The welfare of Tennessee Walking Horses, celebrated for their high-stepping gait known as the "big lick," took center stage today on Capitol Hill as industry insiders squared off over alleged widespread abuse of the famed horses.
The first ever Congressional hearing on the topic was convened to discuss legislation, introduced in April, that would eliminate the industry's current self-regulation of the horses' care and turn over responsibility for examining show horses to USDA-licensed inspectors.
During the hearing, lawmakers played video of an ABC News "Nightline" report from May 2012 that showed the walking horses being tortured and beaten in an effort to force them into their unusual prize-winning gait.
"I observed the reaction the world had to this video and expose and knew I could no longer allow this lie to be perpetuated," Marty Irby, a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association, said at the hearing. Irby was referencing a part of the ABC News report in which undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the U.S. captured apparent brutal animal abuse.
Irby pleaded with Congress to take action to "help save our breed" and implement independent horse inspection. He and other critics of the industry's self-regulation described a rampant self-policing problem.
"This industry has had over 40 years to rid itself of this abuse, and for numerous reasons has not only resisted, but has refused reform at every turn," said Donna Benefield, vice president of the International Walking Horse Association.
The new bill, H.R. 1518, would amend the existing Horse Protection Act that was enacted in 1970 and would also ban the implements used to weight down the horses' hooves. Congressman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who introduced the new legislation, told ABC News that the self-policing has created a "conflict of interest" whereby current investigators, not licensed by the USDA, are "under the influence" of the horse shows that hire them.
The issue of self-regulation, however, has encountered significant pushback by others in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, who maintain that brutality is rare and that USDA-licensed inspectors are unnecessary and would increase costs of putting on horse shows by requiring managers to hire them.
"The industry takes this issue very seriously and has made great strides in eliminating soring," said veterinarian John Bennett, who practices in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the same town where the sport's biggest show "The Celebration" is held annually. Bennett says 60 percent of his practice involves caring for and treating Tennessee Walking Horses.
The commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Julius Johnson, cautioned against "overreaction" at the hearing and said the legislation "is excessive and will damage the industry significantly and potentially eliminate the performance horse altogether."
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is against the legislation as well, saying during the hearing, "This legislation brings excessive regulatory burdens on the walking horse industry and potentially eliminates the entire industry and thus the entire breed."
But Keith Dane of the Humane Society of the U.S. disagrees, saying it's "the people that are making money off abusing animals" that "oppose this legislation."