When Will It End? The plight of the Tennessee Walking Horse

On a breezy Sunday afternoon in 1958, I tagged along with my uncle Frank to exhibit his horses at the Oregon State fair. Grubby and dirty from brushing horses and roaming through the barns, I hung over the rails in the arena stands, excited for the show to start. The horse and his rider opening the show darted alone in the ring. To my young eyes the horse was a marvel – strange and exotic. His black-suited rider sat the saddle in a peculiar hunched over slump. The horse, groomed to gleaming white perfection, moved with speed and grace. Front hooves were flung high and out, back hooves reached under the belly in an impossibly long stride. The gait was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was captivating.

Frank was a quietly noble, honest and unpretentious man. His reputation was one of an outstanding trainer of the American Saddlebred. When he returned from the show ring to fetch me I can still clearly capture the memory of 13-year-old me looking up at Frank. I asked him about the white horse. His answer and reaction startled and stuck with me all these years. That white horse, he said, had collapsed as soon as it left the show ring. Frank’s brow was furrowed. There was something in his eyes, in his voice, foreign to his strong features. He was angry.

Let me tell you how that remarkable gait was, and still is, accomplished. The section of a horses’ leg just above the hoof is called the pastern, above that, the fetlock. Tennessee Walking Horse show horse trainers, to create what they call “the big lick” gait, sore the pastern by slathering on a toxic mix of mustard oil and turpentine. They then wrap the pastern and upper leg with plastic wrap, cover that with thick cotton, and finally a tight cloth leg wrap. They sore the bottom of the hoof as well with more chemicals, sometimes nails, sometimes cruel shoeing techniques, sometimes with a half golf ball inserted between the hoof and the 4” stack they nail to the base of the front hooves. Often the horse is so sore it won’t stand up in its stall. Just before they enter the ring the trainer will remove the wrapping, clean the horse up, and loosely clamp chains to the pastern. The chains rattle and strike the sore skin when they are in the ring. The horse will snap up and fling out his hooves in an attempt to escape the pain. In the old days trainers didn’t try to hide the scars. Blood would often spatter onto the arena walls. How did they get their sore horses to move? With a whip and spurs, for starters. There is so much more to this sad, shameful story but I’ll leave it there.

That white horse has forever remained in the back of my mind. Along with many other horse loving equestrians, I’ve engaged in efforts to end the atrocities inflicted on the remarkable gaited horse. Life happens, and though good progress has been made, horses are still sore, and I am growing old. Other fervent crusaders carry on the battle. Here’s what I have left to do; to capture the horse in an image, to say in my own way, this animal is magnificent and, like all animals, worthy of our respect, kindness and care.