Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Every year in late August, the hardcore faction of the Tennessee walking horse industry descends on Shelbyville, TN for the breed’s multi-day pinnacle event known as the “National Celebration.” This is the gang that favors the artificial, pain-based high-stepping gait known as the “big lick,” and every year brings shocking revelations of how deeply entrenched the practice of “soring” horses to win blue ribbons has become, as well as the lengths to which big lick enthusiasts will go to evade the law and its punishments. They are the reason we’ve been working so hard for so long to secure reforms in federal oversight of the Walking horse industry through legislation and agency action.

At this year’s celebration, a horse named Joe Pa (one of the top contenders for the title of Celebration World Grand Champion) and other horses are being trained and shown by 4 The Glory Farm, the stable owned by a trainer named Herbert Derickson, who is currently serving a five year federal disqualification for 27 alleged violations of the Horse Protection Act (HPA). During the disqualification period he is not supposed to be involved in any way in the showing, exhibiting or entering of any horses, directly or indirectly through any agent, employee or other means. Horses advertised as being trained by Derickson’s stable are being ridden/exhibited by a different person, Winky Groover, who has his own record, having served a federal disqualification stemming from alleged HPA violations.

This gambit is an obvious case of a chronic HPA violator flouting his lengthy disqualification by continuing to train horses and participate in horse shows, by proxy, in violation of the terms of his disqualification.

We have contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for enforcing the HPA, to seek a determination of whether this constitutes a violation of Derickson’s disqualification and if so, urging that Joe Pa and any other horses trained by 4 The Glory Farm be prohibited from showing at this and any other shows during his disqualification—and further, that Derickson be cited and prosecuted for the violation.

If a trainer is allowed to continue to operate and profit from training and exhibition while on federal disqualification, with the full knowledge of the Celebration and the prospect of winning its World Grand Championship title, it is pretty evident that the regulatory and enforcement framework focused on soring is in urgent need of reform. With show judges and the big lick faction running roughshod over the USDA, this is an enforcement system in crisis.

The Derickson debacle is not the only sign of trouble. Rodney Dick, the rider of another top contender at this year’s show, recently served a federal disqualification also, one that went into effect right after his winning the top Celebration prize in 2019. Both Dick and Derickson still serve on the board of directors of the Walking Horse Trainers Association too, even as they were prohibited from training during their tenure. Other individuals riding top contenders in the 2021 event have their own histories of disqualifications under the HPA, perhaps the clearest sign of the defiance and misconduct that pervades the field.

This all highlights why a Horse Protection regulation on soring finalized by USDA four years ago but frozen by the Trump administration is so desperately needed—to end this cycle of abuse, deception and recidivism.

We have called on President Biden and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (under whose leadership the soring rule was finalized during the Obama administration) to swiftly reinstate and publish this rule in the Federal Register. It would eliminate the failed system of industry self-policing and use of devices integral to soring. The Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Humane Society of the United States have sued over the withdrawal of this rule which we believe to have been unlawful. Many other groups in the animal protection space, horse industry and veterinary community have joined us in pressing for this reform, and actress Priscilla Presley has also publicly called on the Secretary to reinstate the rule. Bipartisan House and Senate champions in the fight to end soring led letters to the Secretary earlier this year urging reinstatement of the rule, and wrote to him again recently urging full enforcement of the Horse Protection Act at this year’s Celebration.

Secretary Vilsack is in a unique position to end this chronic and terrible abuse of Tennessee walking horses along with the flagrant flouting of the Horse Protection Act by the big lick fraternity, and we’re counting on him to do what is already within his regulatory authority, right now. Any further delay by the federal government will condemn thousands more of these stoic, gentle animals to lives of fear, pain and torment.