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Painful “Big Lick” Tennessee Walking Horse Show Season Kicked Off Amidst COVID-19

While the nation is grappling with the COVID-19 crisis and seeing major protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, animal protection advocates continue to grapple with the various crises and abuses that those we work to protect face each day, including the ongoing mistreatment of Tennessee Walking Horses. I’ve been working for the past decade — first within the industry as president of the breed registry and now as executive director of Animal Wellness Action — to end the scourge of soring, which involves intentionally inflicting pain to horses’ legs and hooves to produce an artificial high-stepping gait known as the “big lick.”  

At the beginning of the show season in Tennessee, we generally see a rise in the debate and rhetoric regarding the use of large stacked shoes and ankle chains placed on the horses feet to exacerbate the pain they feel from the application of caustic chemicals such as diesel fuel, mustard oil, and croton oil. There’s also a long game of tug-o-war between the owners and trainers of “big lick” horses and the inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is charged with enforcing the Horse Protection Act that was designed to stamp out the abuse.

The “big lick” faction believes the USDA’s treated them unfairly, and that the inspection system is very subjective. Those of us vocal against the “big lick” believe that since Secretary Sonny Perdue took the reins of the Agency, very little has been done to curb the abuse. Perdue’s allowed trainers who’ve signed consent decisions for violations of soring to continue showing this year: given just a slap on the wrist and a future suspension set to begin when they’re ready to retire. One thing is certain, and we all agree: the current system has failed.

And now, it’s showtime again, albeit a few months later than we’re generally accustomed to. This weekend, the Tennessee Walking Horse “big lick” show season kicked off in Columbia at the Maury County Park. And while most people in the Volunteer State are unaware of the drama playing out over the abuse of the horses, a Citizens’ Campaign Against Big Lick Animal Cruelty positioned protesters from Tennessee at the gates of the show for the sixth year in a row.

These advocates have successfully pushed municipalities to disallow “big lick” events in their domains, and they’ve been quite successful eliminating traditional pain-based shows full of soring from Jackson, Mississippi; Panama City Beach, Florida; and the North Carolina State Fair. They have continued to exercise their Constitutional right to peacefully protest events in public, and the wagons are circling and driving the majority of walking horse abusers across the nation into a five or six county area centered around Shelbyville.

One of the most prominent violators of the Horse Protection Act, Russ Thompson, who sored horses just outside of Los Angeles since the 1980’s, has now become a permanent fixture in Bedford County. This marks the end of the last pocket of soring in the nation’s largest state.

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