“If they were doing the big lick, they had been sored. It was and is that simple.”
So said John Haffner, DVM, at the Sound Horse Conference in Brentwood, Tenn., on March 29, 2014, as reported by walking horse blog Billy Go Boy. The conference materials expand upon Haffner’s statement: “The fact is the big lick can only be accomplished by soring. When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed. The big lick is a learned response to pain and if horses have not been sored, they do not learn it.”
In layman’s terms, what Haffner is saying is that the “big lick”—that is, the exaggerated gait for which the Tennessee Walking Horse is known—cannot happen unless the horses are first “sored,” or treated with painful methods including the application of chemicals to a horse’s hocks combined with chains attached to the horse’s foot and boots wearing eight pounds or more. In yet barer terms, Haffner’s claim is that the big lick cannot be accomplished without animal cruelty.
Haffner has been a veterinarian since 1982, and he has lifelong experience with Tennessee Walking Horses. He is currently an associate professor at MTSU’s Horse Science Center. By most standards, his statements would qualify as expert testimony.
Nor is Dr. Haffner alone in his conviction that big-lick show horses, as well as the competition and industry that surround them, are indispensably bound up in animal abuse and the illegal practice of soring. Clant Seay, a Mississippi native and longtime attorney who raised Walking Horses for many years, has personally espoused the cause of ending this practice—first in the court of public opinion, and then in our country’s code of laws.
Soring has been illegal since the Horse Protection Act of 1970, and Walking Horses are inspected by USDA officials before they can compete in shows. Many people are under the impression that soring never, or only rarely, happens nowadays. However, according to Seay, at last year’s Walking Horse Celebration, 35% of the registered horses were disqualified upon inspection. If this is any indication, then soring horses is a practice that’s still alive and well.
When a law outlawing the big lick floundered in 2014, failing to come to a vote despite strong support in both legislative houses, Seay realized that his fight to end soring would be a longer process than he had hoped. He started in his hometown of Jackson, Miss., where the Children’s Hospital had accepted a donation of $50,000 from a big lick horse show. He started a change.org petition in February of 2015 asking the hospital to turn down this money that sprang from the practice of animal cruelty. In six days, the petition amassed over 5,500 signatures, and on March 6, the hospital publicly announced that it would no longer accept money from big lick horse shows.
Seay next turned his sights to Tennessee, the home of the Walking Horse and the biggest hub of the show industry. On April 23, he led a protest in Nashville on West End. On April 24, and again in May, he led protests in Columbia, Tenn.
“It was a different group of people each time—not people who knew each other,” says Seay.
At one of the protests, an angry trainer drove his truck and trailer towards one of protesters, says Seay. The trainer has now been indicted for assault with a deadly weapon. Seay says that he himself was threatened both online and in person at horse shows last year and in 2015. He says he understands why people are upset—though he never sored himself, he sees that this practice has become part of the culture around Walking Horses and a way of life for many people. His goal is to change this culture and perception, without lessening anyone’s enjoyment of a breed of horses for which he has his own deep affection.
Now, Seay has set his sights upon MTSU. His goal is simple: he would like the university to issue a statement publicly severing its ties with the big lick and, consequently, with animal cruelty. The banner that hung at his recent protest on campus states his case succinctly: “MTSU condones unethical treatment of animals by not severing ties with big lick animal cruelty.”
This campaign officially began on July 28, 2015, when Seay received a call from an animal rescue group asking for financial assistance in buying a Tennessee Walking Horse called Gen’s Ice Glimmer from an auction in Cookeville. Seay responded and purchased the 11-year-old registered Tennessee Walking Horse, who was severely scarred by soring. Nevertheless, this very same horse had been registered at a horse show at MTSU as recently as 2013—despite the fact that it is illegal to bring a scarred horse to any horse show or sale (Glimmer was ultimately disqualified from the event). Seay has insisted that this case be investigated and is bringing further attention to this issue through a video he has posted showing a trainer demonstrating the makeup and tricks that can be used to conceal the scarring caused by soring—even from trained USDA inspectors. He hopes that Glimmer’s example can show the world—and the Walking Horse community—that soring is still practiced, and how cruel it can be.
Because this abused horse had been entered in a show at MTSU, and because university faculty, staff and donors are publicly affiliated with the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, Seay is calling on the university to halt its horse shows and show its support for the ethical treatment of animals instead. On Aug. 14, he assisted Laura Ousley of Knoxville in starting another change.org petition directed to the university’s president, Dr. Sidney McPhee. Within about two weeks, the petition collected over 9,000 signatures, as well as numerous letters from alumni and others asking MTSU to take a stand against big lick and the practice of soring. On Aug. 28, Seay, accompanied Ms Teresa Bippen, President of Friends of Sound Horses, and Ms. Jeannie McGuire, presented the petition to the president’s office, where it was received by university spokesperson Andrew Oppman, the Vice President of Communications.
Oppman issued a statement that included the following: “MTSU does not condone the illegal or unethical treatment of any animal. As home to the state’s largest Equine Science program, the university is a strong supporter of our state’s horse industry. We also recognize that the overwhelming majority of people associated with the industry maintain the highest standards of ethical care for their animals.”
For Seay, however, this is not enough. “The university says they don’t condone the unethical treatment of any animal—but the big lick is animal cruelty,” says Seay; he adds that while MTSU says the horse show “did not benefit the university,” the funds raised from the show went to fund MTSU student scholarships, paying tuition to MTSU, and therefore did directly benefit the university.
Seay is continuing to spread the word via social media and through protests on and off campus.
“We’re not trying to embarrass MTSU,” he says. “We will praise and applaud them if they take a stand.” Seay has no problem with Tennessee Walking Horses as a breed, he says, or with flat-shod horses. “We have a problem with animal cruelty,” he says. “All we’re asking is for a policy statement against it.”
For more information on Seay’s campaign and putting an end to horse soring, visit facebook.com/helpglimmerrecover.