At What Price?
I recently returned to my home in Florida from a short trip up to The Volunteer State. The Tennessee Horse Council was hosting a large expo at their brand new facility, The Miller Coliseum, and I decided to purchase vendor space in the hopes of garnering attention for my book about our horse sanctuary, Proud Spirit. I had never attended an expo before, either on my own, nor in the capacity of representing the sanctuary. I really didn't know what to expect. But I spoke to several different women involved in organizing the event and was impressed with how friendly and helpful they all were.
The drive up was a welcome respite from my normal routine and I enjoyed the change of pace. Equally pleasant was the change of climate. Florida seems to go from 'really hot', to just 'hot', and sometimes the temperature even goes down to 'not so hot'. Running out of the hotel room to my truck that first morning in Tennessee and actually seeing my breath was quite a novel treat.
I easily found the road that led to the coliseum. Making my way through the town of Murfreesboro I was properly wowed by the explosion of blossoms on all the Bradford Pear trees that lined the streets and dotted nearly everyone's front yard. It was incredible! The Miller Coliseum was impressive as well. The grounds and buildings were immaculate. The parking lot was easy to navigate and everything was accessible. I had arrived rather early, and after setting up my booth I decided to walk around and meet some of the other vendors before the doors opened to the public.
Just about everyone I spoke to was very pleased with the placement of the vendor booths. We were set up in the main building on the top floor ringing the arena where the majority of the events would take place, and we would be able to watch the show. Being unfamiliar with the general routine that takes place at an expo I hadn't given this much thought, but they told me that most of the larger venues around the country put the exhibitors in a separate building and you never get to enjoy the events. So I was looking forward to everything getting started.
My husband Jim and I are the founders of a horse sanctuary called Proud Spirit; an award-winning 50-acre facility in SW Florida. For the last twelve years we have provided a peaceful and dignified final home to over seventy unwanted, abused, elderly and neglected horses. Our lives are immersed in horses. But it is more along the lines of caretakers. We do not show horses, we do not breed them, we do not make money from them. And in rescue work you see the worst of mankind. So I was truly anxious to get a glimpse of this other aspect of the horse world.
It was wonderful to watch Josh Lyons working in complete harmony with his horse. There was a genuine willing partnership; the horse was relaxed, his eyes were soft and it was clear he wanted to be near this amazing young man. Not only were Josh's communication skills with his horse exemplary, but he was just as good with the audience - a winning combination of treating our equine companions with the respect they deserve, and getting this message across to their owners.
I was purely mesmerized by the stallion showcase! Too often the horses who arrive at Proud Spirit are elderly and/or neglected, even emaciated. Their muscles are usually slack and their coats dull. To see these stunning, enormous and powerful stallions - their coats glowing with good health - was spellbinding.
However, I have to say that for me the highlight of the entire weekend was the demonstration put on by The Heinz 57 Hitch Team. Those eight pure black Percherons were absolutely magnificent. And the gentleman driving them was incredible. What an astonishing talent to handle all those reins and keep the horses so cohesive!
I also enjoyed the breed showcase. It was certainly fun and interesting to see the versatility of each group as they came out one by one: Appaloosas, Quarter Horses, Miniatures, Saddlebreds and Paso Finos, to name just a few. I was especially interested when the emcee announced the next group coming out to the ring would be the Tennessee Walking Horse. I have several different friends here in Florida who own Walkers. The immense pleasure they enjoy with this breed on trail rides is well known in our circle. When my good friend, Charlena goes into that amazing gliding running walk on her beautiful mare, Kay, I can't help but watch them with awe!
The first horse and rider to come into the arena during The Tennessee Walking Horse showcase was a young lady dressed in western garb. She was a beautiful rider and expertly demonstrated the magical natural gait of this breed. Next came a sharply dressed gentleman leading a lovely black horse. The animal walked calmly at the man's side and appeared alert and interested in his surroundings; traits that seem to be so marvelously innate in Walkers. I couldn't hear exactly what the emcee was saying about this horse…and then all of the sudden I couldn't really hear anything that was going on around me at all. I had caught some lurching movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to look.
Into the arena came a disturbing spectacle. I looked down the rail and for a second, just like the sounds around me that seemed to have faded, the sights around me became a murky blur…all I could see were the whites of this poor horse's eyes. 'Oh my god,' I mumbled to myself. Naturally, over the years I've read about the controversy surrounding The Big Lick. And of course I've seen photographs and news clips of this decidedly bizarre practice. But I've never stood thirty feet from the nightmare this horse was going through. I was also under the impression, erroneously it seems, that with the passing of the Horse Protection Act by the United States Congress in 1970 that the abusive training practices used to achieve The Big Lick had been eliminated. Apparently, I was wrong. In an instant my entire weekend was ruined.
Horse and rider were coming around the ring now. I watched through squinted eyes, as though it physically hurt to look at them, and I swallowed hard, pushing down my emotions. It was like a train wreck; you want to look away from the horror, but you can't. The rider was an attractive woman who wore a deep, royal blue suit in a rich silky fabric. A matching top hat was perched jauntily atop her head. It was adorned with one big bow at the back and the gossamer ribbons streamed elegantly behind her. Unfortunately, the pretty outfit became obscene next to the tortured horse who stood out in stark contrast to the other Tennessee Walkers in the ring that day. This particular Walker was fitted with exceedingly high pads on his front feet, and there were chains around his pasterns forcing him into an exaggerated distortion of the breed's otherwise beautiful natural gait.
I shook my head in dismay and muttered an oath under my breath. There was a woman I didn't know standing beside me. She turned in my direction and saw the look on my face. 'I'm not a horse person,' she told me. 'But I don't understand that. It's grotesque.' I readily agreed with her, and saw that her eyes reflected the same sad outrage I felt as we both turned our attention back to the ring and watched the woman in blue come around. As horse and rider drew near I heard the woman beside me groan, 'Ugh,' as she abruptly turned and walked away.
I stared out to the ring and looked into the rider's eyes trying to glean some answers there. Although, I knew I would not find them on her face, for it was not her being forced into this disturbing display, it was her mount. But I pose these questions now to the entire equestrian community: What manner of beast would be proud of the grotesque destruction of this amazing breed's natural gait? What sort of arrogance would someone have to possess to participate in, or even promote what The Big Lick is forcing on these horses?
There are certainly more pressing issues facing our world today. And obviously, every discipline in the equestrian community has its share of problems. The horses in Western Pleasure classes, for instance, look ridiculous with their noses dragging on the ground, but at least they don't look destroyed by torture. And then there are the bigger issues: slaughter, premarin farms; while one may be vehemently opposed to the existence of these two industries, at least we understand why they were started; the topics are complex and can be debated in a reasonable manner, if not intelligently, from both sides.
But this…The Big Lick…this goes beyond the depths any human being should plunge in the name of money, greed, and politics simply because the base cruelty of it is singularly without explanation. And so, my final question to the collective horse world would be: Who with an ounce of moral conscience could turn their back on this atrocity?
Our society is rapidly approaching a period in history where we better wake up and start behaving with more civility to each other, and more humanity towards the creatures unable to defend themselves against us. I'm paraphrasing here, but I believe Mark Twain said something along these lines: 'The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to other creatures. The fact that he does wrong to these creatures proves his moral inferiority.' We are indignant and appalled by the violence glutting the world today and we want it to end. Might it be wise to first clean up our own back yards?
I would encourage everyone to read Eugene Davis' From the Horse's Mouth. This is an astonishingly brave book that offers a powerful revelation about the hideous truth behind the multi-million dollar Tennessee Walking Horse industry. And then I would challenge everyone with any amount of decency to react and put an end to The Big Lick.
The Tennessee Walking Horse is touted as 'The Pride Of Tennessee'. As long as The Big Lick exists, in any form, the entire state of Tennessee should be ashamed of itself. And the entire equestrian community, from sea to shining sea, should be outraged.
For more information:
Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH)
6614 Clayton Road, #105
St. Louis, MO 63117
Sound Horse Organization