Something’s Happening Here. This Time It’s Very Clear

A man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor…
— Mark Twain, A Biography

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:





Dear Editor Bennett:
Columbia residents join the All American Walking Horse Alliance in opposing the Animal Cruelty of the “Big Lick” Tennessee Horse at Maury County Park this weekend.

We do NOT want any form of animal cruelty like the “Big Lick” coming to our town. We oppose SORING of horses and feel strongly that this “Tennessee Tradition”, no matter how long-standing, is WRONG. We believe that the majestic animal on whose back this nation was literally built upon deserves better.

In the medieval ages, drawing and quartering a person on the town square was acceptable for a hundred years until people woke up and realized just how barbaric it really was. The cruelty that is rampant among the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration and it’s sister shows in Tennessee is barbaric, inhumane and above all, CRUEL.

Over 8,000 people from every state and more than 71 foreign countries signed a Petition ( begun) by Laura Ousley of Knoxville urging a “BOYCOTT” of the Columbia Spring Jubilee.

One signer commented: “My husband & I own property in Maury County. We are also horse owners. It shames us to think that Columbia would in any way be associated with this appalling animal abuse. The Big Lick is vicious & cruel almost beyond belief. There is money, lots of money, at stake in this industry. That prancing walk you see is pain – pure torture with every step, caused by mustard oil, nails, chains…whatever an unscrupulous trainer thinks will work. The Big Lick is a freak show-some of its fans even call it that. We want no part of this filth.”
It is time to speak out for horses! We want no part of this cruel racket and the torture it inflicts on horses. It is a barbaric “Tennessee Tradition” that MUST stop! “

All citizens need to “BOYCOTT” these “Big Lick” horse shows.

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 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.