It’s time to break out the tee-shirts again. Back in the day, the counterculture had a message that showed up everywhere. “What”, they postulated “would happen if they gave a war and nobody came?”
Today, in middle Tennessee, a war that has been seething and stewing, on and off, for more than 40 years, between the culture that calls itself the walking horse performance industry and the counterculture, the group that has grown to represent everyone else in the larger world of horsemen and horsewomen, as well as civilians, not just in the United States but from countries around the world, the plain folks who know an unnatural gait and cruelty when they see it, have finally come out of the trenches and are making a stand.
The two sides are now actively engaged in what both surely hope will be the final engagement of the saga that began back in the 60s. That was when Sports Illustrated first ran a series of articles about cruelty and corruption in the walking horse show world and The Nashville Tennessean won a Pulitzer prize for exposing the underbelly of the “Tennessee tradition” with its headquarters at TWHBEA in Lewisburg, Tennessee and at the Celebration grounds in Shelbyville.
This past Thursday night a horse show began in Columbia, Tennessee. The three day Jubilee is a 50- year-plus tradition. To be fair there were horses in the classes, in fact, the majority of the shows this season have shown an uptick in the number of horses in the line-up.
Some of the classes have actually had more horses than there were ribbons, something that did not happen last season, but, more importantly, there has been no audience in the seats. This was true for the earlier show held this season in Columbia; it was true for opening night of the Jubilee and for Friday night; and it has been the case at all the other big lick shows held this show season.
By contrast, the April edition of Columbia Mule Days had grandstands filled with people for both day and evening events.
The show horse culture continues to put its product out there and to insist that rooting for the big lick horse is a community event, a matter of Tennessee state pride; the counterculture has responded that there is nothing that’s happening at these shows that people interested in humane treatment of animals should support and by extension no charities or service clubs should be taking donations from cruelty presented as entertainment.
The lack of people in the stands makes for an interesting challenge for the Ingram group, the paid PR firm whose founder has close personal ties to Tennessee State Senator Lamar Alexander. Ingram was hired to change the conversation and to rebrand the big lick horse with a new kinder and gentler public image even as it retained all of its old baggage. That’s a trick that’s worth a six figure fee.
A series of stories and pictures has since magically appeared in Tennessee papers showing the virtues of the walking horse in front of an audience of bused- in school children and bused- in senior citizens. Both groups have been impressed, so it says in the paper, by the good nature of the horses, as they should be. The walking horse is always a good citizen no matter what has been done with it or to it.
These captive audiences, however, might have been surprised to learn about the Horse Protection Act violation histories of the hosts and hostesses , as well as those of the trainers and the clients who fill the barns, had someone given them that other side of the story.
Ditto the horse that recently went to school in Mississippi. He was a handsome boy and a nice individual. The little kids that were exposed to him didn’t know what they were looking at except that he was a beautiful big horse wearing some interesting horse shoes. They didn’t know anything about the Horse Protection Act or soring or the violation histories of the owners and the trainers, and you can be sure that the story they were told did not reflect the story that the protestors in Columbia are exposing to the community there. Shame on a school administration that allowed people involved in breaking a federal law to appear as examples for children, using a horse as the candy to entice them; in this war, all is apparently fair.
The Ingram group PR gurus might be surprised to know the histories of their media reps, too, but it's understandable if they haven't dug all that deeply. When you’re counting column inches and photos in local newspapers , placing those “happy horse stories” for an industry that has been mired in public in its own merde for the last several years, because that’s what you’ve been hired to do, it’s probably smart that, like attorneys working for the mob, you don’t ask too many questions.
There’s a larger problem , however, with giving a war that no one attends. The already dubious economic impact argument for how much money the show horse industry puts back into the community, citing figures that have strained credulity and are difficult to substantiate, becomes harder to sustain.
During the recent Fun Show in Shelbyville there were fewer than 20 buses, trailers, and big rigs in the front camping ground, an area that used to be filled during the Fun Show. Hotels had empty rooms and there was no wait in cafes for a table. In Calsonic arena it was easier to count the people that were there than it was to count the empty chairs.
Unless, of course, you were Mike Inman, the CEO of The Celebration, who told the world, proudly, that there were 2,000 people in the audience at Calsonic on the final night of the Fun Show show.
Now the number 2,000 might have been a typo ( it could happen) or perhaps Mr. Inman mistook the audience at the Fun Show with the audience from the recently held Cascade High School graduation that also used Calsonic for its May event. There actually were 2,000 people plus in the seats then.
The audience that came to hear Pomp and Circumstance, blow air horns for their graduates, and, who didn’t have to pay to park or buy a ticket to get into Calsonic, stretched half way around the arena, filling the seats, with a few hundred more behind the graduating class.
Perhaps Mr. Inman made the body count mistake because the symbol of Cascade High School is a big lick walking horse, prominently displayed on its graduation announcements and he thought it was a horse show flier. Paper horse, paper tiger -- the spin machine is always at work.
Lastly, comes the newest entry into the war: the TWHBEA, an association now dominated by the big lick industry, has volunteered itself for duty. In the past the TWHBEA has resisted holding horse shows, including naming its own world grand champions. It let a privately held horse show, The Celebration, do that and obliged them by putting that private show's titles on the official registration papers of every horse in the breed registry.
With the exception of the versatility world show and the Futurity, TWHBEA wasn’t in the horse show business, at least officially, even as it supported big lick interests, helped pay for lobbyists to support the big lick faction, and spent big money sponsoring big lick events, back in the day when the TWHBEA had more money than it does now.
This year it changed course and stormed the front lines, bringing back the Belfast show, after it disappeared from the show calendar because of a lack of community based volunteers and support. The TWHBEA in its big announcement has advised that Belfast 2015 will have a full complement of Performance Horse classes, an oxymoronic trainers’ equitation class, and some big prize money in the stake class. The show will honor the late S.W. Beech, long acknowledged as the Don of the walking horse show world for many, many years.
TWHBEA urges the community to come out and support the show and to get into the spirit of the thing.
When it comes to the spirit of the thing, the directors of TWHBEA, the organizers of big lick shows, the CEO of the Celebration, the president of the Trainers’ Association, and anyone else who thinks that the drive to end the abuse of the performance walking horse is going away, should read a letter sent to the editor of The Daily Herald, the paper of record in Columbia, Tennessee. It follows:
From the plain speaking in that letter it doesn’t sound like a truce or a negotiated settlement between the culture and the counterculture will be coming any time soon.
Since the beginning of this show season, in addition to funding billboards in three states, picket signs in Tennessee, and gathering thousands, legitimate thousands, of names on multiple Change.org petitions, the counterculture has answered the question “What if?” with a resounding “Hell no, we won’t go.”
What makes it different this time around, is that the counterculture not only won't go, it also isn’t going away.