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Future of Walking Horse industry up in the air

Posted on Wednesday, May 22, 2024 at 7:55 am

Correction: The original story quoted Mark Farrar as saying, “We are asking for any kind of special treatment,” when it should read, “We aren’t asking for any kind of special treatment.” This has been corrected. 


The future of the Performance division of the Tennessee Walking Horse will eventually be decided by a Federal judge.

Walking horses are known, and are desirable due to their versatility. But the Performance division, which is a small segment of the breed, drives the competition level at shows and also promotes major financial investments in the breed.

“It is not going to be decided by politicians, it is not going to be decided by special interests or decided through the media,” said Mark Farrar, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors Association (TWHBEA). “It is not going to be decided by `star’ witnesses. It will be decided by the brief we present and it will be reviewed by a Federal judge.”

Under the new amendments to the Horse Protection Act (HPA) by the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) final rules are scheduled to be implemented Feb. 1, 2025. One of the most devastating ones for the breed is the elimination of all action devices and pads which would basically end the Performance division for Tennessee Walking Horse shows.

This amendment “prohibits all action devices, artificial extension of toe length, pads, wedges, and lubricants on the limbs or feet of Tennessee Walking Horses and racking horses (with exceptions for approved therapeutic uses of artificial extension of toe length, pads, wedges, and substances).

“An action device is any boot, collar, chain, roller, beads, bangles, or other device which encircles or is placed upon the lower extremity of the leg of a horse in such a manner that it can either rotate around the leg, or slide up and down the leg so as to cause friction, or which can strike the hoof, coronet band, or fetlock joint.”

The effective date of the final rule before the prohibition on pads and wedges is February 1, 2025, and artificial toe extensions, would be effective.

The proposed rule was first published in the Federal Register on August 17, 2023 and stakeholders had through October 20, 2023 to submit comments. After the comment period the USDA reviewed the comments and made changes to their proposed rules. It was then sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its final review on February 24, 2024. OMB concluded their review on April 24, 2024 and the final rule was published in the Federal Register on May 8, 2024.

The centerpiece of the breed

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration which began in 1939 will go on as scheduled. Next week the Celebration’s Spring Fun Show will be held.

Warren Wells, CEO of the Celebration, doesn’t expect the new final rules announcement to have a negative effect on either event.

“I think it is going to probably be in the back of everyone’s mind,” Wells said. “But there is so much to come. I don’t think it is going to have too great an effect on this Celebration.

“My feeling is there will always be a Celebration and we will always crown a World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse.”

Ironically, the new rules come at a time when the general consensus in the industry is the quality of the horses in the show ring are the best ever in terms of breeding and talent.

“We have an extremely resilient breed and industry,” Wells said. “The Celebration is going to go on. We are going to finish out the year.”

Tired of being a target

Under the final rule all action devices are banned for Tennessee Walking Horses and Racking Horses. Racking Horses are often double-registered as walking horses. No other breed is included in the new rules.

The theme echoed by most in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry is, “We just want to be treated like everybody else” in terms of the use of padded shoes and action devices.

Other breeds which show with pads are Arabian, Anglo-Arabian, Andalusian, Friesian, American Saddlebred and Morgans.

The Horse Protection Act (HPA) only prohibits devices that result in soring. The industry contends banning all equipment exceeds the scope of the HPA.

“I feel like we have good documentation,” Farrar said. “We aren’t asking for any kind of special treatment.

“At the end of the day we are just asking to be treated like every other equine breed there is. To me that is a pretty simple concept…just treat us like everybody else.”

Overall breed survival

The Performance division is the central target of the USDA’s rules.

According to the TWHBEA, there were 235.418 registered Tennessee Walking Horses alive in 2023.Only 15 percent, 34,673, were show horses.

The TWHBEA statistics also point out the average age of a walking horse is 20 years old with 8 years old, the average age of a show horse. The oldest competing walking horse in 2023 was 32 years old.

The TWHNCA’s comments about the proposed rules, which are now finalized, stress the future of the breed could be at stake is the Performance division is eliminated.

Economic devastation

“One concern bears extra emphasis: the proposed failure to take into account the devastating impact it would have on the Tennessee Walking Horse industry and the many who rely on the industry.

“In particular, the rule proposes to eliminate the Performance division of competition within the industry by eliminating the very tools which are essential to the division to compete.”

The comments response points out the TWHNC “has repeatedly told the USDA the Performance division is essential to the continued operation of not just the TWHNCA but any Tennessee Walking Horse competition in general.”

“Shows would cease to exist were that division eliminated and the Tennessee Walking Horse industry itself would be threatened,” the comments said. “The ripple effects on local communities are enormous.”

Flat-shod horses are every talented in their own right and have a loyal following. But it is the Performance horse that drives a show according to commenters on the USDA rules.

As one commenter pointed out, “The Tennessee Walking Horse circuit is primarily driven by attendees interested in the Performance show horse. If Performance show horses are no longer able to compete, many shows would shut down, which means the flat shod division in a show would also be shut down.”

One pleasure show rider agreed with her comments stating, “The performance divisions are the biggest draw because members of the public who attended horse shows want to watch the most athletic horses. We rely on the performance horse division to bring in fans and sponsors to keep the shows going.”

In 2023, according to TWHBEA records, 2,797 new foals were registered with 4,499 mares being bred to 635 individual sires.

The TWHNCA suggests breeding would be drastically affected by the final rules: “And given the foreseeable impact on the desirability of owning a Tennessee Walking Horse without a place to show them there is a real chance the rule would even threaten the existence of the Tennessee Walking Horse as a breed.”

Despite the heavy cloud hanging over the walking horse industry Farrar is expecting a positive outcome for the breed in court.

“I am confident that as an industry we are unified and prepared for something like this than we have been in the past,” Farrar said. “This is nothing new for us. It is a position we have been in before.”