A blue-ribbon Tennessee walking horse stallion might be worth $1 million or more when put up for sale, but it can earn that money back for a new owner in a year through stud fees as others try to cash in on his champion bloodline.
That's part of what makes the walking-horse industry so lucrative for top breeders, trainers and owners, and what critics say drives a few unscrupulous horsemen to acts of "soring" to create high-stepping animals that appear to have a true champion's talent, muscle and style.
Many believe that soring — painful cutting and chemical treatments on the animals' legs to force the prized "Big Lick" high step that wins shows — is rampant in the industry. Some critics even say that no horse trained naturally, without abuse, could walk that way.
"It's all about money," said Dr. Gordon Lawler, an Indiana veterinarian who has owned walking horses for 40 years and sits on the board of the Franklin, Ky.-based National Walking Horse Association rival group to Shelbyville's industry. "An owner will tell a trainer, 'If you can't do it, I'll give my horse to another trainer.' "
Others say money doesn't motivate the true sportsmen in the walking horse industry.
"They're in it for the love of the animal," said Chad Williams, a longtime professional trainer whose stables north of here are used to train walking horses for top events like the annual Walking Horse National Celebration that put this city of about 20,000 on the equine map.
"Some of the owners whose horses I train bought this farm just to have a place to come to five or six times a year, and we have horses brought to us from as far away as Minnesota," Williams said.
While most walking horses that Williams trains to compete in shows sell for $30,000 to $100,000, he has seen them fetch as much as $1.6 million.
He has one animal in his stables now — he won't divulge the name to protect the owner's confidentiality — that sold for $50,000 as a 2-year-old but went four years later for $150,000 with a string of blue ribbons to its credit.
Stud fees for champion stallions can run as high as $4,000 per mate, though horse owners say fees typically average about $2,500. But a stallion that nets $4,000 to sire a colt can be used perhaps 250 times a year, bringing in $1 million in stud money.
But whether those champions could win blue ribbons and command high prices — and big stud fees — without being subjected to the controversial practice of soring remains a controversial question.
Critics' claim that every walking horse must be the product of mistreatment is " just not true," Williams says. "The horse doesn't have to be miserable to step like that. We don't abuse our horses, and anybody can walk into our barn and watch us ride these horses."
Lawler, who has been around the industry for decades as an animal doctor and horse owner, scoffs at the notion that soring has been wiped out.
"I believe 90% or more are sored or pressure-shoed, or they can't compete," Lawler says. "They just can't do the high leg kick without soring."
The financial pressure is intense on trainers to prepare horses that can compete in shows such as The National Celebration, the top annual event held here in late August every year, Lawler says.