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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Plight of the Horse

"Big Lick" TWH
   I've been watching what's going on in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, with horror, for almost as long as I've been alive. I've always liked the horses (TWH's are some of the kindest, sweetest horses around), but couldn't imagine what on Earth their 'trainers' were thinking.

   When I was a kid I rode saddleseat, the discipline of the 'park horse' (and the Tennessee Walker, but they have their own spin on it).  I had a Morgan who was shod naturally, didn't have his tail set, moved naturally and I couldn't have been happier. Even so, my discipline required a double bridle with a thin bradoon and a long-shanked (about 8") curb. For folks who aren't familiar with horses, it's a pretty darned severe combination of bits. Even as a kid I realized this and opted to use a very mild snaffle bridle about 90% of the time. I saved my double bridle for the occasional show or clinic that I would attend, and was very light-handed on those occasions. It wasn't warnings from instructors that helped me decide to ride in a snaffle, it was common sense. It was observing my horse, and it was a decision informed by empathy for an animal that I loved. I refused to engage in some of the scarier 'training' practices that were embraced by so many in the saddleseat discipline; things like weighted shoes, chains on the pasterns or scaring the horse around the arena with a milk jug full of rocks to give him more 'fire'. And Morgans have it easy compared to Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses. My horse was a seasoned competitor. While I have no doubt that some of these unsavory things were visited on him at some point in his career, I preferred to keep him enthusiastic by getting him out of the ring and trail riding. Bareback. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn't but my priorities were in the right place and I felt good about what I was doing: The welfare of the horse came first.

So if kindness is common sense to a relatively uneducated kid, what's the deal with all the folks who should know better? There are SO many things in the horse industry that drive me bananas (breeding crappy grade horses, breeding horses for color at the expense of health and conformation, breeding HYPP Y/Y and Y/N quarter horses, people having more horses than they can feed or train properly, curb bits used with tie-downs, rollkur, etc) but there are few things that get to me quite like the treatment of Tennessee Walking horses. These horses not only have weighted shoes, but padded as well. Imagine weighing 1100 pounds and having to wear high heels all day, every day, that you cant take off. In addition to these pads, caustic chemicals are used on the pasterns (just above the hoof) to cause pain and then heavy chains are placed on the pasterns to add weight and create further irritation. This is done to enhance the TWH's natural lateral gait, the running walk, and ultimately create a false gait called a 'big lick'. In addition to the shoes, outrageous bits are often used on these horses. To give you some perspective, a common shank length for a curb-type bit is about 5". Anything above that is considered fairly severe by many. The longer the shank, the greater the leverage on the horse's lower jaw and the more severe it is. It is common for TWH bits to be as long as 12", and often have a thin, twisted wire or a chain for a mouth-piece. When I was little I read about these 'little' tortures and had nightmares. I had hoped as we evolved, these abuses would come under fire and positive change would occur. Instead, now there are new chemical irritants to use and bits have become even more severe. To add insult to injury, bad riding is rampant in the TWH performance ring. Maybe that sounds minor, but having somebody sitting on your kidneys and using long spurs on your flanks while jerking on the reins can't be any kind of picnic.

I read a blog entry yesterday on Fugly Horse of the Day, and I can't believe, in this day in age, that we are STILL dealing with this type of willful and accepted abuse. I shouldn't be surprised, really. I've been in and around the horse industry long enough to know that money and ego are the ruling forces so much of the time. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel be regurgitating everything that Fugly wrote, but I DO encourage you to read the entry and pass it around, even if you are not a horse person. A word of warning, there is a pretty graphic video posted within the blog. Even after everything I've seen, it still made me sick.

After I read the article, I poked around on the internet to see for myself the reaction of folks to this blatant abuse, and was rather horrified by what I found. I watched videos of the "Celebration"; there are lots of them if you look, unfortunately. Here is one that briefly shows the 2009 Champion: 2009 Walking Horse Celebration. (I think it's interesting that the rider is the brother of the guy arrested for abuse mentioned in the "Fugly" blog, and the rider in the photo above IS the abuser). To me, the "big lick" is unattractive. Maybe it's because I know that it's produced by pain. I'm much more impressed by the TWH's smooth and rhythmic (and natural) running walk. One of the videos I watched really got to me. It was so horrifying it was actually macabre: The crowd waited while the horses filed in. One by one, the wild-eyed, sweating horses broke into the 'big lick', and the crowd went wild. I tried to imagine it from the horses' point of view: You move the best you can with your feet hurting and your very bodily structures compromised, every joint aching from being forced into unnatural angles. A predatory gargoyle sits on your kidneys and hunches over your shoulders, simultaneously spurring you in the flanks and hanging on the reins, creating more pain. Your aching body is urged forward faster, the pain in your feet causing you to hold them higher and for just a bit longer. The crowd cheers the spectacle that your pain has created...

How is this still legal?


  1. Have you read "The Man Who Listens to Horses?" I think you'd really like it.

  2. I haven't, but I'll definitely check it out!