Tennessee Walking Horses are known for their high steps, but animal rights groups say cruelty is being used to make them perform.
Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 21:30

Tennessee's Walking Horses are famous for their high-stepping walk, but it's the extra high showring steps known as the Big Lick that attract the most attention.

In the past they've drawn crowds of spectators and the support of stars like Elvis Presley, but in more recent decades animal welfare campaigners in the United States have exposed cruelty and abuse.

In one case, a leading trainer was exposed applying burning liquids and heavy chains to hooves and legs, in a process called 'soring' to force the horses to step increasingly higher.

Priscilla Presley tells Mary Ann Jolley that she was naive about the way horses were made to achieve the Big Lick.

Now, she's at the forefront of a campaign to stop cruelty to the animals, but she's up against a powerful industry that denies such abuse is widespread.

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The American state of Tennessee has a number of claims to fame, including American country music and being the birthplace of rock and roll, so they say. It's also home to the high-stepping Tennessee walking horse. This tradition of prancing horses stretches back decades but is now being challenged by animal activists, including none other than Priscilla Presley, despite Elvis' fondness for the sport. Here is Mary Ann Jolley and a warning, some viewers may find parts of this story disturbing.

REPORTER: Mary Ann Jolley

Perhaps it's not surprising that one of Tennessee's favourite sons loved walking horses. This rare home video from the 60s shows Elvis Presley riding his first Tennessee walking horse.

PRISCILLA PRESLEY: Elvis got a horse called Bear. It was a beautiful black Tennessee walking horse. That's my first introduction and he would ride him up and down the lawns of Graceland. He was proud of that horse. A beautiful ride.

Priscilla Presley and Elvis had about a dozen walking horses.

PRISCILLA PRESLEY: They are probably one of the most beautiful, beautiful, magnificent creatures. Their body, their stature, the way they hold themselves, their pride. The Tennessee walking horse has a natural gait, a beautiful natural gait. For some reason, as a society, we want bigger. We want more. You know, if they can do it that high in their natural gait, why not get them to do more?

This is not the natural gait of the walking horse. Here in Shelbyville, the capital of the Tennessee walking horse industry, it's what they call the Big Lick and it's what wins at shows like this.

WINKY GROOVER: I do think this horse is not artificial like it's made out to be, I think it is a real equine athlete. But you know, we are a competition and you know, there's going to be a few folks that try to cut corners.

Winky Groover is a second generation trainer with more than 40 years' experience in the performance horse business. Today he's getting ready for the first show of the 2014 season.

WINKY GROOVER: This is Brain Power. He is the reigning reserve world champion three-year-old amateur stallion. We're going to show Brain Power tomorrow night at the Horse Show.

The walking horse has a natural high-stepping gait, but the exaggerated Big Lick is only achieved with the aid of what trainers call action devices - the most obvious is the ungainly shoes on the horse's front feet.

WINKY GROOVER: This is what's called a foot pad. This is nailed directly to the horse's foot, just like a horse shoe on any other breed of horse. It's nailed directly there.

A so-called package made of plastic is nailed to the foot pad. It is kept in place by a metal band over the hoof, trainers sometimes add weights to the horse's front legs, either chains around the ankles or a plate of lead in the foot pads.

REPORTER: What does the weight do?

WINKY GROOVER: The weight helps them to actually lift their legs higher.

After a couple of laps of the exercise barn, legs are wrapped, whiskers are trimmed and tails are blow-dried. Then it's time to load the trailer and head to the show. Shelbyville is an hour west of Nashville, the capital of Tennessee. It's surrounded by horse stables and studs and iconic silhouettes of rearing horses are everywhere in the town. Each year Shelbyville hosts the biggest walking horse show of the year - the National Celebration.

MIKE INMAN, CEO, NATIONAL CELEBRATION: It's the National Celebration that we have in August and that's responsible for over $40 million in economic impact for the county in the ten days it is here. It's a 75-year tradition that is very important, not only to this area, but to the families and it's multigenerational. It is important to agriculture and farming.

Mike Inman is the CEO of the National Celebration and was once an owner of champion walking horses.

MIKE INMAN: Are we having a good night?

Tonight he's keen to promote the annual trainer's show and to explain what the judges look for.

MIKE INMAN: As you start to judge them, you want to see, again, the length of stride, the length of raise the amount of head shake and is the horse balanced. The level of performance will vary from horse to horse. That's in small degrees and that's what the judging is made of.

Not only are Big Lick shows struggling for spectators these days the industry is under fire from animal welfare campaigners.

KEITH DANE, HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE UNITED STATES: We know there are a lot of abuses in the horse world, a lot of equine welfare problems, but this is one that is so widespread and so egregious, that the Human Society felt it was a campaign that we needed to take on.

NEWSREEL: Down this gravel road, caught on tape, undercover video seen for the first time tonight - Jackie McConnell seen here beating a horse.

In 2012 an American television network broadcast images of shocking cruelty by a prominent trainer of Tennessee walking horses, Jackie McConnell. The video shows the process of "soring" where caustic substances like mustard oil are put on the horse's legs and the legs are wrapped so the skin burns and festers. Later Jackie McConnell and his stable-hands are seen putting heavy metal chains around the open sores - all with the intention of making the horse react in pain and lift its legs higher.

NEWSREEL: The horses on the video appear to be in such great pain they often refuse to get up and are whipped by the stable-hand.

KEITH DANE: We had an employee that was hired by Jackie McConnell to work in his barn and she worked there for a period of two or three months and was able to see first-hand a lot of the things we knew were going on and have been going on for a very long time.

MIKE INMAN: That is their business model, to embed themselves in agriculture however long it takes. To see something that's not right and painted the entire industry with that brush.

Back at the Shelbyville show, trainers are feeling the heat.

JUDGE: Checking sensitivity on the back of this horse.

At most shows horse inspections are left to the industry to oversee, but tonight the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, has arrived in force to ensure competitors are not in violation of the 1970 Horse Protection Act. The inspectors are looking for signs of scarring, or sensitivity on the horse's pasterns. Winky Groover finds one of his champion horses is a centre of USDA attention and after tense consultation, he's told it won't be competing tonight.

WINKY GROOVER: What's happening now is we're having some veterinarians check him to see what they think. They disagree, but that's where we're running into a subjective inspection - one man has say so to putting you out, he put him out, and he put him out for the whole show. You know, that horse is obviously not a sore horse, not an abused animal, and you know, here we go again.

I'm travelling to Brentwood in Tennessee, a short distance from Shelbyville. I'm on my way to a conference to promote human practices in the walking horse industry. With me is Marty Irby, an 8-time world champion and former President of the Breeders and Exhibitors Association. His opposition to soring and abuse has earn earned him serious enemies.

MARTY IRBY: I've had death threats, threats for harm and public threats, and people who would just do anything to hurt someone who stands up against their way of life.

REPORTER: So what will we see here today?

MARTY IRBY: You will see exhibitions of the sound horses who are not sored and the future of what the breed can be and how it will grow and horses that are trained in a proper manner with natural horsemanship.

No-one here wants to see the end of walking horse shows, but they do want to see the cruelty of soring finally stamped out. The trouble is - it's been going on for a long time.

MARTY IRBY: My father taught me how to sore a Tennessee walking horse when I was about 13 years old. I really didn't know it was wrong. It was just something that was a way of life in the culture and I had no idea that was something, it was something you were taught to do and that is the way things were and everybody did it.

Winky Groover is prepared to admit that he sored horses but a long time ago.

REPORTER: Have you ever used chemicals on a horse's legs?

WINKY GROOVER: Not in any recent years.

REPORTER: But you did in the past?

WINKY GROOVER: Yes, 35 years ago.

REPORTER: What sorts of things did you use on them?

WINKY GROOVER: Just some kerosene or something, diesel.

During his long career, Winky Groover has been cited 26 times for violation of the Horse Protection Act. The alleged offences include for sores, scars the use of foreign substances, and illegal chains.

WINKY GROOVER: The back part is allowed some hair loss.

The day after he was cited at the trainer's show for a scar on his horse, he was adamant he'd done nothing wrong and that he was unfairly disqualified.

WINKY GROOVER: But as you can see, this horse is free from really any blemishes of any kind. If you rub your hand across his foot, it's smooth. He's got hair in. You know - I don't think he's out.

TRACY TURNER, VET: These images are from the show you attended.

Tracy Turner is a veterinarian and expert consultant to the USDA and was on duty at the trainer's show.

TRACY TURNER: To help them find the evidence of soring.

His specialty is thermography, which monitors variation in temperature on the horse's legs. Hot areas can be an indication of an injury or soring.

TRACY TURNER: The left foot here, this was found to be scaring. You can see in the pocket where it's warm, it's really hot in two lines. They are off scale again.

Tracy Turner is in no doubt that Winky Groover's horse was properly disqualified.

TRACY TURNER: It's just saying that they found scars. Scars are evidence of past soring. Does it mean it was sored yesterday? Doesn't ever say that it does, but a horse can't be presented that has had evidence of soring.

One thing that can't be disputed is that the abusive practice of soring that began in the 60s still goes on today. According to Marty Irby, who until recently was a leader in the Big Lick fraternity, the claim it's not widespread is simply not true.

MARTY IRBY: I say that's a fallacy. I think if you don't cheat, you can't compete today. The majority of the people that I've ever seen in the Big Lick segment of the walking horse industry sore their horses and the horses that are doing that Big Lick gait have either been sored at one time to learn that gait or are currently being sored. And it's very rampant.

Jackie McConnell the trainer exposed in this video had no shortage of clients who wanted him to work with their horses. When the video was recorded, he was serving a five-year federal disqualification, but he continued to train horses and attend major events without a hint of shame.

WINKY GROOVER: I was absolutely shocked at what I saw on the Nightline video. I think Jackie was one that was trying to take short cuts and, you know, got caught and thank goodness got punished and is out.

REPORTER: He was banned from shows, but he was still showing horses. How did the industry let him do that?

WINKY GROOVER: You know, I don't know why or how - I really think all of us were shocked at, that that's what really was going on at Jackie's.

KEITH DANE: If Jackie McConnell had to do all of those things to those horses in order to get them to do that look, how were other trainers doing it without soring?

Priscilla Presley says that back in the 60s she and Elvis were unaware of the widespread practice of soring, so she was happy to enter one of Elvis' horses in the National Celebration.

PRISCILLA PRESLEY: We were very naive. We had no idea to the extent of what the horses go through actually, to have that Big Lick as they call it. No, we did not have any idea. Very naive, just thought they were beautiful, thought they were natural high-stepping horses.

These days Priscilla Presley is campaigning in Washington alongside major American veterinarian organisations. They're calling for new legislation that they hope will put an end to soring once and for all. Priscilla has also withdrawn a trophy given in Elvis's honour to prize-winning horses at the celebration.

PRISCILLA PRESLEY: There's no justification whatsoever for to put any animal through this process of torment, pain and abusiveness. And people who justify it, I have to look at really where they come from and who they are to be able to justify a horse going through this for a ribbon or a trophy, or for pay?

The Big Lick industry is now in crisis mode. Desperately lobbying against the proposed legislation that will outlaw the use of pads and chains and give the Department of Agriculture sole responsibility for inspections at shows. Their belief is that the banning of action devices will spell the end of the Big Lick horse.

MIKE INMAN: Essentially they want the entire breed eliminated, again saying that will eliminate soring, well it certainly will - if you eliminate the horse, there will be no horses left.

KEITH DANE: We have programs of people who use humane ways and help promote the breed to the rest of the world. So, if we were against people having horses and using them we wouldn't be offering rewards and recognition to people doing that humanely.

You don't need to be an expert to see the fine qualities of the Tennessee walking horse. Without the use of artificial devices, the animal has a grace and beauty matched only by its gentle temperament. For many lovers of the breed, the time has come to leave well enough alone.

MARTY IRBY: People just need to evolve in a new direction, to understand that soring is wrong. Once they really have a change of heart, and come to understand that the walking horse can grow in a new direction, away from the sore pain-based gait that exists, they can see that the walking horse could actually be the largest equine breed on earth.





Music composed by Vicki Hansen

Elvis Presley home video Courtesy of Priscilla Presley

Special thanks to the Humane Society of the United States and Pete Marovich

29th April 2014