By Heidi Halt, The Tennessean
MURFREESBORO - It was years in the making, but Marty Irby's epiphany about the Tennessee Walking Horse's future came in the middle of a competition ring in Wemding, Germany, his cellphone buzzing urgently.
The world's reaction to a Humane Society of the United States undercover video of a Hall of Fame trainer beating and burning a Tennessee Walking Horse was swift and excruciating. The video played on "Nightline," and in a matter of minutes, everyone knew the industry's not-so-well-kept secret: Unscrupulous trainers abuse horses to win.
And as Irby, elected in 2010 the youngest Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association president, fielded death threats from angry animal lovers, he suddenly saw two roads before his beloved breed.
Either keep the status quo and make owning a Tennessee Walking Horse synonymous with supporting cruelty - even though he knew that wasn't at all true - or dramatically change the industry in a way some of its most moneyed supporters would never accept.
A year later, he joined with Keith Dane, the Humane Society's equine protection director - a man sometimes referred to as "the antichrist" in walking horse circles - and started supporting a bill that would end the tall shoes and ankle chains that mark the breed's padded performance division.
That stance is losing him friends and clients of his roofing business. Some of his own relatives call him crazy. But Irby says, for every piece of hate mail he gets, he gets 100 others supporting him.
He sends frequent, emotional email blasts on the topic, and he gets teary talking about what supporting the bill has cost him.
"I've been through pure hell," he said.
"But it's the greatest gift that God has ever given me in my life. I have been as far from one side to another that a person can come.
"Now, with a little 8-month-old boy that loves walking horses - he watches them go by in the ring - I think 100 years into the future. People think I'm nuts, but I know this can be the biggest breed on Earth one day if we take the right steps right now and not next year. And if we don't, it will die on the vine."
Irby's term as president ended in December, but in May, he joined his 8,300-member association's executive committee in a successful vote to support the bill. It failed when the full international board voted, but weeks later, Irby, 34, has so far emerged as the sole association leader figure willing to keep a public fight going.
The bill, H.R. 1518, introduced by U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen of Tennessee and Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, was assigned to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade in April.
People like Irby - not padded shoes and ankle chains - are killing the industry, counters Mike Inman, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the sport's premier event.
The Celebration banned Irby from its grounds starting last year, not over the Horse Protection Act amendment, but over website domain names. Irby snagged some the Celebration felt it should own and wouldn't relinquish the rights, instead sending an email to the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association executive committee suggesting the domain names be used as "leverage" for a Celebration sponsorship. Such a sponsorship would otherwise cost the association $10,000 or more, Inman said.
Irby lost in arbitration. He can come back on the event grounds, Inman says, after he pays the $11,263.52 legal bill the Celebration accrued fighting him.
As for the amendment, Irby is just naive, Inman said.
The Celebration released a statement last week saying a "misinformation campaign being run by the other side" has been causing the Shelbyville, Tenn., event, scheduled for Aug. 21-31 this year, to run at a deficit. It lost nearly a half-million dollars last year, it said.
Without language in the bill describing what sorts of weighted shoes would be banned - a rule that can be worked out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after the bill passes, supporters insist - the Celebration must assume it would rule out at least seven of the eight classes that compete there, Inman said.
"It's 'Trust me, don't believe what the bill says, believe what it's going to say,' " he said. "That would be irresponsible and naive at the very least.
"Certainly, destroying the industry isn't going to bring it back stronger."
Blind eye no longer
The shoes and chains on walking horses are legal sports equipment under current law. Using them doesn't constitute soring.
But Irby and other bill supporters believe the equipment and soring have become inextricably linked in the public eye.
As a child of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, Irby understands the pain his choice is causing. One grandfather was a walking horse owner, the other a big animal veterinarian. His father, Ty, used to train walking horses. By the age of 5, Irby was hanging out with Hall of Fame trainers and, years later, desperately wanting to be one.
Instead, he studied public relations at the University of South Alabama in his native Mobile and became a tireless advocate for the breed. Yes, he turned a blind eye to soring, he admits now. When an ugly practice has persisted for generations, sometimes it starts looking normal.
These days, he's using his background to persuade the industry to change and working with former opponent Dane, whom his board at one time tried to oust from the association's leadership.
This week, the Humane Society will, for the first time, sponsor a Tennessee Walking Horse show - giving $1,000 to the association's World Versatility Show in Murfreesboro.
None of the horses there will be wearing the heavily padded shoes.