Lack of Knowledge Isn’t a Crime but Willful Ignorance Can Be

As of May 19th, the PAST Act now has 34 sponsors and co-sponsors in the Senate

There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

Mark Twain in Following the Equator

He promised some of his constituents in Tennessee, as well as those from around the country who just happen to show big lick horses and also financially support his senatorial campaigns and various PAC activities, that he would deliver. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a respected former state governor and an educator, has now introduced legislation that he describes as a “ proposal to end the contemptible, illegal practice of horse soring once and for all”.  With the introduction of S.1161 his promise to them  has been kept.


The words  sound grand but the complication remains  that  advisors from the big lick world, representing  individuals still believed to be  involved in actively soring show horses or riding horses that have been sored, are the ones with  access to the senator’s ear in drafting the legislation.    


S1161 stands in stark contrast to the PAST Act [S1121] reintroduced on April 28 by Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA). Original co-sponsors Toomey (R-PA), Vitter (R-LA), Kirk (R-IL), Collins (R-ME), Daines (R-MT), Feinstein (D-CA), Peters (D-MI and sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee), Blumenthal (D-CT), Markey (D-MA and sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee), and McCaskill (D-MO and sits on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee) joined the original sponsors from 2014 in 2015. Since the reintroduction additional  senators have signed on, including: Reed (D-RI), Whitehouse (D-RI), Shaheen (D-NH), Casey (D-PA), Wyden (D-OR), Kaine (D-VA), Baldwin (D-WI),  Bennet (D-CO), Cantwell (D-WA and sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee), Coons ( D-DE), Donnelly ( D-IN), Henrich (D-NM), Menedez (D-NJ), Mikulski (D-MD), Murray (D-WA) ,   Sanders (I-VT and declared candidate for president), Crapo (R-ID),   Durbin ( D-IL), Carper (D-DE).  Merkley (D-OR) , Leahy ( D-VT) and Franken (D-MN).


  The 2015 PAST ACT as reintroduced amends the existing Horse Protection Act and removes  performance packages, action devices, and heavily weighted shoes, whose only purpose is to exaggerate natural gaits,  from walking, racking, and spotted saddle horses.  It is asserted that these devices  are contributory to the soring process. PAST would also increase fines and penalties for violators  and end   the failed HIO System imposed on the USDA by lawmakers years ago.

The establishment of HIOs  as the first line of enforcement of the HPA  guaranteed that the big lick faction would continue to monitor and inspect itself and that soring would never be stopped but remain  half -heartedly regulated and so it has been.


An underfunded USDA, whose budgets have been threatened by both Senator McConnell and Representative Hal Rogers in years past,   unless they co-operated with the walking horse industry and its inspection scheme, has been unable  to end the  soring of horses.  It's time for a different approach.

Under the PAST Act the USDA would license, assign, and oversee inspectors who  would report to APHIS  not to industry interests. Inspections would , after more than 40 years, be conducted  in the best interests of the horse not in the best interests of the industry.  Show managers who elected to use these inspectors would continue to be protected from responsibility for  any soring violations  found on the premises of their shows.  A CBO analysis determined that PAST as envisioned would not add to the cost of enforcing the HPA, an important consideration in a time of fiscal austerity.


Alexander’s 2015 bill is a modification of legislation introduced last year in the House by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Hal Rogers (R-KY), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, as well as Tennessee’s six other Republican congressmen and women.  Blackburn’s bill never generated much  traction in the House but her influence was sufficient   to help stop PAST in its tracks in 2014.


Alexander claims,  and may actually believe,  that his  latest effort will curb the abuses and eliminate  soring of Tennessee Walking Horses, full stop.  If the  history of previous  attempts, depending on industry co-operation and will,  to end it  is a guide to the future, he would be wrong.


He is    joined in this effort  by Mitch McConnell (R-KY) the powerful majority leader in the Senate and a long time recipient of performance horse campaign largesse, and Rand Paul (R-KY), a candidate for the presidency with a libertarian's suspiciousness  of government’s role in regulating any activity not only this one.  Paul seems to be  in agreement with the  Performance Show Horse Association (PSHA)  that PAST “ would do little more than create another layer of bureaucracy at the USDA while denying horse enthusiasts the opportunity”  to participate in competitions that are the basis of the Tennessee Walking Horsed industry.

The  PSHA statement about denying the participants the right to participate  is disingenuous. PAST would not close down horse shows.  The opportunity to show Walking Horses would still exist across a full complement of rail classes, model classes, equitation classes, driving classes,  and versatility classes,  all available to   flat shod horses, their owners, trainers and riders,  while  exhibiting the breed’s natural gaits.  The choice of attending those shows would remain with the participants.



In the last Congressional session Alexander introduced  his pro-industry bill  on April Fool’s Day. This was a coincidence that did not go unremarked by people who did not understand how a senator well informed on so many issues could be so ill -informed on this one, unless the ignorance was by choice.  That feeling still persists in 2015.


Although Alexander, in a press release,  called on “fellow opponents of horse soring to work with us to get a result”, it is clear that his version of  “us” includes only fellow members in the Senate that he would like to see sign on to his position.


 Outside of the Senate, major stakeholders, also currently working to end the practice through what they believe is meaningful legislation, haven’t been asked to a fact finding  meeting with the Senator. He apparently does not feel the need to hear them out or  to have them explain in person why they feel that PAST is the right path. He hasn’t  afforded himself the opportunity to ask them direct questions about why they believe that soring is still present in the big lick business or  to hear their answers.   More importantly Alexander  seems intent on ignoring all existing evidence showing  that  the  “contemptible, illegal practice of horse soring” still continues.


Although every press release emanating from Alexander’s office names the big lick  bogeyman, the HSUS, as the primary advocate for the PAST Act, those same releases fail to mention that the leadership of the  AVMA, the AAEP, the ASPCA, and the American Horse Council fully support this legislation and believe that it is the solution to more than 40 years of illegal activity.


And then, there’s baseball… Somehow, Alexander has packaged  the idea that the walking horse industry is an American tradition like baseball, where you don’t punish the game, you punish the people who play it.  


Quoting Senator Alexander, “ The Humane Society bill would destroy the Tennessee Walking Horse tradition. In baseball, if a player illegally uses steroids you punish the player-you don’t shut down America’s pastime…”


Aside from the obvious,  that   public support for  big lick walking horse shows has been on the decline since well before the PAST Act was introduced the first time, that show revenues continue to fall , and that The Celebration is no longer able to fill its sprawling grandstands even in the home state of Tennessee,  Alexander strikes out by not realizing the driver behind the walking horse business with its illegal activity is the same driver that took pride of  place in baseball’s steroid scandal. 


It was the institutionalized culture of baseball, itself, the win at any cost mentality, the need for players to get an “edge” over other players and teams, that devolved not only into steroid abuse by players but also into their willingness to lie about that abuse to Congressional committees.  In baseball, major league players and support staff, cheated, lied and dissembled and almost brought the house down, all in the name of winning.  Some of them later claimed they had to do what the “others” were doing in order to win. 


So, too, the culture of the Big Lick aspect of the show world which  is behind the use of abusive and illegal methods to produce an unnatural gait based in pain and compulsion, that performance that Alexander lauds as a “treasured and important tradition”.  Defenders of the culture will cheat, dissemble and lie, even to elected officials, to protect what they feel is their own business but in this instance, the horses are being used as the players, not contracted athletes that can be punished as individuals.


In baseball, the athletes made  a choice to abuse their own bodies to get that illegal edge; in the world of the performance horse, the horses have no choices.  They are acted upon, often in horrific ways, to produce a result to satisfy the personal ambitions of owners, riders and trainers and this is a significant difference.  In baseball you can punish the individuals while working to change the culture. In the  big lick world, you have to focus on  the culture, first,  if you have a hope of saving the horses. Since the culture rewards the appearance of the big lick horse and claims that it represents the breed, the culture must be changed and that will require legislation that goes beyond cosmetic adjustments and promises from the industry that, once again, things will be different.   


Culture is about attitude and it is far easier to modify behavior than it is to change attitudes. The PAST Act focuses on modifying behavior and is necessary because the culture of the big lick has shown itself over decades to be unwilling to change or to modify its attitudes towards appropriate training of horses intended for the show ring.


The performance  culture, based on the continuing need to get an “edge up” on the competition, reveals itself on social media, today, where some trainers in unguarded moments both mock the existing law and talk about the need to get an edge as a normal part of the human condition in competing.  It reveals itself with the hiring of HPA violators to judge horse shows, to sit on major breed and industry boards, and to turn  out known violators to continue to sell the old razzle-dazzle to media.


The current quotable moment is that “these things” happened many years ago but they no longer happen now. There hasn’t been a sored horse shown in years, they say.  These horses ( players) are doing what they do naturally because they are better athletes. ”  Any of that sound familiar baseball fans? 



Unlike the world of   baseball, it isn't   serious money being waved around  as motivation or the chance for  national adulation,  to make soring a horse  worth the risk of doing something both illegal and morally wrong as compared to taking a chance on steroids.  The big lick show circuit is  a small sideline business in an out- of- the -way section of the world; it’s  ego-driven by  people who  pay to  show and then  pay to  advertise their own wins and their  horses to each other. Some people  do make money out of the industry  but  the majority of the players simply scrape by unless they had money in the beginning.  Reports of the millions of dollars that will  supposedly be lost to local economies if the big lick were to pass quietly away from the scene are greatly exaggerated.


Unlike baseball that still has an audience ( although even in major league ball parks there is  a smaller crowd  than was present 20 years ago),   the audience for this sort of equine  demonstration grows increasingly smaller every day. That is not the result of a nefarious conspiracy by  the AVMA, the AAEP, the ASPCA, the AHC, or the HSUS to put a particular group out of business; nor is it the result , solely, of a documented, declining interest in horse show attendance across the country.


The larger part of the decline in enthusiasm for the big lick horse  is a direct result of people across the nation and across the world finally having an opportunity, thanks to YouTube, to look at these horses in motion and to know that something is terribly wrong with the contorted presentation, the unnatural shoeing, and the bastardization of one of the most comfortable saddle gaits in the world.  


Senator Alexander likes to talk in his news releases about his visit to Japan in 1979 to recruit Nissan for Tennessee.  He reports that the Tennessee walking horse was one of the things the Japanese “knew best about our state”. He recounts that the emperor had a walking horse because “it had an enjoyable gait that makes riding it a pleasurable experience”.


Alexander never reports if the emperor’s horse was a natural  flat shod horse, not a big lick horse, another of those details that can be omitted in crafting a narrative.  He emphasizes  that there are more than 220,000 registered walking horses nationwide, 55,000 in the state of Tennessee alone, and that there were 360 affiliated shows across the country  in 2013. 


He fails to  mention that the number of owners and  horses in the breed that are  actually being shown is miniscule compared to the number of registered horses still alive nationwide or located within the borders of Tennessee.  He does not mention that some of those 360 shows do not allow the big lick to be displayed on their show-grounds. An educated man, Alexander  must have read some of  Mark Twain and should  be familiar with his observation  that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.


If Alexander or his staff had reached out to any of the  “us” now actively involved in stopping these practices he would find that “those other  people”, the ones  that he doesn’t listen to,  are horsemen and women, too.  Many of them own walking horses. Many of them come from his home state of Tennessee. They know from personal experience that their own horses, when appropriately trained and shod, don’t do anything close to what Alexander apparently feels is the best presentation of their breed, the big lick. Some of them can tell him of the personal experiences they have had with their horses that were trained for the big lick.


The “other people”  that Alexander fails to adequately  represent have rescues from the big lick show world standing in their barns and in their pastures and they deal with the issues that come with them every day.  


Their breeding programs have been undercut as a result of public  disgust with the breed itself, thanks to the big lick promoters. They won’t  attend shows, out of principle,  where big lick horses are part of the program.  


They would tell the good Senator, if he asked,  that what is devaluing the breed is not the gait that the emperor of Japan prized but the view of the big lick horse that the public has developed through reading, through watching Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell on  ABC's Nightline, and through doing their own research.


 They would tell him and could produce farriers, veterinarians like the industry’s own Dr. Haffner, and experts in thermography and  equine biomechanics that  are on record saying: these practices, aside from any illegality, are simply not compatible with good horsemanship practices.


  A quick walk through the publically available data bases for HPA violators and a cross comparison against show results and Riders’ Cup results would show Alexander  a compelling history of recidivism from industry “stars”,  often going back over decades and continuing from one generation to another.  The “treasured tradition” he applauds, supported by his friends and donors,   is one of cheating, dissembling, and lying,  to which the charge of animal abuse in training may also be added. 


According to his news release, Alexander says his bill would create consistent oversight by eliminating the other HIOs ( including the ones that have always insisted on full and assertive enforcement of the HPA)  and replacing them with a single body that would oversee all inspections governed by a board, comprised of --wait for it….


§  Appointees from the states of Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as experts in the walking horse industry. ( translation representatives of the agricultural offices in Tennessee and Kentucky who oppose PAST and with , perhaps,  a few trainers and other industry friendly “experts”  sprinkled in.) 


§  Require term limits for board members  (so that more of the same could be recycled every four years).


§  Protect against conflict of interests by instructing the horse industry organization to establish requirements to prevent conflicts of interest (because that has worked so well up to the present).


§  Require input from veterinarians on testing methods and procedures as well as certification of test results, ( That’s where last year’s Celebration sponsored Veterinary Advisory Committee,  along with the application for the “new, independent HIO” , that is an off- shoot of it,   currently pending at the USDA,  comes in.)


§  Require objective, scientific testing, such as blood tests, to determine whether or not trainers, riders, or owners are using soring techniques. ( As an example, GoJo does not show up on a blood test but it is commonly  used in soring techniques. It’s unlikely that the Senator has thought about that.)


§  And finally,  add suspensions from horse shows, 30 days for the first offense and 90 days for the next offense.   (These suspensions, as Alexander/ the industry  envisions them, would be far less in the aggregate  than the mandatory penalties once  foreseen by the USDA, which have since been eliminated thanks to industry action taken through  the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. )


Senator Alexander  puts the current walking horse industry fully in the driver’s seat of regulating itself and enforcing its own vision for  the future.  It removes even the most modest  fig leaf of government regulation of the industry under the HPA.


 After careful consideration,  perhaps Alexander’s  baseball theme  is more correct than was first thought.  Doesn’t the song relate, “ for it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game!”?


 If Senator Alexander, at the behest of his  performance horse constituents,    is successful, the game for ending abuse of the show horse will be all over but the celebrating and there is a well established venue in Shelbyville, Tennessee, that will be happy to host that party.


Steve Smith, Alexander’s good friend, fund raiser,  and confident, once said at an annual meeting back when the industry was riding high and  he was the president of TWHBEA,  that if Alexander became president the walking horse industry would finally have a friend in the White House. Alexander didn’t make it that far, but he got far enough in the system that his friendship remains  problematic for any real attempts at reform.


By  condoning, through  his failure to explore both sides of the story, refusing to  consider the opinions of others in the state of Tennessee who disagree with his position on the big lick horse, while,  at the same time  refusing to examine with impartiality   the training practices involved in producing a big lick show horse, describing  them instead  as humane training practices that do not harm horses but only accentuate their natural gait, Senator Alexander has elected to  willfully  turn a blind eye to documented allegations of  systematic cruelty.


The performance horse faction has powerful friends in the Senate and in the House. They know how to motivate and to use them. This  isn’t illegal but it is surely is  an iniquity and an iniquity is a crime, a grievous wrong against the national  moral and social order that  officials like Alexander, McConnell and Paul   are elected to protect.