Criminal: The Big Lick

Oct 6, 2017

This week's Criminal podcast provides a look into the dark side of horse shows. The story comes from contributor Mary Helen Montgomery, who she investigated a controversial practice involved in showing Tennessee Walking Horses. 

Phoebe Judge hosts Criminal says Tennessee Walking Horses are a breed prized for being docile and having a smooth gait. However, one of their more popular show events is one called "The Big Lick," which involves a horse walking in an exaggerated way, its front hooves raised in these high, arching steps. It's an unnatural motion, and its hard to train a horse for the Big Lick.

What makes the Big Lick controversial is a decades-old practice called "soring." That involves putting caustic substances—mustard oil, kerosene, croton oil—on horses' front ankles and hooves. They substances irritate the skin, making the horse sensitive to the touch. Trainers then the trainers strap heavy shoes and chains on those hooves, and the horses react in pain to the pressure.

Marty Irby is a former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association and he showed these horses for years. Soring, he said, had just been part of the job to get the horses to step high. The higher, the better.

"The horse throws their leg in the air and sort of a way to get away from the pain. So it would be like if you were walking over hot coals. Think of it as walking across black hot asphalt barefooted. You would want to run really quick or step really high and you wouldn't want to just put your foot on the ground," Irby said. "So that's what each of these things achieves and the more that they seem to add to it, the higher that they step."

Soring was outlawed in the 1970s. Now, show horses are inspected for burns and injuries before an event.
But Irby said trainers get around the inspection by treating horses' irritated skin with diaper rash cream. An ABC Nightline investigation showed  horses being beaten to train them not to react to painful inspections. In 2006, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration ended without a grand champion, after USDA inspectors disqualified six of 10 finalists.

Soring is still a controversial topic. Many trainers say they would never hurt their horses and there are other ways to train for The Big Lick. But Marty Irby said soring is still prevalent, and something of an open secret.

Irby took a public stand in favor of a federal measure called the PAST Act. It would crack down on any measure that would "artificially alter a horse's gait," and it would really limit training for The Big Lick. After advocating for the change, Irby said he started getting death threats. His father stopped speaking to him. He lost business partners. 

Even Irby's wife, Ashley Forman, left him after his stance threatened her favorite event.

"I did try for a little bit to be supportive but at the end of the day you know big licks are what I love.  And we were basically against each other."

You can hear more about Big Lick, soring, and efforts to rein in animal abuse on this week's Criminal podcast.

Criminal is recorded at WUNC.