Temperatures continue to rise in Middle Tennessee. You’d expect that. It’s June and the thermometer is seldom kind in the summer. This year the rising heat, currently making for red faces and the vapors, isn’t driven only by the weather. It’s coming from the presence, for the first time in memory, of protestors against the big lick performance horse who have appeared at two horse shows held in Columbia, Tennessee.
The number of sign holders showed an increase for the second show, the 60- year plus Jubilee. The bodies in the grandstands for an audience, other than those who came to show their horses to each other, did not.
The protestors went a step further in round two. They ran a pre-show advertisement in the local paper, asking that the community boycott cruelty masquerading as entertainment and when the event was over, they ran a thank -you ad. The nerve.
This public activism did not sit well with Billie Short of Spring Hill, Tennessee. She sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbia Daily Herald, published on June 13th, giving her view of the summer situation.
Ms. Story’s letter is a sort of fractured fairytale, one in which, to date, there has been no happy ending for the horse but there have been plenty of frogs masquerading as princes and princesses.
In the interests of fairness, before examining her comments, the letter is reprinted in its entirety here.
First, before beginning to separate fact from fairy tale, let’s agree on an area of commonality. Ms. Story is correct that the Tennessee Walking Horse is a wonderful breed and that it is the official horse of the State of Tennessee. No one can fault that observation.
The protestors, who own walking horses , agree that the walking horse is a wonderful breed. Unfortunately for Ms. Story’s peace of mind, they also believe that Tennessee’s state horse deserves better than it has gotten at the hands of the big lick industry. Last year’s experience with the PAST Act in Congress, didn’t make them go away, it only made them more assertive.
After years of advocating in both meetings and in private, through letters and petitions for change, and in fruitless attempts at being heard at the TWHBEA, they have, at long last, decided to pick up signs to tell the story to the general public in a public way because the time is now ripe to do so.
Ms. Story says that the revenue from these shows go to community charities. Last year the proceeds of the Jubilee went to the big lick's own favorite charity-- itself. The money was given to an industry non-profit designed to save the walking horse performance industry from what it views as excessive government regulation as outlined in the PAST Act. Money was needed for things like paying lobbyists well connected to sympathetic officials in Washington, D.C. Supporters offered their opinions on industry web sites that more proceeds should go back to the industry rather than being donated to charities. That wasn't the right sound bite.
This year local charity did benefit from the Columbia Jubilee. That makes for a better news story and helps bring about badly needed community support. Money can buy acceptance.
Public relations firms employed by the industry are happy to help their clients understand concepts like this, especially when the business has been embarrassed by a well- respected charity like Batson Children’s Hospital in Mississippi declining this year to accept a donation from a long time performance horse show held in its state.
Charities in Columbia might consider following the hospital’s example, too. The hundreds of jobs supposedly created by the big lick business and the millions of dollars poured into the communities addressed by Ms. Story have never been statistically demonstrated but are continuously mentioned. They could easily be figments of the imagination if audited figures could be examined closely in the clear light of day. Produce documentation for those millions and let us all take a look. Seeing is believing.
Ms. Story refers to the protest as a “hater” project that inappropriately involved small children. She is clearly against that. She praises America for its free speech guarantees, including the first amendment protection that covers the right to protest.
It’s not protesting itself she objects to or so she would have us believe, but the "meanness and disrespect" exhibited by the protestors, she says, to another group of people, her group of people, that really set her teeth on edge.
As a point of reference, Ms. Story may have forgotten those news clips of the folks down south who said some pretty awful things to peaceful protestors during the civil rights era and who defended that conduct in the name of states rights. Alabama, Mississippi, and to a somewhat lesser degree, Tennessee, in the 60s-- that’s what meanness and disrespect during protests looks like. As these things go, the horse show protest at Columbia didn’t measure on the meanness monitor, at least on the protestors’ side.
Protest is driven by conflicting opinions. This means that someone cares enough about something to stand with a sign and open his or her mouth in full view of the public. If everyone agreed on every issue, there would be no need for protests, Ms. Story, so here are some ideas to consider regarding the protest in Columbia.
About the appearance of small children at the protest; these children were brought by their mother, a woman, one of Ms. Story’s self-described “haters”, who runs an equine rescue that has taken in big lick rejects. The children have worked directly with the horses. They know what is involved in their rehabilitation.
Their mother, exercising parental judgment, felt, that if they wanted to take part in an expression of opinion about the big lick that they could make their stand with her.
Ms. Story has the right to disagree with a mother’s decision to bring her children to the protest but to be consistent, does she also find it wrong, or at least troubling, to involve young children, by parental decision, in showing big lick horses that are trained by known violators of the Horse Protection Act?
Could those parental decisions be considered abusive of small children because the activity in which they are allowed and encouraged to participate exposes them to individuals who break the law yet are praised for doing so?
Is that in the same category as putting your kids on the grass with a sign? You be the judge.
Moving to the tone of the protest itself: protest speech is not the sort of polite chit -chat that you hear at a cotillion or at the annual ball held in Columbia. Protestors do shout things people don’t want to hear. They did it, as an example, decades ago while addressing directly a sitting president in expressing their opposition to the Viet Nam war, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many boys did you kill today?”. This sort of speech shocked the establishment of the day but it was an effective way to catch the attention of citizens in the USA whose attention needed to be caught.
“Big Lick, Big Lie” is another of those slogans that catches attention and, no doubt, infuriates people, for whom the accusation is personal, when they hear it. Still, "Big Lick, Big Lie" is protected speech, even if it makes people testy, and that’s about as direct as the protestors in Columbia got.
Unless Ms. Story has audio or videotape that demonstrates otherwise, it appears that the vulgar middle fingers and crass comments, the conduct she deplores, came from the trailer and truck occupants not from the protestors. Perhaps she objects to the fact that because protestors expressed their feelings verbally, they forced the horse show exhibitors to behave badly. That's the incivility that she finds objectionable. “They” made “them” do it by showing up with signs and opinions, thereby ruining an evening’s horse show, a community tradition-- that could be the problem.
As to the incitement of protestors being “very, very close” to the exhibitors and spectators, the truck that sped up and veered, that on video appears to be zeroing in on a woman with a sign, came a lot closer to invading the space where the protestors were standing than the protestors ever came to spilling over onto a public roadway.
How close is too close for Ms. Story? The law enforcement personnel seemed to think that the truck driver pushed the “too close” argument, not the protestors.
It appears, however, that the position of the protestors on the public right -of -way on the grass was too close, for Ms. Story’s personal sense of protected space. She might have liked it better had they had been hidden where they couldn’t be seen but that would have defeated the purpose, even she would have to agree.
If the definition of “too close” is ‘close enough to make someone uncomfortable’, that isn’t a definition that fits in with the constitutional right to protest where you can be both seen and heard, accessing without the need for a permit, public sidewalks and areas of grass in a space like a public park.
In her letter, Ms. Story would have readers believe that soring is ancient history, long ago, once upon a time. Heavens, the word soring shouldn’t even be used in this day and age. It should be retired from the vernacular even though the practice remains alive and well.
As to the industry working with the USDA for over 30 years, most recently, working with the government has consisted primarily of the industry suing it, and in years past of refusing to sign on to Operating Plans intending to make meaningful penalties for those who violate the law.
“Working with the USDA” has also included industry leaders labeling, in public, USDA VMOs as incompetent while maintaining that HIO inspectors, closely tied to the walking horse business, have more credibility than well-educated veterinarians in determining whether horses are sore or scarred in violation of the federal law. At this juncture, “working with the USDA” seems to be pretty much a one -way street, with the industry pulling the switches for the stop and go lights, and Ms. Story approves of that.
About USDA vets finding “nothing” on horses being shown at big lick venues and thus being put out of a job, Ms. Story should rest easy. There will always be plenty of work for USDA veterinarians to do aside from the horse show world. She might be surprised to know that Inspecting horses for soring is not at the top of any of their lists of favorite ways to spend a Saturday evening, where “meanness and disrespect” is often shown to them, during and after an event, one of the reasons why federal marshals accompany them to some horse shows.
Does tearing the mirror from a vet’s car or slashing tires constitute examples of the meanness and disrespect you deplore, Mrs. Story? That has happened to USDA inspectors at horse shows and it’s not history from all that long ago.
There were, however, no USDA vets at the 2015 Columbia Jubilee. Had there been, the number of horses might have been reduced, for, when VMOs are present at these shows, one of two things happen—either fewer horses are presented for inspection or the number of violations found tends to rise.
The presence of the USDA does not speak, Ms. Story, to the “soundness” of the horses that are shown; it speaks to the continuing need, despite decades under the HPA, to find the sore ones. The 7060s from random swabbing done by the USDA for foreign substance violations, the information taken for potential federal cases, and the actual filing of federal cases speaks to the issue that soundness is still far from the rule at performance horse venues.
As to the comments of the unidentified Quarter Horse friend, who feels that a Quarter Horse couldn’t pass a USDA inspection intended to detect soring, she might be interested to know that the American Quarter Horse Association is in support of PAST Act legislation. The signs of soring that are the subject of these inspections are unlikely to affect the Quarter Horse. What would be the point for a breed that likes them working low and slow? The Quarter Horse show world, however, has had its own scandals related to individuals who will do anything to win. Unlike the Performance Walking Horse situation, the Quarter Horse industry has been assertive in cleaning its own house and continues to remain on the alert.
Continuing with the statement that no horse should have to stand on its three legs for as long as it takes to conduct an inspection, it makes one wonder if Ms. Story or her Quarter Horse friend has ever seen a horse shod, especially in a performance package. The time it takes to inspect a horse doesn’t exceed the time it takes to shoe one.
Lastly, the letter writer is compelled to include the standard performance walking horse clan’s talking points about the corruption of the HSUS and its CEO Wayne Pacelle, even though the HSUS had absolutely nothing to do with the Columbia protest. Zip; nada; zilch. There is no doubt that the supporters of the big lick are not fond of Mr. Pacelle and his organization. They aren’t alone; HSUS has many detractors.
Dog fighters don’t like them much; cock fighters don’t like them much; puppy mill operators and seal clubbers, don’t like them much, and Ms. Story doesn’t like them much, either. That’s fair. This is America. People are entitled to protest; people are entitled to like or dislike organizations.
Yet, calling the HSUS one of the most corrupt charities in America…. well, that’s over the top even in a letter that has exceeded more than its quota of make- believe.
While writing to the editor, Ms. Story may have missed the recent news concerning the Tennessee family that ran a group of IRS approved 501 (c) 3-cancer charities, whose principal beneficiaries were themselves. They used the money they collected to go on vacations, buy cars and homes, and pay themselves well for doing very little good .
That qualifies as real corruption and it’s a lot closer to home, Ms. Story, like other corrupt goings -on, some of which include horses, right in Tennessee.