Over the course of the last 40 plus years, hundreds of thousands of words regarding the ongoing abuse of show horses in the Tennessee Walking Horse fancy have been written. Newspapermen, bloggers, ordinary citizens, veterinarians, rescue organizations, breeders and owners have, in the old days, put pen to paper, and now, thrum with fingers on keyboards, to go on record with facts and figures documenting not single instances of abuse but patterns of abuse for one aspect of one particular breed.
Undercover investigations have produced both video and audio proof that away from the bright lights of the show ring, all that glisters is far from gold. Yet, the efforts of many people and organizations, over all these years, are met with repeated assertions by performance horse true believers, those who call the walking horse “our horse”, that everyone else is wrong and that there is no problem of abuse.
They willfully ignore calls and demands for reform that would require them to find a new way to train and to present the state horse of Tennessee in a more humane way; and, with each attempt to enforce the law or to expose lawbreakers, the faithful rise to meet the occasion by thumping the person or organization that aggrieves them.
On each side of the issue a perpetual game of whack-a- mole is underway, although, on points, the industry remains in front , at least on the indignation timer.
After the conclusion of the recent, poorly attended, highly contentious, Celebration, rather than add more words from the 'outsiders' into the ether it is useful to view comments made by the 'insiders', for, as it says in another famous book, “by their fruits, you shall know them.”
Here are three “modest” examples of comments connected to the 77th Annual Celebration to consider.
From the 2015 Local Business Directory published during The Celebration, an ad for The Norton Law Firm, P.C.
“Currently the only local firm with extensive experience in Horse Protection Act (HPA) litigation. The senior partner, Mr. John Norton, has handled well over 50 HPA cases. The Norton Law Firm, P.C., has vigorously defended the industry and it participants against the Government, including a nine-week trial in the early 2000s. Mr. Norton, along with associate attorney and walking horse owner, Alie Stout, pride themselves and their practice on protecting the constitutional rights of the owners and trainers, and they are determined to assist in the vindication of the Tennessee Walking Horse from the excessive and overreaching application of the HPA by the Government.
Additional practice areas include: criminal defense, divorces, adoptions, child custody, wills and estate planning and most civil litigation.”
The Outsider Translation: Mr. Norton did not say what the outcome was in the HPA case that he drew out for over nine-weeks, but it is helpful to know that there are enough violators of the federal law prohibiting the presentation for inspection of sored horses on the way to exhibition that this single firm has handled “well over 50” cases.
The Norton Law Firm is not the only practice engaged in this lucrative “specialty” in law; there are others in Nashville who have bellied up to the bar. There are also lawyers outside the state of Tennessee who have been industry go-to’s in years past. There must be a market for HPA defenders because there are plenty of violators out there looking for representation.
In fact, once upon a time, the Show Horse Support Fund specifically looked for federal cases and helped to pay legal fees for those charged with violating the HPA. This was done when the directors of the fund felt those cases would be of assistance in establishing legal precedents that would favor the industry’s view of the law should the defendants in these selected cases prevail.
Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t, but fighting it out in in federal cases has always been part of the cost of doing business in the walking horse show world.
It should be noted that if there are enough clients to make it worthwhile for lawyers to take these cases, there must be more than a few bad apples in the business.
As to how the Firm will “ vindicate the Tennessee Walking Horse from the excessive and overreaching application of the HPA by the Government”, poppycock. This isn’t about horses, it’s about what people do to horses and about what they feel they have a right to do with their property. Excessive over reach of the government is the new dog whistle for the WWC crowd.
From The Tennessean sports section 9/7/2015 in a story written by Mike Organ entitled I Am Jose 3-peats at Walking Horse national event,
The co-owner of the winner of the World Grand Championship class, I Am Jose, Billy Wood of Lexington, Tennessee, was quoted as saying, “ That was a good class; they’re all good people. I’d like to say that the people that didn’t get in to show, we’d like to just dedicate this to them.”
The Outsider Translation: Dedicating the class to the people who "didn’t get in to show" because their horses tested sensitive or were found to be scarred, is like dedicating your winning bicycle ride to, let’s say, Lance Armstrong.
Because I Am Jose was last year’s Celebration winner, he did not have to qualify to enter this year’s class. In fact, the stallion had not been shown all year and thus had not been through inspection prior to the Grand Championship class. There is some question as to whether or not the USDA actually conducted inspections after this particular class.
The winner of the final class did, however, travel most of the way around the large oval counter-bent and on the diagonal, clearly an unbalanced position for a horse, or so it would be viewed by the larger horse world. When the canter was called, at one point the stallion appeared to stumble and to lurch.
Then, the class was quickly called in to pull off saddles while judges walked the line to check for conformation. With only five horses in the class, the decision was made by the judges to put the five contenders back on the rail for a work out.
In the walking horse world, anything that happens before a work out is immediately removed from consideration. The cards are scrubbed clean. Only what takes place during the work out is judged. In this case, the entries in a three- gait world grand championship class were not asked to canter . Only the flat walk and running walk were called and only two gaits were judged, at least according to the rules.
The reserve horse, He’s Vida Blue ridden by Chad Williams, had been a favorite going into the event this year. But, the HSUS undercover investigation of ThorSport Farm that broke just before The Celebration began, with allegations that samples from leg wraps taken from Vida Blue had tested positive for agents implicated in soring practices while the horse was in training at the farm, could have made a spotlight ride for this particular horse and his trainer problematic. Those earlier allegations likely would have been part of any victory story done by media outside of the local newspaper or the industry's house organs.
Not to worry! Instead, there was good news to trumpet! A three-time winner, the first since Talk of the Town won three consecutive Celebration titles in 1951 through1953, was crowned. It just seems to happen that extraordinary good news in the walking horse business arrives at just the right/necessary moment.
From the Walking Horse Report, posted 9/5/2015 on a message stream about Aged Stallions that had focused on USDA turn downs during the show, written by industry leader, former head of the Celebration Board of Directors, and current member of the Celebration’s newly established Horseman’s Leadership Council, David Howard.
(Howard shares this duty with his son, Jeffrey, who operates the Walking Horse Report, Duke Thorson of ThorSport Farm, and the current president of PSHA, Terry Dotson. Mr. Dotson received notice this August that he , his wife, his stable, and his two trainers were being charged for violations of the HPA with four individual horses, several of the violations coming from Celebration shows in 2012 and 2013. They are afforded the presumption of innocence until their cases are heard. Mr. Norton, are you paying attention, here? New clients may be headed your way. )
“What the USDA is calling a scar is NOT a scar and will soon be verified by some important research. The VMO's are borderline incompetent, maliciously motivated and hide under the protection of being a government employee. The unwarranted damage they have done to men, women, children, horse shows and charities shows the dangers of government control. Chester Gipson and his ilk parade around with a little authority and rank incompetence as he sets about to destroy a "rich, white man's sport." I am embarrassed to admit that at one time I thought Chester was an honorable and decent man....I was dead wrong and I pray that some day he will be held accountable for his actions. “
The Outsider’s Translation: Has anyone read The Portrait of Dorian Gray recently? In the horse show off-season when there is time for recreational reading you might do it and see if a resemblance can be noticed.
Mr. Howard, a journalism major in college, put the words rich, white man’s sport in quotation marks in his message, after using the words destroying to describe Dr. Gipson's purpose. The veterinarian works for the USDA. This makes it appear from a grammatical point of view that Dr. Chester Gipson actually said these words, but the writer gives no context for that.
Dr. Gipson did say, if accurately quoted in the local Times-Gazette, in response to Congressman Scott DesJarlais, who arrived for a town hall meeting to stoke the fires of an industry already ablaze because of USDA inspections, that there “were many injustices in the world”.
This was not a comment that cooled tempers and, unfortunately, left the words injustice and inspection linked together in fevered imaginations. Serious doubt remains, however, that Dr. Gipson actually used the words “rich, white man’s sport” to describe the walking horse industry. In case, you are unaware, these words take on an added odiousness when you consider that Dr. Gipson is an African-American.
Throwing the race card into an already supercharged environment and using words that call to mind storm troopers when describing government employees is a different type of leadership but one that certainly plays well to the target audience.
With post Celebration withdrawal now upon Bedford County, the hue and cry is for new lawsuits, new research, a congressional inquiry, and for Duke Thorson to sue the HSUS for defamation. Meanwhile, the HSUS continues to release to the media additional evidence that appears to contradict Mr. Thorson's public statement of complete denial.
Some or all of those things may come to pass in the days ahead, but the persistent issue of what’s going on in the training barns and the contention that the aberrant gait of the performance walking horse can not be achieved without animal cruelty are not topics that the insiders wish to address.
Instead, for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be Whack-A-Mole on steroids.