Nov. 13, 2013 -- 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."
"If this legislation harms their illegal practices and their abuse of horses so be it," Dane told ABC News today. "The vast majority of horse owners and walking horse owners around the country and around the world want this practice to end, they want this legislation to pass, they want this plague to stop holding back the Tennessee walking horse breed and allow it to flourish."
Dane urged congress "to pass the bill quickly," adding his organization wants "to see this bill on the president's desk as soon as possible."
Part of the "Nightline" investigation showed an undercover video, made by an investigator for the Humane Society of the U.S., documenting the cruelty of one of the sport's former leading trainers, Jackie McConnell, of Tennessee. The tape showed McConnell and his stable hands beating horses with wooden sticks and using electric cattle prods on them as part of a training protocol to make them lift their feet in the pronounced gait judges like to see.
In another scene, McConnell oversaw his stable hands as they applied caustic chemicals to the ankles of the horses and wrapped them with plastic wrap so that chemicals ate into the skin – a practice known as "soring."
"That creates intense pain and then the ankles are wrapped with large metal chains so the horses flinch, or raise their feet even higher," said Dane in the original "Nightline" report.
This July McConnell pleaded guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty and was sentenced to a year of house arrest and a $25,000 fine.
Whitfield will next meet with members of the Senate who have proposed similar legislation and is hopeful the bill will get to the House floor for a vote "relatively soon."