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"Big Lick" Tennessee Walking Horses: Culture shock!

From: Olivia

Dear Jessica, I am English, now living in the USA. I adore horses and have always dreamed of owning a Tennessee Walking Horse. My riding teacher in England had lived in America. She told me about her TWH mare, and showed me photographs. This mare was the most beautiful horse I had ever seen, black with a white star, a beautiful noble face, and enormous soft dark eyes. I desperately wanted a TWH mare of my own. When my husband’s work brought us to the USA to live, I was thrilled.

When I attended my first show, I was thrilled to see TWHs - until I watched them perform. IT WAS HORRIBLE! The horses looked as if they had boxes fastened under their hooves, and were all rolling their eyes and squatting and flinging their legs in pain. At the canter they seemed to be crouching, rearing and pawing the air, then falling forward and crouching again - no one could possibly recognize this as a canter! I tried to ask other spectators about this, but the responses were very odd: "If you don't like it, you don't have to be here, just don't look at them if it bothers you" and "These are Big Lick horses, and that’s how they’re supposed to move!” I asked the tack store clerk and she told me about “soring” and that no one can prevent it, not even your government. I was heartsick and left in tears. I feel immense disappointment and confusion, and so much pity for those poor horses, and I still have questions.

First, how is it possible that “soring” is allowed – why can’t the government protect the horses from abuse? Second, I still adore these beautiful animals, but do you think it is even possible for me to find a "normal" healthy TWH? Third, I am a little ashamed of myself for even asking this, but as a child, my dreams of owning a TWH mare included taking her to horse shows. Obviously that is out of the question now that I know what TWH shows are like, but if I find my special mare, would it be possible for me to compete in some normal, "open" shows? I feel that my dream has become a nightmare, but I so love the beauty and nobility of these horses - what can I do? - Olivia


Hi Olivia! You must not give up your dream. There is a beautiful, healthy, sound TWH mare somewhere, waiting for you to find her - and I can give you some suggestions about where to look for her. There are many good horsemen and horsewomen who breed, ride, train, and enjoy sound Tennessee Walking Horses. Don't write off all breeders, trainers, and riders because some are abusive.

It would take many thousands of words to answer your letter in great detail, so throughout my answer, I will direct you to sources of additional information. Soring is exactly what it sounds like – the deliberate infliction of pain on a horse. It’s done for one reason only: to cause the horse to move in a painful, exaggerated parody (the “Big Lick”) of its natural gaits The methods used may be chemical or physical (injected and/or topical chemicals, pressure shoeing, inhumane padding – anything that causes the sort of pain that makes a horse lift its legs higher and faster in an attempt to relieve the pain by snatching its feet off the ground. This is the dark side of the TWH industry. As long as sored horses are placed over sound ones at shows, the practice will continue. For more information on this sad subject, check the magazine collection at your local library for these two articles:

Special Report: Why Soring Persists (EQUUS Magazine, November 2005)

More Than Sore (Gaited Horse Magazine, Winter 2002)

The government is making some efforts to stop soring. Here is a link to the Horse Protection Act (HPA), where you will find detailed information: Sadly, the efforts are fairly feeble and the act is not well-enforced – here is a web site that provides a link to a long list of the HPA violations recorded over several years: There is also an online petition to enforce the HPA:

It’s important for you to keep in mind that horses of every breed and in every form of showing can be subject to some sort of abuse, but the abusers never represent the whole of the industry. The “Big Lick” segment of the TWH industry is shameful, but it is not all there is to the industry as a whole.

Many people are working hard to promote the healthy, sound Tennessee Walking Horse. There are breeders, teachers, trainers, clinicians, judges, and show organizers as well as riders who truly love this breed, and there are competitions where sound TWHs compete honestly, against other sound TWHs that are plain-shod or even barefoot.

Some of the most outspoken opponents of soring – and of padding (applying the stacks of “pads” that made the horses you saw look as though they had their front feet on boxes) are former active participants in the world of “Big Lick.” These are people who, over time, came to realize that inflicting pain on horses for the sake of a ribbon was simply wrong, and stopped soring their horses.

Don Bell, Operations Director of the Natural Walking Horse Association, is one such person. In a published interview, he admitted that he had sored horses for 28 years, then had a change of heart that resulted in his leaving the TWH industry entirely. Many years later, he returned with a mission, and seven years ago, he helped create the Natural Walking Horse Association to provide a competition venue for sound TWHs.

There are two novels, both in the tradition of BLACK BEAUTY (the novel that first opened readers’ eyes to issues of animal cruelty and animal welfare), written by authors who, like Don Bell, came to understand that abusive training practices were unacceptable and should be stopped.

The more recent novel, published in 2002, is called FROM THE HORSE’S MOUTH and attempts to describe the agony of “Big Lick” training from the point of view of a young Tennessee Walking Horse. Author Eugene Davis based the story on his more than 20 years of experience as a trainer in the “Big Lick” world.

Ten years before Davis published his book, another, similar novel was written and published by Maxwell Dickinson. BIG LICK WALKING HORSES was first published in 1992 and again in 1997 in an attempt to alert the general public to the abuses suffered by so many TWHs in training. Both of these novels reveal the attitudes and methods used to create the exaggerated gaits you saw at the show.

As today’s “Big Lick” trainers learn more about equine anatomy and biomechanics, perhaps they will come to understand that even in the absence of deliberate soring, the trimming, shoeing, and stacks of pads alone can cause pain and tension throughout the horses’ bodies and damage to their feet and legs. The hoof angles and the added height created by nailing stacks of pads to the shoes are dangerous and damaging in themselves. Some trainers reject soring - good for them! - but embrace padding, partly because they don’t truly understand the long-term, physical effects of padding. They’ve seen padded horses all their lives, that look appears “normal” to them, and they truly believe that the horses’ movement is “normal”. In fact, some even believe that pads and chains serve to prevent pain and lameness! The mind boggles, but the reality is that there is a great deal of money, plus perceived glory and prestige, associated with these practices, and that it will take enormous changes to eliminate them. If we have to wait for each individual trainer to educate himself, progress will continue to be (literally) painfully slow.

You ask what you can do. You can educate yourself and help to educate others. In the long term, universal education and strictly-enforced strong legislation will both be needed to put an end to soring. You can support worthy organizations that actively and tirelessly promote sound TWHs - FRIENDS OF SOUND HORSES (FOSH) is one such organization ( You can buy your TWH from one of the many good breeders who value and produce natural gaits – that is, who breed horses with inborn gaits that can be purified and amplified through training and conditioning. A horse with good natural gaits will exhibit them barefoot – true gaits are created in the breeding shed. FOSH and the NWHA can help point you in the direction of some reputable breeders.

You can enjoy competitions with a clear conscience – take your mare to shows that are sanctioned by FOSH and NWHA, and compete against other natural-gaited, sound horses. At these shows, sored horses are not allowed, and no padding or action devices are permitted. At FOSH-affilated shows, weighted shoes are banned as well.

If your mare has additional gaits, as many natural-gaited TWHs do, and if those gaits include a trot, you can certainly take her in open shows and other competitions, including dressage and eventing. Many TWHs are talented jumpers. And, of course, if you enjoy trail-riding, you’ve selected the ideal mount.

I have had the privilege of owning, riding, and training TWHs (mine lived, worked, and competed barefoot in both dressage and low-level eventing), and can attest to their beauty, athleticism, and smooth movement – as well as to their intelligence and sweetness. I hope that you will write to me when you find that TWH mare you’ve always dreamed about. You will never find a better equine companion – I know, because I will never forget my own beautiful black mares.

Jessica

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