Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration begins Wednesday

(Photo: WKRN)

Thousands of people are flocking to Shelbyville for the 74th annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, which officially begins Wednesday.

However at this year's event, stricter rules, including different testing procedures on horses, will be enforced. 

“The horses this year will go through the most intense inspection process they've ever gone through,” said Dr. Stephen Mullins, president of SHOW Horse Industry Organization, the group in charge of inspecting horses at the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration.

The sport again came under scrutiny in May, after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video taken at a walking horse trainer's barn, showing horses being beaten and their hooves burned with chemicals to increase their gait.

“I was shocked and appalled as with everybody else was that anything like that would be done to the beautiful animals that we work with,” said Winky Groover, a horse trainer with 29 horses in this year's Walking Horse competition.

The Trainer's Association came up with the idea that at this celebration, every single horse would be swabbed.

Veterinarians with the USDA will take a swab from each animal, testing for any chemicals or numbing agents used to increase the horse's distinctive walk; using any of these things is cheating, like an athlete using steroids.

Dr. Doyle Meadows, CEO of The Celebration, told Nashville's News 2 their organization has made a lot of progress in the past few years.

Since 2009, the percentage of horses found in violation of competition rules has gone from 13 percent to one percent.

But Meadows said their goal this year is zero.

“I think a lot of what the HSUS undercover video did was to make a lot more people aware,” said Meadows, “Unfortunately, a man abuses his horse four hours from Shelbyville and we're the ones who get the blame, and we're the ones doing so much to make this thing better.”

Not only will every horse be swabbed, but each animal goes through a five point inspection process in the warm-up arena.

Horses will be inspected by USDA veterinarians, who will take X-Rays of their hooves, use thermal imaging to see if there may be inflammation in their hooves, test their hooves manually for any soreness or irritation, and also watch them walk around before competition starts.

“I think it's imperative that we do it,” Mullins told Nashville's News 2, “We have to do it to ensure the world grand championship has grand champions and winners that are completely compliant with the horse protection act.”

Doyle said all the inspectors at the celebration have been specially trained and do not have affiliations with trainers or certain stables.

Groover told Nashville's News 2 he doesn't mind all of the extra steps, “We are wanting and willing to prove that we are good to our animals and we have a beautiful animal that we want the world to appreciate like we do.”

The swabs from winning animals will be sent over night to a special lab in Texas.

Doyle said they hope to have the results within 24 hours, so that if a horse is in violation, the title will be stripped and the trainer suspended.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration continues through September 1 in Shelbyville.

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