Fact-Checking Knoxville’s ABC News affiliate: Tennessee Walking Horses

I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

When I started reporting my latest AJAM story on allegations of horse abuse in a little town of Maryville, Tenn., I told people I was “agnostic about horses.” This usually prompted a laugh, but it was true: I certainly didn’t want to see any animals abused —horse or otherwise— but my life had afforded only a few —random— opportunities to see these animals up close.

Now, three months after starting the story, I usually receive a few emails a week from concerned readers on the topic of horse abuse. I wish I could respond to all of them —and in this format— but I will take a stab at one message I received this morning. Lacking any text, the email included a link to this piece, written by a reporter for an ABC News affiliate out of Knoxville, Tennessee.

While I could talk in the abstract about the writing of this piece, and the struggle this reporter seemed to have with particular facts about pending bill, H.R. 1518, or the PAST Act, I figured I’d copy and paste it below and annotate my way through. My additions are noted in bold.


MORRISTOWN (WATE) – Tennessee walking horses are at the center of a major debate on Capitol Hill.

AM – Agreed.

A Kentucky congressman has proposed a bill making some major changes to how the horses are handled.

AM – The proposed bill will restrict the use of particular “action devices” commonly used on Tennessee Walking Horses.

According to the president of the East Tennessee Walking Horse Association, Ken Estes, the bill would mean a hit of millions of dollars to the local agricultural economy.

AM – As a point of privilege, I think this quote can stand. As a point of reportorial professionalism, I’d like to see documents that would indicate the amount and extent of money that might be lost.

He says most of the tools they use to get the horses to walk the way they do would be eliminated. Without their signature walk, the walking horse industry would be eliminated.

AM – I’ve heard this charge time and again. While I’m no trainer, I have heard from many trainers that the TWH industry would not disappear with the new Federal restrictions, just that the individuals who have used abusive tactics to make their horses profitable in the circuit would be forced out of the industry. 

“I’m going to put a 6 inch chain on him. This is called an action device and the bill would eliminate it totally. It would eliminate any type of boot or action device,” Estes said, as he put a small chain around the horses lower leg.

AM – The reporter fails to ask about soring at all. Sure, the action devices are specifically noted in the bill, but the context of the proposed amendment has been shaped by generations of trainers who have used —and continue to use— caustic chemicals to abrade or sensitize the skin. The “action devices”, in this context, are used to exacerbate the pain.

He also showed us how a heavier horse shoe used on the horses now, would be replaced with a much lighter one.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers played a story done by ABC’s Nightline in May 2012. It features a Humane Society expose that shows the animals being tortured to walk the way they do.

AM – Lawmakers showed the 2012 video highlighting the case of Jackie McConnell. 

The proposed bill was a response to that publicity.

AM – The proposed bill was a response to ABUSE IN THE WALKING HORSE INDUSTRY —abuse that was captured on film in the McConnell case, but has been a feature of the TWH community for many years. 

“The Humane Society has used us as a fundraiser to get people to send in money. They have made a whipping boy out of us, so to speak,” Estes explained.

AM – Should have prompted a direct question to HSUS. The reporter either didn’t ask, or didn’t include HSUS’s response.

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could end a million dollar industry.

AM – Fair statement. Misconceptions certainly abound in this story.

“Well most of the horses that people pay millions of dollars for, when they take their equipment off, they are worthless. They become just a horse and they drop in value to $300-400,” he said.

AM – Ancillary concern. Estes doesn’t speak to why horses would not be valuable if, save the action devices, they still took part in TWH competitions.

“It’s just money. When you hurt an animal, it has feelings too,” said Stacy Jordan with the Hamblen County Humane Society. The Humane Society of the United States has come out saying the ones who oppose the legislation are the ones making money from the abuse.

AM – I think this is an overly simplified quote, too. Don’t know if it really cuts to the heart of the matter. 

Estes says that for an 1,100lb horse, chains and heavy shoes don’t qualify as abuse.

AM – For individuals who watched the testimony on Capitol Hill (and if you didn’t here is a summary), the question was not whether chains or heavy shoes qualified as abuse, but that the industry has been poorly policed, abuse (soring and otherwise) has persisted, and that action devices have been used to hide some instances of abuse from horse show investigators.  

He worries that misconceptions about what they do could now end a $1 million industry.

“I can’t imagine the financial repercussions of this to the horse industry in the area,” Estes said.

AM – Neither can I. Because I’ve never seen the numbers. 

The bill would also increase the number of inspections by the USDA.

AM – And a series of other things: http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th/house-bill/1518


I can excuse subjects for stating their interests with conviction. But I won’t excuse journalists who fail to understand the topic, or take the time to ask the right questions.

One thought on “Fact-Checking Knoxville’s ABC News affiliate: Tennessee Walking Horses

  1. Thank you, and well done. Let’s hope the ladies and gents on Capitol Hill will make more of an effort to find the truth.

    Regarding the economics of the walking horse industry– I don’t know the numbers either. I do know that most of us in the industry would like it to clean up, and most of us could care less if pads and chains go.

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