By Marty Irby

When most folks think of Tennessee, they think of Jack Daniels, Elvis Presley and Graceland, country music, the UT Vols and, in many cases, the Tennessee Walking Horse – the greatest, most versatile and smoothest breed of horse there is. 

As a former Tennessean, past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitor’s Association and eight-time World Champion, I’ve been a lifelong supporter of the breed. The Tennessee Walking Horse has given so much to the state, and it’s tied to many of our cultural symbols and industries like Jack Daniels, whose Old Number 7 remains the top-selling American whiskey in the world, and who built the brand and company straight from the spring-fed “holler” in Lynchburg by hauling corn in and shipping sour mash whiskey out on the backs of horses and the wagons they pulled. 

Elvis Presley spent many days taking a break to ride his walkers down to the gates of Graceland to exhibit and show off for the fans – the horses were one of his major passions in life – Priscilla Presley, and the family still maintain walkers at Graceland today. 

Country music stars like Tanya Tucker and the band Sawyer Brown have owned and ridden walkers, and even Taylor Swift, a horsewoman at heart, weighed in on the Tennessee Walking Horse a few years ago.

In addition, the University of Tennessee allows exhibition of a Tennessee Walking Horse at the annual Homecoming Game each year. 

It’s precisely because of the presence of Tennessee Walking Horses in so many aspects of our culture that we have a special obligation to protect them, but the issue of soring, something that’s been debated in the press and Congress since the 1960’s, continues to bring controversy to the breed.

Soring is the intentional infliction of pain to horses’ front limbs by applying caustic chemicals such as mustard oil or diesel fuel and inserting sharp objects into horses’ hooves to produce an artificial pain-based gait known as the “Big Lick” that’s prized in rural parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and North Carolina.

Because of soring, UT no longer allows the celebration’s “Big Lick” World Grand Champion to be exhibited at the game, instead using a sound, flat-shod natural walker that performs the inherit gait. Jack Daniels dropped their sponsorship of the breed’s world championship show just 17 miles down the road from the distillery. As for the country music stars and Priscilla Presley, they’ve spoken out publicly about soring with some going as far as describing how they’ve seen and experienced soring firsthand. 

And despite the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act designed to end soring being introduced in every Congress for the past decade and the PAST Act passing the U.S. House in 2019, the measure remains dead on arrival in the U.S. Senate due to opposition from all the major groups in the walking horse breed. It’s a political science lesson on what can happen when the key stakeholders that legislation affects aren’t given an opportunity to weigh in on the language.

And this week, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce is highlighting the PAST Act in a hearing on Capitol Hill. We haven’t seen such action since a group of us first testified in support of the measure in 2013.

It’s a key step in the legislative process, but an exercise in futility in light of the Senate’s obstructionism unless the PAST Act is changed. With that in mind, we worked with leaders in the breed in 2020 to forge revisions to the PAST Act that would still accomplish ninety percent of the bill by eliminating the use of ankle chains in the show ring that are used to exacerbate the pain caused by soring; allow for a smaller removable shoe like the ones worn by the American Saddlebred; and provide felony penalties for those convicted of soring.

The compromise we forged would go further than the old PAST Act to eliminate the use of despicable devices known as tail braces, that are used to create a certain look and cause the tail bone to bend in half after the tendons have been severed – it’s a device the very first Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion, Strolling Jim wore in 1939, and it’s plagued every champion since. 

But some animal groups opposed revisions to PAST because they want to continue fundraising on the issue – the day the PAST Act is signed into law is the day that some folks will likely be out of a job, yet another unfortunate circumstance for the horse.

Members of Congress on both sides of the issue should come together and deliver comprehensive reform with compromise legislation, and listen to the experts who truly want to see soring brought to an end.

Marty Irby is the executive director at Animal Wellness Action in Washington, D.C., and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association who was honored in 2020 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, II for his work to end soring. Follow him on Instagram @MartyIrby.

All the best,

Marty Irby 

Executive Director

Sr. Vice-President of Public Policy & Communications