By Sadie Fowler

Two memos sent out by two men last week in regards to the PAST Act — legislation that would drastically and negatively impact the state of Tennessee via its destruction of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry — carry extremely different messages, although both authors claim they share a common motivation for their efforts, which is based on their love for the horse.

The question remains as to which letter carries more integrity and truth, and a simple look of facts from a seven-year timeline makes it easy for one to judge for themselves.

Why Now?

Emotions regarding this lingering legislation are heating up as a result of the recently proposed House Problem Solvers Caucus, which would potentially change the rules for the next (116th) Congress requiring any bill from this session that has 290 cosponsors be brought to the House floor for debate and vote. (The PAST Act would be one of those bills as it has picked up cosponsors, largely as a result of efforts by the Humane Society of the United States and Marty Irby.)

At the surface, Irby, who is now director of Animal Wellness Action PAC, might appear to be sincere in his attempt to protect the horse from abuse while the other man’s message, written by David Williams, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, to be a simple defense in his attempt to save the horse and therefore the industry that depends on it. 

Take, for example, words from Irby’s letter, which states, “To my great chagrin, some of the people in this industry have engaged in a pattern of horse abuse and brought national shame and disrepute to the industry. I am every bit as committed to Tennessee Walking Horses as ever, but I won’t stand by as trainers and owners cause misery by hurting horses to get a leg up in competition.”

A highlight of Williams’ letter in response to Irby’s, sends a different message to Congress, calling Irby out for “his allegations and his omissions of vital, factual information (that needs) to be corrected as quickly as possible.” 

Williams also points to scientific studies confirming the action device does not harm the horse and points to background that explains a more accurate depiction of why the industry is wholeheartedly against the passing of the PAST Act. 

“Using the data provided on the APHIS website the current compliance rate in 2018 is 95.2 percent for horses wearing pads and action devices,” Williams writes. “These are the horses Mr. Irby says must be sore to compete, a claim not backed by any fact … I would implore each of you to not be supportive of the PAST Act but, rather, work with us and others truly interested in protecting our amazing Tennessee Walking Horse through a modernization of sorts of the current Horse Protection Act.

“I would sincerely hope that you would wish for us, and expect to receive, information on this subject and these issues from people who fairly and completely represent the truth on this subject matter,” Williams concludes.

Hidden Agendas

Williams and other passionate leaders who love the horse have played their part in wholeheartedly fighting against legislation that will destroy the horse industry as a simple desire to carry on their love for the horse and also protect the Tennessee economy, which is dependent on agriculture that includes the walking horse. 

To a person unfamiliar with the facts of the matter or the person who takes Irby for his word, it might look like a black and white issue with the obvious answer being to pass the PAST Act and save the horse. 

The problem is that Irby’s word is tainted by a root issue that goes back several years. Irby’s letter, written Monday, comes from a man who, very simply put, has an axe to grind with leaders within the industry — an industry that basically parted ways with him several years ago fueling his passion to do whatever it takes to get even.

While Irby’s patterns and past prove otherwise, Williams is a lifelong and respected leader in the industry who has never strayed from his integrity. While the two men take the exact opposite stances on the PAST Act and the welfare of the Tennessee Walking Horse, most notably the effect of the action device on the horse, they have another interesting thing in common — besides their love for the horse, that is. 

Williams is the current president of TWHBEA and interestingly, and not so long ago, Irby held the position himself with the same organization.

In fact, prior to the issue that fueled Irby’s personal agenda against the industry, he was quoted many times as saying the very same things Williams shared in his letter this week.

“Scientifically accepted studies and data indicate that the current regulations concerning action devices and pads to not in any way cause harm to the horse,” wrote Irby, following a listening session with the USDA in 2012 when he was serving as president of TWHBEA. “…To consider amendment of the Horse Protection Act Regulations currently in place regarding the action device and pads would be to take action to address a problem which simply does not exist with no scientific proof to the contrary.”

Change of heart, or ego?

Today, many horse lovers scratch their heads as they read Irby’s words from 2012 because they are an exact opposite stance of his current campaign — fueled by perhaps money and ego as opposed to his love for the horse — to promote the PAST Act. Just as passionately as he once spoke on behalf of the performance horse, he now paints an exaggerated and inaccurate depiction about the industry, one that this year maintained a high rate of compliance with the USDA. 

A look at the facts and timeline beginning in 2011 prove that Irby’s mission has nothing to do with the horse or protecting it; but rather, it seems to be an attempt to get back at an industry that in plain terms parted ways with him as a result of Irby’s own unethical behavior that ended in legal arbitration that was not in his favor. 

Headlines and published articles spanning the past seven years demonstrate Irby’s unstable patterns of career moves and changing viewpoints.  

First, to fully understand a complex industry, it should be explained that the Tennessee Walking Horse industry is comprised of several different organizations, or bodies, that work together and also represent different aspects of the breed at large. At a basic level, the industry has The Celebration, a group of leaders who oversee the world championship horse show and often work on behalf of the horse with the USDA, APHIS, and other political leaders. 

Next there is TWHBEA, where Williams serves as president and Irby formerly as president, which represents a membership of thousands of walking horse lovers and also upholds the breeds registry. There is also a group known as the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association that consolidates the voice of the hundreds of trainers making their living training horses, and yet another group that represents the thousands of owners who have invested in their horses and hobby.

Back in 2011, the walking horse industry — in an attempt to self-regulate and seek other areas of reform — formed what was called the Unity Committee. Representatives from all of the governing bodies mentioned above were on this committee.

At the time, Irby was the president of TWHBEA and also a representative of TWHBEA on the Unity Committee. Irby was quoted on many occasions defending the walking horse, specifically the performance horse in the same way Williams is doing today. In fact, Irby’s quotes back then are chillingly similar to Williams’ quotes from earlier this week. 

“TWHBEA stands firmly against ANY reduction in weight or size of the current pads or action device,” he is on record saying at the USDA listening session. “The survival of our registry relies on the performance horse … Our breed, horse and registry will not survive at its current level without the existence of our great performance horse.” 

The Root Issue

In May of 2012, friction between these leading bodies, fueled by a personal dispute between Irby and The Celebration over website domain names, led to TWHBEA leaving the Unity Committee. Some described the conflict between Irby and The Celebration as extortion, but at the very least, many one-time friends of Irby’s began to question his ethics. 

Although complicated and puzzling in nature, at the end of the day the National Arbitration Forum ruled against Irby and the domain names were released to The Celebration. 

This seemed to be the issue that stems to where Irby’s change of heart started to shift. Suddenly, the Tennessee native who’d always taken pride in his roots started looking toward Washington and a different job.

A quick summary shows, in 2013, Irby working with a construction company, getting married and divorced, and by January of 2014 filing bankruptcy before resigning from TWHBEA. 

The next stop for Irby was partnering up with Congressman Whitfield, the initial cosponsor of legislation to destroy the industry, and this didn’t end well either as a result of unethical actions that ended with Whitfield resigning. 

Once that happened, Irby looked ahead and found himself a job with the Humane Society of the United States, a group he had wholeheartedly fought against for years in his attempt to speak on behalf of the horse and the industry he had had repeatedly defended a a result of his love. 

In an article published May 14, 2014, Irby’s change of heart is explored (see here).

“For virtually all of Irby’s life he has shown, bred, worked and promoted the Walking Horse industry,” the Walking Horse Report article titled ‘Marty Irby — Job Change or Change of Heart?’ states. “However, the last couple years Irby has done an about-face and inflicted more harm to the Tennessee Walking Horse industry than anyone outside of Keith Dane and Humane Society of the United States … In a complete reversal of his long-held position, Irby now claims the PAST Act would not devastate the breed; it would allow it to grow and prosper.

At the time of his departure from the industry, Irby said his change of heart came in 2012 while judging a horse show in Germany, yet many questioned the truth of that as a result of him showing a padded (performance) “tortured” horse in 2013 at a horse show in Gallatin, Tennessee. 

Stumbling Ahead

Last year, in 2017, upon Wayne Pacelle’s resignation from the HSUS amid allegations of sexual harassment, Irby yet again stumbled ahead looking for a paycheck as well as a platform to continue his vendetta. He found that in his newest vehicle with the PAC of which he wrote on behalf last week, Animal Wellness Action.

Irby has held leadership positions within the walking horse industry, the HSUS, a former congressman who resigned amid controversy tied to Irby, and most recently, the Animal Wellness Action group. 

At best, leaders within the walking horse industry strive to protect the horse, and the job of legislation is to carry out the voice of their constituents. The end result of the PAST Act will be whatever it will be, but Congress should read between the lines before taking Irby’s word as fact. There’s plenty more to the story — and sadly, it has nothing to do with the horse.