The Tennessee Walking Horse industry, already in dire straits as blatant and persistent examples of animal cruelty, criminal misconduct and increased bickering between its organizations are quickly coming to light, drove what is being described as a “coffin nail” into an already badly-sored hoof Monday when its leading group – of all things – sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The complaint, filed in Texas, alleges the government’s efforts to impose minimum penalties for soring animals and other horrific abuse is unconstitutional and anybody who has ever watched a Matt Dillon movie knows the last thing you want to do is mess with the “Marshal,” especially when the nation’s public perception is now rampant that the Tennessee Walking Horse industry is as crooked as a mare’s back leg.
The suit, to no one’s surprise, comes from the Shelbyville-based organization called SHOW, which has been rife with past and present violators of the federal Horse Protection Act since the law was enacted in 1970 but, not until earlier this year, have federal prosecutors sought and earned guilty pleas. One plea came from the now-infamous Jackie McConnell, a Collierville trainer who in an unrelated incident was filmed viciously beating a horse with an electric cattle prod and cruelly harming other horses.
The tape, distributed by the Humane Society of the United States, was initially shown on the ABC News show “Nightline” but spread like wildfire, igniting the furor of the 500,000 owners of Tennessee Walkers in the United States and abroad. It triggered other compelling news reports, such as the last 10 “Trainers of the Year” all have violations of the Horse Protection Act and, of the top 20 trainers in the so-called Rider’s Cup competition, they have a collective 161 violations in just the last two years alone.
Curiously, SHOW officials said very little publicly, other than to ceremoniously take McConnell’s picture off the Hall of Fame wall, and, with desperation beginning to mount, formed a new group called Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization on May 25. Less than two weeks later, the now-alarmed USDA published final rules for greater horse protection but, by June 15, TWSHO announced a controversial “swabbing test” that still has the various groups in the floundering industry mystified.
For example: Last weekend complete pandemonium occurred at the Summer Classic Horse Show in Buckhead, Ga., when a committee member was informed TWSHO inspectors would be present. Believe it or not, the Buckhead show officials had never heard of TWSHO, nor invited them. Allow me to share part of the email that is also spreading across the Internet to millions of titillated horse activists:
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“Yesterday someone from TWSHO called and said they were coming to swab horses at our show. They did not ask me – they told me – they were coming. I told them that we did not want them to come to our show to swab and gave some very logical reasons which I will list below. I was told that we had no choice in the matter, and I was also told that I could not show my horse if it was not swabbed. Please tell me how TWSHO has any authority whatsoever to tell me that I can’t show my horse if it is not swabbed.
“I don’t remember voting to give this organization any authority over me as an owner. I have not been made aware that you are an “official” organization representing the TWH industry, and have not received any correspondence from you to explain who you are and what the “swabbing initiative” is.
“So, I went to your website to find out more about TWSHO. There is certainly not much information there! There is no address or phone numbers. Where are you located? There is no indication of what type of legal entity you are. I have no idea who your officers and Board of Directors are. Do you even exist?
“The one thing I DID find on your website was a letter that contained the following (and I copied and pasted this directly from your website): The swabbing initiative will start June 15th with SHOW events and any Show Manager that requests or agrees to have it at their event. Since I have seen nothing else in writing from TWSHO, I have to trust that this statement is still true. Therefore, we do not request nor agree for you to conduct swabbing at the GWHEA Summer Classic Show.
“The reason for our hesitation about this is that many of us have a lot of unanswered questions about TWSHO and this “swabbing initiative.” Is there anything in writing that has been sent to the industry stakeholders like myself explaining who TWSHO is – such as your purpose, what you think you can accomplish with it, why you think it would benefit me to join with your initiatives, and how you think this will benefit the industry?
“I got a call out of nowhere from a woman on the phone that I don’t know representing some organization that I don’t know anything about, assuring me this is being done to help the industry – but she couldn’t answer any questions I have about it, nor do her assurances protect me from potential legal ramifications that might result from this.”
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The well-written email goes on and on but the “big lick” came Monday when SHOW sued the USDA in an unbelievable reaction. Keith Dane, the equine protection director for the Humane Society, said “SHOW’s decision to file a lawsuit trying to block USDA’s efforts at reform says everything about whether this industry has the will or the ability to clean up its act on its own.”
Ironically, one of just two names listed on the TWSHO website is Kathy Zies, who threatened to have Dane appear at a closed hearing last week to see if he should remain on the Breeders and Exhibitors Board after making the scathing McConnell tape available to Nightline which, she claimed, harmed the walking horse industry.
Apparently the hearing was cancelled after Zies later said she was betrayed. “I am withdrawing my complaint due to the fact that even though all the protocols in the past have deemed that a complaint be kept confidential, this one was put out to the national press and public by TWHBEA’s President Marty Irby.”
Obviously those who have become glued to this story don’t have long to wait until the next episode. In a late-afternoon email from the Humane Society’s Keith Dane, he writes, “SHOW’s decision to file a lawsuit trying to block USDA’s efforts at reform says everything about whether this industry is willing or able clean up its act on its own. It shows that this industry wants to continue with absolutely no oversight, and without even the most minimum of standards to provide a deterrent.”
Finally, an uproar has emerged over the sudden 7 ½ year suspension on trainer Joe Cotton, who posted gruesome pictures on Facebook of a badly-injured horse named Joe’s Wine and Roses after the horse was brought to his barn by another trainer. Cotton, who allegedly got no hearing before “the longest suspension in Walking Horse history,” is believed by many bloggers to be an industry scapegoat and legal ramifications are said to be underway.