The battle for loyalties around the Tennessee Walking Horse becomes feverish this time of year.
On one side, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is starting to pepper media with announcements about what it will do to make sure there are no abused horses in its show ring at the end of this month. The horses will face blood tests for agents used in soring — injuring their legs on purpose to make them step higher and longer — and X-rays to check for hidden irritants.
And on the other side, the Humane Society of the United States last week rolled out its latest weapon — Dutch, a scarred Tennessee Walking Horse that, according to aU.S. Department of Agriculture investigation, appeared at auction in New Holland, Pa., still wearing the tall front shoes that mark the breed's performance class. A livestock dealer who typically supplies Canadian slaughterhouses sold him to a horse rescue.
Named for the Pennsylvania Dutch country where rescuers found him, Dutch's exact location is a secret to the general public. He's convalescing in a horse paradise south of Nashville — in open, grassy pastures and clean, roomy stalls, with rubber mats laid out over gravel so he can comfortably stroll to his grazing area on still-tender hooves.
"Dutch has an important story to tell," said Keith Dane, the Humane Society's vice president of equine protection. "He's an example of what happens to the horses in this industry. When they're no longer able to get through inspection because the scarring has gotten so bad, the owners dump them."
Celebration CEO Mike Inman said he was baffled why the media would pay any attention to Dutch. He suggested Dutch isn't even a walking horse — that he's some other breed that the Humane Society put tall shoes on as a publicity stunt.
"It could be a a fabrication to raise more money and cause more controversy," Inman said. "There's no credibility."
He points to the Humane Society's involvement in a recent $16 million court settlement in a case against Feld's Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus over unproven allegations it mistreated elephants. In March, the Oklahoma attorney general issued a consumer alert against the Humane Society, saying he's received complaints that the group raised funds by indicating the money would go to shelters affected by last year's Moore, Okla., tornadoes.
Dane dismisses the credibility argument. "There was no admission of guilt or wrongdoing found" in either case, he said. "That's contrary to the ongoing and repeated findings of wrongdoing evident in the walking horse industry."
Dane and his group's supporters have gained ground with the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky and Steve Cohen of Tennessee and more than 300 other representatives and 57 senators. It would eliminate those tall pads and other equipment that mark the breed's performance division, plus strengthen penalties for soring.
A frequent refrain in the industry is that the PAST Act will "end the breed." The bill's supporters say it will clean up a breed plagued by incidents that horrify and alienate fans.
Among those is the 2012 federal conviction of former Celebration Hall of Famer Jackie McConnell of Collierville, Tenn., caught on undercover video abusing a walking horse.
More recent is the ongoing criminal case of former AAA-rated horse show judge Larry Wheelon of Maryville. Facing multiple counts of animal cruelty after his stables were raided last year, Wheelon was again cited for soring at a July 12 show in Chestnut Hilland is on suspension through Sept. 12.
And now there's Dutch, stripped of anything that would identify his original owner, sold at auction and eventually rescued. The USDA investigation said the original owner was never found and so couldn't be charged under the Horse Protection Act, which makes it illegal to transport or sell a horse that's been sored.
These days, Dutch's walking horse show background seems most evident in the way he turns and poses for the click of a camera and calmly endures strangers feeling around on his ragged front legs and hooves. He trots closely next to his caretakers but breaks away to steal a visitor's unattended, half-eaten apple.
Someday, they say, he might be recovered enough to ride.
The details on measures to be sure there are no sore horses at the Celebration won't be announced until the event begins, said Tom Blankenship, spokesman for the three-veterinarian panel advising Celebration staff about animal safety. Both the panel and the tests are in addition to the local and federal inspections show horses must pass.
"This reflects the Celebration's desire to have only horses in compliance with the Horse Protection Act participate in the show," he said.
Blankenship has a history with how wrong the Celebration can go when rules aren't followed. He was an attorney for the Walking Horse Trainers Association in 2006, the year the event's grand championship was canceled after USDA inspectors disqualified seven of 10 horses for signs of abuse.
Days later, he was arguing against the federal Horse Protection Act's scar rule — which keeps horses with scars from past soring out of competitions — because he said it wasn't being applied reasonably.
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration runs Aug. 20-30 in Shelbyville. New this year:
• Horses must be stabled on the Celebration grounds for 48 hours before championships.
• Each participant must present his or her horse's registration papers, current health certificate and negative test for equine infectious anemia.
• Participants agree to random digital X-rays and blood draws on-site.