t not the use of weighted horseshoes, hoof bands and other devices. Supporters of the PAST Act say the currently legal devices go hand-in-hand with chemical soring. As it stands, the walking horse industry is largely allowed to self-regulate whether owners and trainers abide by the law. And it reports its own — remarkably high — compliance rates.
But when independent USDA inspectors showed up in Blackburn’s home state in 2012 for the gaited horse industry’s splashy annual show, known as the Celebration, they found that 76 percent of a random sample of nearly 200 horses tested positive for chemicals commonly used in soring. Donna Benefield, a witness at the congressional hearing Wednesday who has administered USDA-certified horse inspection programs for the past 25 years, said these chemicals can include blistering mustard oil, lighter fluid and salicylic acid.
A 2012 expose by ABC News (above) contained gruesome footage of one of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry’s top trainers, Jackie McConnell, soring horses. McConnell, who pled guilty to violating the Horse Protection Act, can be seen beating horses with a pipe while they lie in their stalls. Horses are also shown with chains wrapped around deliberately-inflicted wounds on their hooves. In one especially disturbing clip, McConnell repeatedly electrocutes a horse.
Marty Irby, a former world-champion Tennessee Walking Horse competitor who recently became an anti-soring advocate, spoke to the committee on Wednesday about the industry’s problem. He said he became fed up with pretending that the abuse shown by ABC wasn’t a common practice.
“Should I continue to perpetuate the lie that the padded and chained performance Tennessee Walking Horses are mostly sound and a few bad [trainers] sore them, or should I recognize the truth: that all padded and chained Tennessee Walking Horses are either sore or have been sored?” Irby said. Irby, 34, comes from a long line of championship Tennessee Walking Horse breeders, and he told HuffPost that taking a public stand against the abuse has cost him his marriage, his career and his relationship with his parents.
In August, Blackburn observed horse inspections in person at the 2013 Celebration, the same annual horse show where inspectors found the shockingly high violation rate in 2012. The Tennessean reported that the top walking horse industry lobbying group, the Performance Show Horse Association, hosted a campaign fundraiser for Blackburn during her visit. Guests paid $100 a ticket, according to the Tennessean.
Despite Blackburn’s attendance at the show, and the heightened caution following the damning ABC video, the 2013 Celebration still had major problems. Among them was the early elimination of Honors, one of the show’s most popular horses and a past champion, after inspectors found evidence of soring on his leg. And two horses belonging to Terry Dotson, the then-president of the PSHA, also failed their inspections, according to the Tennessean. Just days after hosting Blackburn, Dotson resigned his position as PSHA’s president.