By Sadie Fowler

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — As the 81st annual Celebration approached its official start, tradition was coupled with the usual excitement and activity around town and on the grounds as the walking horse trainers converged for their regular pre-show meeting Tuesday night at 6 p.m. While the meeting is part of routine pre-show business each year, this year’s meeting, held at the Blue Ribbon Club on the Celebration grounds, had a vibe that went beyond the typical basics of horse show logistics.

In addition to normal business and camaraderie that takes place in anticipation of the show at this meeting each year, this year’s well-attended gathering included the added twist of a few more voices who expressed their knowledge regarding recent activities related to the industry while sharing — and delivering — a very clear message to the trainers who make their living doing what they love within the walking horse world. 

No doubt, the intent of all in attendance was clearly in support of the industry, but those extra few folks addressing the crowd Tuesday night maintained a direct tone as they offered a very real message to trainers that served a two-fold purpose. In short, trainers were reminded of the severity of recent challenges regarding legislation both near and far, while also being praised for their efforts and gently nudged with encouragement to stay the course.

Normal speakers including Walking Horse Trainers’ Association President Bill Cantrell, Celebration CEO Mike Inman and  SHOW HIO inspection leader John Paul Riner were among the usual voices addressing the crowd, but the majority of the meeting focused on a candid and frank talk led by Terry Dotson, a passionate and well-connected leader and owner within the industry who unapologetically spoke to the trainers in a tough-love and coachable fashion that was both relatable and well-received. 

Seasoned lobbyist Jeff Speaks, no stranger to the walking horse community, also addressed the crowd, as did Jeffrey Howard, yet another long-term and knowledgeable ambassador of the breed. As a result of the extra speakers, the meeting lasted longer than normal, but it covered a lot of ground and several trainers called it productive after the meeting was adjourned at about 7:30 p.m. 

Straight talk from Dotson

Not afraid to tell it like it is, Dotson shared his candid belief centered around the current status of the industry with an eye on the future — that is if the goal is to defeat the potentially devastating effects of the strong-armed HSUS and their radical animal rights allies — and the theme can be summarized in just two words.

Dotson’s message? Money talks, and if we’re looking at where things currently stand in addition to what needs to happen if the industry wants to put forth its best attempt to battle the strong-arm and deep pockets of the Humane Society of the United States — the group with a laser focused mission aimed directly at the walking horse industry, and shutting it down — there’s quite a bit of work to be done. If anyone didn’t hear it the first time, Dotson made sure his point was known as he didn’t hold back when he reminded trainers numerous times throughout the meeting that before the real work can even begin the industry at large — everyone from far and wide — is going to have to contribute to the cause. 

Combatting the multimillion dollar budget of the opposing side means just a handful of owners chipping in won’t come close to serving as what it will take to get the job done, one that includes several factors such as supporting elected officials, key politicians, being involved in future elections, funding public relations efforts and many other components that need to be funded before they can be led by qualified individuals. Yes, all that requires money and Dotson firmly stated that if everyone within the industry would chip in, big strides would be made.  

In addition to money, necessary efforts also require rallying together at an organized and grassroots level with the mission aimed at delivering a positive and impactful message of truth to the players in power. 

Persistency gets you there; consistency keeps you there

Without a combination of consistency and persistency, which can’t be efficiently organized or played out without much more financial support from the masses within the walking horse industry, the repetitive and positive message needed to educate and influence powerful leaders is doomed to fail, potentially handing over victory to the HSUS who is working hard and patiently to secure their own victory in attempt to kill the industry once and for all. 

Quite simply, Dotson said the industry can’t stack up against the massively overwhelming forces working against them unless everyone comes  together now and plays their part, big and small, far and wide, from top to bottom.  

Dotson said much more is needed in terms of consolidating collective efforts and fundraising in order to support key politicians, now and in the future, in addition to supplying promotional and grassroots efforts with the resources they need to both combat the current forces while proactively relaying the many positive stories about the horse that these same politicians currently hear little about.  

While stating the industry not only needs to do but more importantly ‘can’ do much more, the positive undertone of Dotson’s message was inspiring in that he bluntly reminded the trainers that they have the power and passion to make anything happen if they so choose.

“You still have your place in the ring,” he said, encouraging them to keep fighting. “You can get your owners to spend a lot of money on horses yet we are having issues getting anyone to contribute a $15 trailer fee that goes toward the mission of preserving our horse.” 

Dotson encouraged trainers to communicate with their owners, urging them to use their influence — whether it be their voice, their financial resources or their connections — to get the positive and truthful message about the breed delivered to Congress, a message that is currently being lost in the shuffle as a result of the strong force of the other side with no real knowledge of the breed. 

Howard gives legislative updates

Jeffrey Howard, another a long-time ambassador of the industry, also spoke to the trainers and his intent was to update trainers on recent legislative activities, with most of his relatively concise talk focusing on the recent activities in Nashville, Tennessee, where the Metro Nashville Council came close to passing an ordinance that would have banned action devices and served as a major defeat to the industry as a result of no one even knowing the ordinance had been proposed until very late in the game. 

Howard outlined how the events regarding the Nashville situation unfolded, basically explaining the ordinance came very close to sneaking its way through the Council, which is a common strategy for animal rights activists when legislation they’re supporting is not progressing well and also a strategy for which the industry should be on the lookout.  

“It got dangerously close to going through without anyone even knowing,” said Howard, noting the nature of a meeting like this in a metro area with little walking horse presence is a common tactic that of the HSUS and one that will continue in other areas.

Russ Thompson asked Howard a question referring to how the ordinance got so far without anyone in the industry knowing and Howard said, quite frankly, that is part of the strategy that makes it so scary. In short, public meetings in metro areas with little to no walking horse presence take place with no one knowing because no one is there to hear about them. In the case of the Nashville Metro Council meeting, a notice of the meeting was published prior to the meeting as required by public meetings laws, but it was published in a small spot on a government website that, quite frankly, very few people, if any, in the general public will see.

Again, reminding trainers this is a typical strategy that happens with groups like the HSUS when they are looking to sneak in a quiet victory, Howard warned it is a scenario that the industry should pay attention to and expect to see in other metro areas, specifically North Carolina. 

Strength in numbers

On the flip side, Howard pointed out a very strong positive aspect of the situation, one that demonstrates just how powerful the walking horse influence can be when it collectively works together. Upon learning of the proposed ordinance in Nashville, after its second reading, Howard said thousands of walking horse supporters took action and made their voices heard loudly, something that unfortunately hasn’t always happened in the past and, as a result, has had a detrimental effect on the industry that lacks a strong and consistent voice in Washington. The unavoidable last-minute efforts ultimately led to the ordinance being pulled off the table with a compromise issued in its place. 

“What happened  was a victory for the industry although I realize it might not have tasted so sweet,” he said. 

Having said that, Howard said the situation in Nashville didn’t help matters for the horse industry in terms of public relations as a result of the timing of other legislative matters that were basically happening at the same time a few hundred miles up the road. Only within weeks of each other, the PAST Act passed the United States House of Representatives for its first time after several attempts in years past.  

While answering questions and explaining the general timeline of both legislative situations, Howard closed out by reiterating the good things that both situations  revealed, which is that the fight is long from over.

In closing, Howard expressed sincere thanks to the trainers for their efforts, progress, hard work and persistence. He acknowledged their sacrifices and continued long hours and hard work they put in each day in a time that moves forward with challenging undertones. 

Encouraging trainers to keep their heads held high, he thanked them for their progress and support of the Celebration and also updated the audience on political leaders who will be in attendance at this year’s show. 

Make your support known

In reciprocation of the support that has been offered in Washington on behalf of the horse, agriculture-focused states in the South, and the Celebration, Howard asked trainers to show their appreciate and support for those key supporters who visit Shelbyville for this year’s event. 

Dotson’s message also echoed Howard’s message about supporting key folks who continue to fight on their behalf in Washington, despite being the minority. He used several analogies to connect with the trainers as he urged them to both open their wallets and also connect with key politicians and other people in power.

“What do you do if someone doesn’t pay their training bill?” he asked. “You send their horse home, right?” 

Dotson’s point was to emphasize the need to contribute to the efforts needed to compensate those working for the industry — on a variety of levels — before they decide to stop working for the industry. 

Lobbyist Jeff Speaks was another added presence and also a welcomed speaker who was praised for working hard for the industry in recent years and especially as of late. Speaks’ message, too, echoed those who came before him, although his main intent was to expand upon legislative updates from the last year while addressing a variety of potential scenarios that could playout in the future. 

He reminded folks of the ever-changing dynamics of politics where any tiny and sudden shift can have a big impact, encouraging trainers to pay attention. 

“Back in 2017, the PAST Act came within one day of passing and your industry would have been out of business,” he said. “One day.” 

The danger of evolving politics

Speaks said the evolving dynamics within Congress can be dangerous, but in the case of 2017 they worked out in the industry’s favor, just barely, thanks in part to the long-term support of a select few loyal politicians with loyal and long-term ties to the industry. 

Speaks addressed the Trump ruling from 2017 that tabled all bills not yet published for review in the Office of Federal Registry — the PAST Act fell into this category, although mostly by mere chance. He also spoke briefly about the Farm Bill — and how that too worked out in the industry’s favor but easily could have taken a different turn had dynamics shifted even slightly. 

Speaks, like the others, spoke candidly about the realities and uncertainties of the current and future while praising the efforts that have been made and reminding folks that much more is needed to combat a much larger group of folks working on behalf of the other side — a group with an annual budget that rests well over $10 million. 

In a message filled with real facts, Speaks closed with a positive nudge as well, telling trainers that the few times walking horse insiders have made their presence known in Washington, or in other places where people of power and influence sit, the response from politicians is generally one that reflects this: “Well, it’s nice to finally hear the other side of this story.”

Communication appreciated

At the end of the day , everyone left the meeting with tangible updates in regards to the severity of recent activities as well as a renewed commitment to staying the course in pursuit and protection of their passions that will be celebrated in the next 11 days to come. 

Aligning with the theme of the night, which showcased unity, all who spoke expressed great anticipation for the show ahead and expressed their confidence it would be a great Celebration. 

A small portion of the meeting addressed routine business, with Cantrell very briefly mentioned meeting dates down the road and Riner reminded everyone of a few inspection logistics, mainly that ponies (15.2 and under entries) should be measured before each performance at pre-show inspections, which will take place each night at 5:30 p.m. in the Champions Arena. Other than that, he reported no expected changes or updates regarding inspection procedures. 

Kicking off the meeting, Inman thanked everyone and reminded trainers to direct any questions or needs to the Celebration staff. He also briefly addressed security concerns as a result of a comment on social media, and comforted attendees that the matter had been and will continue to be taken seriously as a result of support and attention from authorities from local to national levels. 

“People take these threats seriously and trust me, they are on it,” he said, stating there will be extra security in both obvious and hidden ways but also stating the post had been thoroughly handled and should absolutely not be a concern for show-goers. 

The show kicked off Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. with the Futurity kicking off Wednesday night and the first official Celebration evening session taking place the following evening at 7 p.m. This year’s Futurity is expected to be one of the best and most well-attended by competitors in several years and officials believe it will serve as a great kickoff to the 81st annual event.