Doing What Comes Naturally (or apples do not fall far from their trees)

Down in Panama City Beach, Florida, city officials and members of the Tourism Development Board continue to wrestle with the question about whether or not big lick horses are subjected to animal cruelty in their manufacture. The founder of the show, Sister Milligan, an attorney and a well-known big lick exhibitor has said in public: no: it’s all-natural; we love these horses; and there is no such thing as a big lick.   The show was once sponsored by The Celebration who abandoned it after it proved to be not beneficial financially in a rare example of straight talk by Mike Inman to the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, but was then taken up by the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association as one of its flagship shows.


Animal welfare advocates intent on bringing the other side of the sordid story of the performance horse to this lovely beachfront community in an attempt to save it from being associated with animal cruelty partially funded, it appears unwittingly, by Tourism grants to the Gulf Coast Charity Horse Show Association, a non-profit, have pointed to the violation histories of prominent trainers as well as the federal case which is currently pending against Milligan and her multi-ticketed trainer Dick Peebles. They cite these as examples of the words not matching the tune that Milligan has been singing to Panama City Beach for many years now.


The tune is beginning to sound more and more off key, even to those who have helped fund her horse show efforts in the past.  Local media and residents of Florida are starting to ask questions that have never been asked before.  Both cruelty and character are becoming issues in the ongoing debate over the exhibition of big lick horses.   Who are these people and how are they all connected, inquiring minds are starting to ask.


Officer of the court Milligan, according to the ad she placed in the trade publication that serves the industry and was available to the public at the recent Trainers Show held in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the epicenter of the business, has at least one horse in training with Alabama’s Jamie Lawrence, himself a fan of the Panama City Beach horse show.  A jury, you may remember, recently convicted Lawrence, of assault. He tried to run down a protestor at last year’s version of the Gulf Coast Charity show that was held in Columbia, Tennessee.  The protestor, ironically, happened to be Teresa Bippen, the president of FOSH.


Even with all of the factual information available, if Panama City Beach officials are still having a difficult time wrapping their heads around the aberration called a performance horse and questioning whether or not cruelty is involved in what it takes to produce one, a blog,, helped move that discussion along this week.  It showed this photo, which has since made its way around the world, causing gasps and howls of outrage.  

Then, in a follow up article, News of the Horse showed the world these photos with the same jockey riding more mature horses in rigs that can only be described as medieval.

The photos speak volumes. Clearly, if this is what it takes to MAKE a horse that supposedly does the big lick naturally, there is a problem with this sort of training.   Anyone, except walking horse fanatics,   can recognize on its face that doing this to a horse is simply nuts.  To do this to an equine 16 months of age is simply despicable. 


Although News of the Horse made its point by publishing these photos and have provided, in doing so, a public service, some of the facts were wrong and some of the interpretations were not fully developed because of lack of specific knowledge of the mechanics of what these photos show.   Let’s put those errors and omissions right, also in the public interest.


The horse in photo 1 above was identified as a 16-month-old colt ridden by Douglass Todd. In fact, the filly is actually being ridden by Chad Cotten, the son of Walking Horse Hall of Fame trainer Joe Cotten, suspended several years ago for seven and a half years by the walking horse industry.


The sin for which father Cotten    was punished was that he had revealed on social media pictures of the condition of a horse that had been sent to him for training from another big name trainer.  The horse  had been horribly sored and he had the pictures to prove it.   Cotten is known to have a temper. When he went public as the result of some sort of internecine struggle within the industry itself and Cotten’s opinions regarding the DQP program, the industry thumped him with everything they had.


In reality, industry leadership made an example of him for daring to air dirty laundry in public, while piously intoning against soring.  (This was reminiscent of the anguish they showed while throwing Hall of Famer Jackie McConnell under the industry bus after he had the misfortune of being shown on undercover video doing what comes naturally to a barn filled with high dollar performance horses that also made ABC’s Nightline program.  )   


Until his fall from grace and becoming an official “bad apple” Mr. Cotten like Mr. McConnell   had been doing what they all do, making performance horses, for some of the biggest “names” in the industry orchard, and doing it with the full knowledge of all that, that entails by his other brethren.


He has also apparently passed on the tools of this dubious trade to his son, Chad, whose own documented show record of riding walking horses began in 2005 at Centerville, Tennessee.  There he rode The Midnight Falcon in the 11 and Under class.  This photo shows proud papa in the same year bringing home the silver in 2005 from The Celebration with the entry of one of his many name customers, Patti Pollack of California.


Between 2005 and 2012 there is a documented record of Chad Cotten showing first as a youth, as a teenager, and then as an adult amateur in pleasure, pony, country pleasure, and big lick classes.  He was the jockey on more than 35 horses, including two and three- year- old performance horses, entries owned by recognizable industry names.  Joe’s son, it appears, was destined for a career in a horse barn, doing just what you see him doing in these photos, some of which have now mysteriously disappeared from the Internet sites where they were once so proudly displayed.  What he’s doing to these horses and how he learned to do it is, to quote a famous country song “ a family tradition”.



Continuing to shake the tree in the industry orchard, the filly, according to a search of the TWHBEA IPEDS program, is owned by Douglas and/ or Sue Todd of Hazel Green, Alabama.  The Todds also own Man of Excalibur Farm. Mrs. Todd, an engineer by profession, describes herself as an equine reproductive specialist who also cares about animal welfare.  Both Todds have entered in-hand horses at various industry venues from 2003 through 2015 including The Celebration.  They also are involved in spotted saddle horse shows.


Branching out, Mr. Todd, according to his social media site, is a supporter of Protect the Harvest, the group supported by Duke Thorson, whose Thorsport Farm was the subject of a multi-month undercover investigation conducted by the HSUS in 2015 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  There chemical analysis of wrappings and swabs taken from the pasterns of various horses at the facility showed signs of soring agents.


Another limb, one of the trainers employed at the time of the investigation, Brock Tillman, who has since left Thorsport but is still training, is currently the subject of a federal USDA HPA case.  It was Tillman’s wife who cheerily observed in 2015, after the protest incident with Mr. Lawrence, that it was “too bad he missed her, Let them walk on!”  She was speaking of the protestor whose close call with Lawrence’s truck and trailer made the Columbia papers.  


Mr. Todd also supports Humanewatch, a front group dedicated to upending the efforts of the HSUS, and the Missouri based Cavalry Group, active in the effort to stop the PAST Act from becoming law. 


Also in the basket, Walker Blankinship is identified as one of the Todd’s’ Facebook friends. You may remember Mr. Blankinship from the Equine Film Festival held in NYC in 2015.  He appeared on the Soring Panel as a spokesman for PSHA (Performance Show Horse Association), even though he admitted he had never been in a walking horse training barn or actually seen a performance walking horse in action. (For more of Mr. Blankinship’s expert opinions in New York, please refer to an earlier blog on this site)


Mrs. Todd also offers to the Facebook audience, regarding Wayne Pacelle, of the HSUS, typed in Humanewatch fashion as H$U$, that “It’s a disgrace that he holds his position when he doesn’t like animals and says so.”  (This would doubtless come as a surprise to Mr. Pacelle’s personal animal companions.) 


Apparently, Mrs. Todd does approve of people who so clearly like animals and show it in their respect for the animal training techniques they employ, people like Chad Cotten.  In photo 2, Mr. Cotten is shown riding a horse in wraps and a double set of action devices. 

While News of the Horse indicated that these wraps contain caustic chemicals that is unlikely. These wraps are the sort put on horses to keep them from knocking off the hair on the pasterns when being worked in action devices. The chemicals themselves are applied to the pasterns, which are wrapped in plastic wrap or paper towels covered with an overlay of fabric leg wraps, usually held in place with duct tape.  This ensures a steady contact, that the horses cannot remove the wrap, and provides the heat required for the chemicals to penetrate the skin.


However, rollers like the ones clearly seen on this performance horse are prohibited by the USDA in show rings, as are double sets of action devices.  Back in the barns, though, anything goes.

 Apologists for the industry insist that the action device is no different than a woman wearing a bracelet on her wrist and that the devices do not cause pain. The evidence is clear in this photo that double chaining or rollering of horses is taking place as part of training and that such devices clearly do cause damage to the horse, why else would it be necessary to wrap them to keep hair from being knocked off and scars from being raised?


Photo 3, says News of the Horse, shows a horse being worked in ropes. These are actually shackles, attached to a bolt screwed into the performance package on one foot.  The shackle made of surgical tubing is then run from one foot over the withers and connects to the package on the opposite side.  There are a variety of “theories” on why shackles are used in performance as well as some pleasure   horses but natural horsemanship isn’t one of them.


In combination with full blinders, tie downs, and severe bitting, in photos two and three, and an extra set of chains that can be seen attached to the saddle, should adjustment be needed, on the filly in photo one, you have an inside look at what goes into the making of a performance horse.  You can also see exactly how much trainers are prepared to do to get the look that wins horse shows, just like the one scheduled to be held in Panama City Beach, Florida in April.


And where is Chad Cotten, a young man on the rise in the industry hanging his hat these days? Newsof   the Horse reported   that at the time the photos were taken Cotten was   working in association with Justin Jenne, another young man who grew up in the walking horse show world, while   other sources report that at present   he is   working with anothertrainer Ben   Beard of Alabama.     Jenne   is an interesting case, a prime specimen  in the apple  orchard, that   Celebration CEO Mike Inman says    has only a few bad ones. 


According to the records of USDA proceedings against Jenne, in 2012 he owned and entered a horse named Led Zeppelin at The Celebration.   Jenne did not personally lead the horse through inspection; he let his hand, Roberto Ricardo,  do that, and Ricardo was the one determined by a USDA VMO to have presented a bi-lateral sore horse.  As these things go, Jenne, as the owner and entrant of the horse, was served with a federal complaint in 2013, which, after hearings,  appeals,  objections, and other related flopping around, was finally decided against him on April 13, 2015. He was awarded a $2,200 civil penalty and a one-year federal disqualification. 


But there was more federal action on Jenne’s horizon, in March of 2014; he was the subject of a yet another federal case for presenting a bilateral sore horse, Jose’s Flamingo Dancer, at the 2009 Spring Jubilee Charity Horse Show. Again, after taking almost five years from the date of the event to the first video hearing, and additional time appealing and protesting, in July of 2015, the decision of the Administrative Law Judge in this case was    upheld. Jenne was awarded another $2.200 civil penalty, this time as the trainer of record, and a one-year, uninterrupted federal disqualification.  This disqualification becomes effective on April 14, 2016; one day after the previous disqualification period is completed.


Jenne and Cotten are two examples of young trainers who learned their trade at the knees of their mentors, and their mentors learned the trade from people like Billy Gray who once signed autographs as a star in the Celebration’s autograph booth, and has also signed more than his share of federal consent orders.  Currently on federal suspension, the elderly Gray was recently awarded the first lifetime achievement award by the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association,  the sponsor of the Gulf Coast Charity horse show in Panama City Beach, Florida.    His son, Tim, also a trainer, was on federal suspension with him.


What goes on in thefamily that is the   walking horse world can be viewed as a tragedy on more than one level;  but,   the real sad story came unwittingly from the mouth of an advocate with long experience in trying to combat the cruelty that comes with the spotlight ride. “ I knew this happened to young walking horses, but I thought, hoped,  “ she said, after viewing the photo of Cotten and his filly, “ that it only happened to a few.”  It was hard to remind her that in the glory days of The Celebration, the two-year-old performance class was one of the biggest classes in the show, often being broken down into divisions of more than 15 horses in a single group. 


Where do you think all of those two- year -olds come from each August and at the Trainers Show each March? Where do you think the “ Freak of the Week” segments, so proudly put up on YouTube so that the world can see them, come from? Here’s a link to one such segment here that just happens to include a reference to Justin Jenne:


The two-year-olds laboring in the show ring come from trainers who start them   just as the filly now shown to the world was started. They start them at 16-18 months of age, these full grown men collapsing   babies with undeveloped knees and backs not yet ready to carry weight, urging them to hit a lick that will make them short term winners and long term victims.  And, they come from owners who think that this is not only OK but is what is necessary to win a horse show ribbon or sell a high price colt.   They come from people who grew up in the business and don’t have a clue about what real horsemanship is and don’t care to learn because to do so would mean that they would have to change what they do.


As to the young horses   ruined by these methods, well…. That’s just part of the cost of doing business in the business.  There’s plenty more where they came from.


As an example, one of the industry’s well-known breeding horses was once a two –year- old whose knees gave out under the training regime.  An old timer related, that he saw it, that his knees just broke down. “The vet came out and told the ownerand the owner packed him up and took him home and said, “Well, I guess, we’ll breed him.” And breed him they did.

Apples that don’t make the cut for eating can always be pressed into cider or used for seed to make new apple trees.