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Tennessee Walking Horse video stuns Shelbyville

11:02 AM, May 19, 2012   |    comments
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SHELBYVILLE - Shelbyville's economic lifeblood starts flowing strong about 5 miles outside of town.

That's where the feed stores start popping up. The tack supply. The grand stables and the gated mansions.

In front of those, surrounded by acres and acres of gleaming white fences, the Tennessee walking horses and their trainers practice that million-dollar gait, an unusually long, high step revered by locals and blasted by the Humane Society of the United States as a hallmark of animal cruelty.

The town was feeling stung Friday after the humane society's latest strike against its main industry - stomach-turning, hidden-camera video of walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell striking a horse in the face repeatedly. According to a 52-count federal indictment the video prompted, his purpose was to teach the horse not to flinch when judges checked its legs for damage inflicted on purpose.

It aired on ABC's Nightline on Wednesday. By Friday, people could talk about little else in the hair salons, the coffee shops and on Facebook, shaking their fists at national media for making their town look so awful.

But there was room for introspection, too. And along the way, Shelbyville excommunicated one of its own.

Sure, McConnell's stables may be in Collierville, 225 miles to the west, but he lived in their world. He collected a grand champion ribbon at their signature event, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, in the late 1990s. He was licensed through the Shelbyville-based Walking Horse Trainers' Association board, which voted in an emergency conference call Thursday to strip him of that credential.

They were going to wait to see how the indictment turned out, but members agreed that the video removed any need for that.

"It's embarrassing to have someone in my profession doing something like that," said Winky Groover, a Shelbyville trainer for nearly 20 years. "It's an embarrassment for me and the community, what he did. It's awful."

Groover threw open his stable doors Friday, inviting anyone who wanted to look at the horses' legs or watch him take them for a spin. He unwrapped the padding around Keep Your Cash's legs and the 2-year-old stood stock still, his coat shiny with fly repellent and his forelock braided with ribbon for a show that night in Petersburg, Tenn.

But Groover couldn't have always been that candid. Back in 1999, he fought a scar rule violation - meaning a horse inspector found evidence that a horse's ankle had been damaged to encourage the gait - and lost.

"I can't do anything about my past," he said. "I don't care to discuss that any more than my personal past. I've changed my life and my ways, and I feel like I'm a leader in training these horses the way they need to be.

"All I can do is change."

A natural shock absorber

That's a sentiment repeated more than once in the walking horse world.

Tennessee walking horses were bred more than 100 years ago, so riders could have less bounce - the horses' gait serves as a kind of shock absorber. Trainers chose horses that demonstrated it naturally and then used special shoes and metal chains to encourage higher, longer steps.

Some trainers figured out the training process would go even faster if they burned the horse's ankles - a practice called "soring" - inducing the gait as a reaction to pain. The Tennessean did its first large exposé of the practice more than four decades ago, and reputable trainers begged for it to stop.

A pattern developed. Someone exposes the practice, a local scandal ensues, then business as usual resumes. In 2006, the Celebration canceled the Grand Champion contest after investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the walking horse industry, disqualified seven of 10 horses for soring violations.

Practices changed after that, said Doyle Meadows, the Celebration's CEO. In 2009, the Celebration assembled the inspection agency SHOW - an acronym for sound horses, honest judging, objective inspections, winning fairly - to self-regulate the trainers. It fired nine inspectors from a former group. A check of USDA Horse Protection Act violations for 2010-11 reveals that SHOW issued more citations to Shelbyville trainers than any other horse industry organization.

Citations from USDA veterinarians at the Celebration dropped from 13.5 percent of horses in 2009 to 1 percent in 2011, Meadows said.

SHOW's popularity dropped, too, said Stephen Mullins, a veterinarian who retired from private practice to become the group's president. The first year, more than 150 horse shows used the group to meet USDA self-regulation rules. Last year, it was fewer than 100.

The group keeps running on money from the Celebration - $750,000 over three years.

"To be a tough cop doesn't mean you'll be the cop who is invited," Mullins said.

A force in the local economy

Being tough on the industry can't be easy for anyone in Shelbyville, population 20,335, where businesses prominently display their cardboard "Proud Supporter of the TN Walking Horse Industry" signs in the front windows.

Their business depends on that sentiment.

The Celebration alone - scheduled for Aug. 22-Sept. 1 this year - brings an estimated $41 million in direct spending to the town. Harder to quantify are the millions more walking horse owners and their employees contribute indirectly. Still, but the industry is Bedford County's No. 1 sales tax generator, County Mayor Eugene Ray said.

He ate lunch Friday in The Coffee Break, a popular spot on the town square. Across from him sat Dale Cobb, whose 15-year-old daughter rides walking horses in competitions. Behind him, Hank Williamson, the Shelbyville airport manager, whose runways are kept busy with horse owners flying in and out.

In Shelbyville, there's never more than one degree of separation from the industry.

"This particular issue with the soring, it's not new," Williamson said. "It's unfortunate it took the national stage, but we'll get through this. ... This is really not who we are. We are your average, nice folks."

Next door, stylists at Bella Donna Salon said they couldn't watch the Nightline piece without crying. Their clientele, walking horse people, sat in chairs the next day, talking about how horrible it was. The stylists wondered what it could mean for business - people thinking the whole industry was like that.

"If I were an outsider looking in on it, I would think most of them are that way," Samantha Floyd said.

Ami Seibers shook her head. "They need to go there and see how people who don't abuse horses treat them," she said.

The next shop is Marsha's on the Square, where industry people take off their training clothes and try on custom-made sequined jackets and suits with tails - competition apparel. As in so many other businesses, pictures of horses cover the walls.

Ashlea Shepard, whose relatives own the business, hesitated at first but became passionate in her defense of the industry that feeds them. She owns two horses, and her 8-year-old daughter shows them.

"I think there are extreme cases out there - all the horror stories that you've heard in the news that Nightline tried to make current," she said. "I trust the guys (now) know what they're doing."

Inviting outsiders in

Repairing the industry's reputation, those inside and outside it agreed, will mean opening the doors to outsiders. It's something they haven't tried, SHOW's Mullins said. Instead, they've tended to ignore media reports, pretending violations didn't happen.

And while it pains some to think of actually inviting the government into stables - instead of waiting for USDA vets to take action at shows - that may be what it takes, a group of trainers gathered at Groover's stables said. It's something the Walking Horse Trainers' Association has discussed.

On the next association agenda is a discussion about changing its licensing regulations, making them include a class on the Horse Protection Act. Right now, a license just takes the signature of three licensed trainers and a nod from a committee.

A surprise stop demonstrated how willing the industry may be to let outsiders take a look. Picked at random, employees at Williams Stables at Sand Creek Farms offered an unaccompanied tour of the walking horses. They looked bored in their stalls, approaching the gate at the sound of human footsteps, the buzzing of flies broken by an occasional whinny.

Owners drop by to give them treats sometimes, trainer Jerry Williams explained later. The horses have learned to associate people approaching with something they like. He patiently demonstrated how 2-inch shoes underneath the hooves and light chains above them encourage the gait trainers call the "Big Lick."

He has no soring violation, he said, because he does things the right way.

"It just takes more work," Williams said. "Let them do what they do naturally."

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