Dr. Bob Womack, who was on the staff of Middle Tennessee State University at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for years, earned the well-deserved reputation of being the breed historian for the Tennessee Walking Horse. He was the person who collected the stories as well as the bloodlines that went into the development of this great breed of horse and combined all of his knowledge into a series of books entitled The Echo of Hoofbeats. If you actually read Womack, rather than simply thumb through the pages and look at the pictures, you’ll find much within his pages that you might not expect to find, especially from his second edition published in 1984 by Dabora, Inc., the parent company of The Walking Horse Report. Dr. Womack, it turns out, is what would now be described by some as an “anti-agriculture, radical” for his stated views.
With the Celebration now upon middle Tennessee at the same time the USDA is covering the country with its public listening sessions regarding the proposed rule that would eliminate pads and chains from so-called performance horses, those in support of the rule have made appeals based on morals, ethics, emotion, personal experiences, bio-mechanics, and a variety of other beliefs regarding the 40 year documented history of the sored -for- show horse.
Predictably, they have been scoffed at and derided by the anti-rule contingent as computer jockeys and people who don’t know anything about horses, one of whom so eloquently announced, after hearing from a pro-rule speaker, that she “had never heard so much BS in her life.”
During the Celebration, The Walking Horse Report likes to run stories from 10 years in the past regarding previous Celebrations. Those stories are very popular with the Celebration audience. Thus, it seemed appropriate to reprint a portion of the Echo Of Hoofbeats from 1984, written by someone who could hardly be described as a “computer jockey” or a bleeding heart because Dr. Womack came from the heart of the walking horse community.
It’s possible, as with the Auburn Study and the Ames Study so frequently quoted by people, but so incompletely read, that these same folks have had the Echo on their bookshelves for years and never really got into the section entitled The Evolution of Training Techniques. There on page 249-250, Dr. Womack, speaking from 32 years ago, gives a summation of where the issue was and, without knowing it, wrote a piece that could be written today about the situation as we know it now. Without further ado, in honor of Dr. Womack and his prescience, the following excerpt ( some emphasis added) :
“ The years following the passage of the Horse Protection Act were marked by a constant battle between the Humane Society and the Walking Horse industry. Caught between these two forces is the U.S. Department of Agriculture whose role as mediator casts it in a “no win” situation. Most proposed regulations aimed at enforcing the act have been considered too harsh by the industry, but not harsh enough by the Humane Society. The most significant concession achieved by the industry has been the legalization of chains inside the show ring. Unfortunately, that seemingly apparent victory may prove to be a costly error on the part of the industry. With the chain’s appearance as a “performance aid” as opposed to its traditionally interpreted role as a “training aid” the Walking Horse industry admitted to the world that it had bred a show horse whose potential could be controlled through extreme measures. Even more significantly, the industry advertised to the world that its show horse was an extremely complicated animal in constant need of technical knowledge and highly skilled labor. The market for such a horse is quite limited.
The training techniques in vogue at the time of the Horse Protection Act’s passage have changed only in matters of degree since 1970. To be sure, the attention accorded the pastern area of the horse’s foot has improved immeasurably and as a result the physical appearance of that area is quite acceptable. But it would be an extremely naïve or uninformed person who would suggest that the soring of Walking Horses has ended.
In the final analysis the question must be asked as to why the Walking Horse industry has deliberately followed a course of action leading toward self-destruction. There seems to be no simple answer. If a complicated answer can be stated simply, it is that long-range goals were sacrificed for short-range goals. What a particular horse does at a particular show seems to take precedence over what is happening in the industry. Whereas previous eras in the Walking Horse’s history were marked by a gradual evolution towards an accepted ideal, the “Desperate Era” has been marked by an impatience for immediate results even if these results entail socially unacceptable training techniques. For this mistake, the entire industry must assume responsibility. The Lebanese philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote, “ And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree , so the wrong doer cannot do wrong without the hidden consent of you all.” This statement seems applicable to the Walking Horse industry.”
You might wonder if Ms. Stewart, when faced with this blast from the past written by Dr. Bob would respond in the same way, “ I never heard so much BS in my life!” as she did at the public comment session. But in view of the rest of her comment at the USDA listening session, that without pads and chains her own horses, show horses, would be worthless, she might be interested in what Dr. Dave Whitaker the Director of Public Service, Horse Science, also of MTSU, had to say in that same 1984 Echo edition, p.252:
“ … if the Walking Horse had been left without the extreme action devices, it would today have an animal registry numbering at least five or six times that of what it is today.”
In short, if Whitaker was correct there would have been a large market for Walking Horses, outside of a specialized use for them in a small and steadily shrinking population with disproportionate influence in the Congress of the United States, waving checkbooks to finance large legal challenges.
Walking Horses could have been, would have been, should have been, a valuable “commodity” had they not been relegated to a pariah state in the minds of the public and the larger equestrian community after a documented history of 40 years of abusive training techniques intended to produce an unusable but highly exaggerated gait.
The steady decline of the registry numbers at TWHBEA shows that Whitaker like Womack actually knew something about the future of the breed that others ignored as they pursued, and by extension continue to pursue, their own self-interest at the expense of the welfare of the horse.
In conclusion, again from Echo of 1984, this quote from Burt Hunter writing in 1939. ( How he would weep if he could see what has happened to the horse that he favored. )
“ The Walking Horse, like the poor relations, has been with us since the beginning, but unlike some of them he works for a living. The Walking Horse, as conceived by the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders Association of America, should be a large, handsome, gentle horse, capable of real work in harness and bred as is compatible with gentleness and utility as well bred as is compatible with gentleness and common sense. The ‘show’ type horse, scared of the shadow of a horse fly that he cannot switch off his back, with feet like stilts and legs puffy as pop-corn muffin, just cannot do on the farm. They have the blood and the quality all right, but they have been prostituted to the perverted taste of the audience that wishes its four legged favorites to be as far from nature as the good Lord will permit without striking them dead. One would break down in twenty miles on a modern highway, if indeed his rider could keep him in the highway. … What with being scared from colt-hood into looking the part of the ‘show’ champion and trained to travel up and down, instead of forward as the Lord intended, they are the very antithesis of the Tennessee Walking Horse, which is, of all things, the horse of the people.”
The people can have their say by commenting on the proposed rule at the USDA website. The comment period is open through October 26th. Meanwhile, find a copy of The Echo of Hoofbeats, 2nd edition, and read it all the way through…. it will entertain, delight, and inspire, as well as educate, the reader who takes the time to really read it.