(Editor’s note: The following has been reprinted with permission from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ran in the March 23, 2007 issue.)

by Drew Jubera
            The country roads that lead here wind past the grassy hills and plank fences of dozens of Tennessee Walking Horse farms. The roller-coaster two-lane that enters from the east is even designated the Tennessee Walking Horse Parkway. In town, the animal's high-stepping silhouette shows up on storefronts, in restaurants, across the rear panel of pickup trucks. Yet a high-stakes controversy roils beneath the bucolic scenery that surrounds this mid-state horse capital of 18,000, a cultural storm that threatens an industry as rooted in the region as country music in Nashville or cotton in the Mississippi Delta.
            The federal government, which polices the multimillion-dollar business centered in the South but stretching to California says Tennessee Walking Horses continue to be abused to make them perform better, despite rules banning the practice. Owners and trainers counter that the government is abusing its regulatory power, unwilling to see that the industry no longer condones the brutal methods once used to get the "walkers" to prance across a show ring like high-kicking drum majors.
            The conflict came to a head here last September, when a world grand champion went uncrowned at the National Celebration show for the first time in 68 years. Five of the eight finalists were disqualified for being "sored," or showing signs that their front legs had literally been made sore so they'd lift them higher.
            "The numbers don't lie," said Todd Behre, who was horse protection coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, overseeing inspections at the time of the disqualifications. "It defines what's going on."
            A crowd of more than 26,000 booed the decision while state troopers guarded inspectors. It was the walking horse equivalent of scratching the Super Bowl. Now, with the new season's first major show being held here this week, industry leaders say the Tennessee Walking Horse, bred in these hills more than a century ago, is at a crossroads. An icon of the South's rural roots, it seems trapped between an unsavory past and an uncertain future.
            That frustrates many here who say their livelihoods, often passed down from fathers and grandfathers, are threatened no matter how much they adapt to a changing culture.
            "We're not dog fighters and we're not chicken fighters, even though sometimes it feels like we're put in that same category," said Herbert Derickson, a second-generation walking horse trainer who owns a farm on the edge of town. "We have a dark past. We've given [the government]more than enough reasons to doubt us," he added. "But I know where this industry has been, and it's unbelievable when you see how far it's evolved."
            Derickson, 47, echoes others who say a few old-school holdouts tarnish everyone else. "Like any other industry, there are some people in it who are unethical," he said.
"Just like in the Catholic Church. Or Little League baseball."
            The Tennessee Walking Horse first developed as a kind of jerry-built transport. In the early 1800s, breeders blended the Narragansett pacer and Canadian pacer, then later mixed in other breeds to create a smooth, sturdy mount that a plantation owner could ride comfortably in the field all day long.
            The horse's popularity grew as country doctors and traveling preachers loved it and even after the automobile's arrival, many Tennesseans kept their walkers to navigate back roads and hollows. Certain bloodlines produced more refined, flashier horses, and in 1935, a registry was formed.
            The breed's first superstar was Midnight Sun, a massive black stallion that won back-to-back world grand championships at Celebration in the mid-1940s. Less than a decade later, just as the breed's show-ring popularity was surging, trainers of these "padded" horses were finding it tough to get them to match Midnight Sun's athleticism. "Soring" became both commonplace and grisly.
            One popular method was rubbing caustic substances like mustard oil or diesel fuel onto the horse's foreleg just above the hoof, burning and blistering the area. Legs then were wrapped in plastic to "cook." Chains, usually many times heavier than the
6-ounce "action devices" now allowed, were hooked around the horse's feet to bang against tender skin and increase pain. Some animals arrived at shows with bloodied, open wounds.
            The goal: a "big lick", an exaggerated, gravity-defying high step that wowed crowds and judges. The bigger the lick, the more the horse won and the greater its worth in resale and stud fees, which could reach millions of dollars.
            "It was just accepted. You had to really push the line," said Don Bell, a former padded-horse trainer and walking horse official who admits to soring horses until the late 1980s. "In Middle Tennessee, it is truly a culture. When I look back, I can't believe I ever did that."
            In 1970, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act, a law so tied to national outrage over soring that Behre said it could have been called "the Tennessee
Walking Horse Protection Act." While the horses' more obvious scars and wounds soon disappeared, soring did not. Trainers became more discreet, passing techniques and chemical recipes among themselves with the fraternal secrecy of magicians.
            It wasn't until as recently as five years ago, some trainers say, that soring practices died out among all but a few. The cultural shift, they say, is part generational, part turned-up government heat, part maturing of a comparatively young breed that now produces horses that can perform naturally in ways their predecessors could not.
            "There's not a lot of us old folks doing this anymore. They couldn't adapt with the times," said Dick Peebles, 58, a silver-haired second-generation trainer who said he went clean after serving a year's suspension in 1989 for soring. "I've seen the worst of the worst. I worked for my daddy and had to do what my daddy told me. Now I'd rather someone spit in my face than say I have a sore horse," he added. "I don't know how we can get better than we are now."
            Critics still see plenty of room for improvement. "Everyone has to give lip service that soring is not allowed," said Keith Dane, equine director for the Humane Society. "But they [trainers] have gotten very careful and creative about how to get a horse cleaned up for a show. I think it's an insidious part of the whole industry."
            "There are people who want to fix this, and other people who are resisting at any cost," said Donna Benefield, administrative director of the Horse Protection Commission, created by horse veterinarians and certified by the USDA to inspect horse shows. "When society in the South reaches the point where enough people are embarrassed by what they do, peer pressure will cause them to change. We're not there yet."
            The USDA has toughened penalties this year for those who show horses suspected of being sored, including a lifetime ban for anybody issued a second violation for certain abuses. The breed's registry association has signed off on the new plan with reservations. Discussions with the government are ongoing.
            "The USDA, we love 'em and hate 'em at the same time," said Chuck Cadle, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association. "It's an industry in transition, and I do believe more are trying to do the right thing than ever before."
            But other industry groups, including the trainers’ association, have balked at the new plan. Their loudest complaint: the erratic interpretation of the Horse Protection Act's "scar rule," which declares certain skin irregularities and blemishes on the animal's forelegs illegal. Government inspectors say "scars" that fall under this provision are the result of soring. Trainers insist that often they're not, and instead come from the walking horse's strenuous gait.
            How the controversy will play out this season is anybody's guess. Nobody wants a repeat of last year. "If we have a bad year this year, it definitely will hurt," said Debbie Eichler, who with her husband owns Rising Star Ranch, one of the largest training and breeding barns in Middle Tennessee.
            Some owners say the Celebration fiasco has already hurt business, with fewer horses in some training barns and fewer owners breeding their mares, worried that if more problems arise, the market for padded show horses will dry up.
            "There is an uncertainty in the industry right now of what the future holds. People are not as confident that the padded horse industry is going to last forever," said Joel Weaver, 36, the breed's 2006 trainer of the year. "What happened [at Celebration] looks bad for the trainers and looks bad for the government.
            "I don't think either side wants it to happen again," he said. "This can be worked out with a little common sense. This horse and us trainers can adapt to any rule. But let's deal with the people who are guilty, and forget the rest."