The dust is finally settling from the 76th Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and what may have been the worst attended in recent decades of the 11-day iconic Shelbyville event.
Photographs and videos indicate the 25,000 seat Calsonic Arena held about 3,000 to 5,000 people on Aug. 30, the final night of competition when the grand champion is named.
Industry diehards blamed rain, but that's a fallacy.
In 1966 in Shelbyville, the heavens threw daggers of lightning and buckets of rain onto the stadium and show ring during the 28th Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration.
The towering bleachers were packed and nobody left -- even with lightning strikes flying, witnesses attest. That was the year Shakers Shocker defeated 15 to 20 competitors to win the World Grand Championship.
But that was before the sport was almost completely corrupted by "professional" trainers and owners who resorted to chemicals and other abusive methods to short-cut training for this steady and beautiful breed.
That was also before soring -- as we've come to know it today -- forced the horses to step unnaturally higher and further, all to avoid the pain when their high-shod hooves and chemically abraded legs touched the ground. Soring is the use of substances, painful shoeing techniques and objects hidden beneath outrageously sized pads that force the horses to high step around the show ring. Soring is what the world finally saw, up close, in videos secretly recorded in Celebration Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell's stables by operatives of the Humane Society of the United States a few years ago. The tapes were turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and then to U.S. attorneys in Chattanooga. McConnell later became the first person in the history of the 40-year-old federal Horse Protection Act to be criminally prosecuted and convicted.
The upheaval McConnell's conviction caused in the industry and among fans of the walking horse continues to smother the walking horse industry and this beautiful, steady breed of horse. But it hasn't stopped the soring.
Only three horses entered the ring to compete for the 76th World Championship title. Abuse inspectors -- mostly USDA vets and technicians -- had disqualified the rest of the field. They were disqualified based on evidence the inspectors deemed to be signs of soring abuse.
The winning horse, named I am Jose, has no soring violation history, but other horses in his bloodline do. So do his owners and trainers, according to USDA violation records in a database maintained by Friends of Sound Horses, a horse organization that has taken a decided stand against animal abuse.
But the walking horse industry as a whole -- as opposed to horse fans -- has been slow to acknowledge the apparently rampant soring abuse: FOSH's database provides 28 years of Horse Protection Act and soring violations, showing more than 12,500 violations as well as a "Repeat Violators" report with hundreds of single-spaced pages.
Industry stalwarts have insisted that McConnell and his ilk represented just "a few bad apples."
For weeks leading up to this year's Celebration, officials touted a new "world class" trio of veterinarians who would oversee inspections to prove the industry's commitment to no cheating. But these officials neglected to disclose that one of the vets had never agreed to participate and wasn't at the 11-day event. Another had ties to the industry dating back years and to lobbying efforts to have the Horse Protection Act amended to be less protective (though it's hard to imagine how a 40-year-old protection act with only the first conviction in 2012 could be much less protective).
When the Tennessean reported gaping problems in the Celebration veterinarian committee, officials quickly backtracked, saying the vets didn't have to be present to oversee the inspections. Let us guess: Inspections by telepathy? Clearly the vets idea was a public relations stunt to protect the industry, not the horses.
Now these soring loyalists -- the ones who've ratcheted up the "big lick" with out-sized pads, chains, chemicals and whatever it takes -- are also fighting proposed amendments to toughen the existing law. The amendments are known as the PAST Act, and they would outlaw the pads and chains that hide and exacerbate the chemicals and foreign objects.
It is clear that fans -- along with plenty of owners of show-worthy walking horses -- stayed out of the arena this year in an effort to get the message across to the industry diehards: Walking horses don't need lumbering "big licks" to be exciting.
Shakers Shocker and the horses before him proved that when they so electrified crowds that not even lightning kept fans away.
Bring those horses -- and that natural gait with flat-shod hooves -- back.
Support the PAST Act. This industry doesn't have to die. It just has to return to its horse-loving, solid footing.