil is always in the details. When a USDA VMO inspects a horse suspected to be in violation of the HPA, based on palpation and visual examination, he or she will not allow it into the ring. However, there are many, many incidents of horses that have been found, after the fact, by the USDA, to be in violation of the foreign substance rules.  Because swab test results don’t come back for approximately 8 weeks after they are submitted for testing by the USDA, horses in potential violation are let into the arena on show night. Trainers, owners, and exhibitors will eventually get a 7060 warning from the USDA when the tests return with positive results, but they still get to compete on show night with chemicals of all sorts that are used for all sorts of things present on their horses’ legs. The industry does not take away titles or prize money when these USDA reports turn up; in fact, the industry poo-poos the USDA swabbing program, claiming that, for example, those pain deadening chemicals could just as easily be something that landed on the horse from the environment or came from some other source of contamination. The presence of hydrocarbons on the pasterns makes sense because after all, the big lick is all about horsepower and power requires fuel.  

Ø  Claim: “ The horses in the arena have been checked.”  That’s certainly true. The implication that the USDA checked them all is untrue.


In conclusion, there’s a final, persistent fact to consider: the majority of the horses found in violation of the Horse Protection Act at the Trainers’ Show were all, save one, big lick horses.  Adding the inspection numbers of flat shod and halter horses to the total number of inspections dilutes the numbers of positives found by category and also makes compliance for the show look much better than if the results were reported by category, including the actual time the same horse in a category was inspected which can result in multiple numeric results. 


As bad apples continue to hide behind the good ones, it might be time for the USDA to bring in its produce inspectors to take a look at the walking horse shows. The produce people have always known how to spot a rotten apple and to keep it from appearing on the shelves of public supermarkets. Shouldn’t what works for fruit also work for horses?