Although many Tennessee Walkers, as they are commonly known, are black, other colors and patterns such as roan, chestnut or sorrel, bay, champagne and pinto are common. Recently, the breed registry began to recognize the sabino pattern, and it must be noted that many horses registered in the past as roans were, in some cases, sabinos. Walkers are generally 15 to 17 hands tall, but can range from 13.2hh to 18hh. Weight is generally between 900 and 1200 pounds.
In conformation, the Walker is a tall horse with a long neck and sloping shoulder. The head is traditionally large but refined in bone, with small well-placed ears. The horse has a fairly short back, short strong coupling, and an elongated stride. In the show arena, Walking horses are known for their gliding running walk and are usually shown with long manes and tails.
In 1885, Black Allen was born. By the stallion Allendorf (from the Hambletonian family of Standardbreds) and out of a Morgan mare named Maggie Marshall, he became the foundation sire of the Tennessee Walking Horse breed.
The breed became popular due to their smooth gaits and incredible stamina. It was common for farmers to hold match races with their Walkers, who they also used for plowing fields. Even after the coming of the automobile, Tennessee communities kept their Walkers to manage the poor roads of the area. The Walkers began to gain a reputation as a showy animal, and breeders sought bloodlines to produce refined, intelligent, flashy horses.
Tennessee Walking Horses are known for their ambling gaits: the running walk, the flat walk, and for their gentle, "rocking horse" canter. Although many members of the breed can perform other gaits, including the trot, fox trot, rack, stepping pace, and single foot, these gaits are typically penalized in breed shows since they are not considered "correct" gaits for a Walking Horse. The running walk is the most famous gait, with speeds from 10-20 km/h (6-12 mph). As the speed increases, the horse's rear foot overstrides the front print 15-45 cm (6-18 in). The greater the overstride, the better a "walker" the horse is said to be. The horse nods its head in both the running and the flat walk, the ears swinging with the gait. Some Walkers even click their teeth with the gait.
There are two main categories of competition: performance horses and flat shod.
Some individuals, wishing to produce similar movement in less-talented horses or in less time, borrowed practices used by other breeds to enhance movement. This included action devices such as weighted shoes, "Stacks" (stacked pads), and the use of weighted chains around the pasterns, all of which, within certain limits, were allowed.
As these methods produced horses that won in the show ring, and as ever-higher and more dramatic action was rewarded by the judges, some trainers turned to less savory methods to produce high action in a hurry. These methods including excessively heavy weighted chains, use of tacks deliberately placed under the shoe into the "white line" or quick, of the hoof, and the controversial practice of "soring," the application of a caustic chemical agent to the front legs to make it painful for the horse to put its feet down.
Users of chains do not believe they cause the horse pain, stating that it creates a similar feeling as a loose bracelet would around the wrist of a person. However, some trainers and veterinarians believe that above a certain weight, they may be harmful. The well-known "Auburn Study," conducted from September 1978 to December of 1982 at Auburn University, examined the "Thermography in diagnosis of inflammatory processes in horses in response to various chemical and physical factors." Using thermography, the researchers found that chains "altered thermal patterns as early as day 2 of exercise with chains. These altered thermal patterns persisted as long as chains were used," with normal thermal patterns seen after 20 days recovery. A stallion in the study also developed lesions from his 8 ounce chains, after wearing them in nine 15-minute exercise periods (scattered from September 22 to October 3). The Auburn study also showed that 2,4, and 6 ounce chains produced no adverse effects in the horses being studied. A 6 ounce chain is the legal weight of chain allowed in NHSC horse shows.
Pads are also controversial. Some are also critical of the band that holds the pad on, which they believe cuts into the hoof and may wear a slot into it. However, it is a common practice for a trainer to loosen the band when the horse is not being exercised, which may minimize the problem. Under normal conditions, if a pad is lost, it usually only affects the pad itself and not the base shoe which remains intact. Injuries are usually very limited from "throwing" a set of pads. It is dangerous if a horse wearing pads pulls off a shoe, as not only will the pad will come off, but the band may tear off part of the hoof wall. Therefore, horses wearing pads should not be turned out.
Other methods of soring include pressure shoes, where the hoof is trimmed to the quick so that the sole is in direct contact with the pad or shoe. The horse may then be "road foundered," ridden up and down hard surfaces on the over-trimmed hooves, until they are very sore. Trainers sometimes place objects, such as metal beads, nails, or screws, under the pad causing intense pressure, although this practice has begun to decrease with the advent of fluoroscope to detect such methods. Abusive use of chains (such as using them with chemical soring agents) is also a common practices by sorers.
Measures have been taken to stop the practice, and many supporters of the Tennessee Walking Horse have banded together for years to oppose cruelty. The 1970 Horse Protection Act , created specifically to stop such practices and to monitor the TWH in particular, prohibits the use of soring agents. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is working with the industry to enforce the law; Walking Horse organizations send DQPs (Designated Qualified Persons) to shows to inspect the horse, and, as funding permits, APHIS sends federally-employed Veterinary Medical Officers to work with DQPs at some shows.
Soring has been prohibited at sales and shows for decades, but is still practiced. It can be detected by observing the horse for lameness, assessing its stance and palpating the lower legs. Some trainers can bypass inspectors by training horses to not react to the pain that palpation may cause, often by severely punishing the horse for flinching after the sored area is palpated. The practice is sometimes called "Stewarding," in reference to the horse show steward who often is the first line of rule enforcement at any horse show. Trainers may also time the use of the agents so that chemicals will not be detected when the horse is examined, but will be in effect when the rider goes into the ring. Others use topical anesthetics, which are timed to wear off before the horse goes into the show ring. Pressure shoeing is also used, eliminating use of chemicals altogether. Trainers who sore will leave the show grounds when they find that the more stringent Federal inspectors are present.
In 2006, however, due to new techniques in both soring and detection, the USDA began a larger crackdown on soring within the industry. A new device known as a "sniffer" (also used to detect the chemical presence of bombs in airport security) can now be employed, where swabbed samples are taken from the horse and then "sniffed." At the 2006 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration , the longstanding dispute between trainers and USDA inspectors came to a head. The inspectors disqualified 6 of 10 horses from showing on the night of Friday, August 25, 2006. The trainers denied soring and challenged the monitoring methods. The result was that a number of celebration championship classes were canceled, and there is still considerable controversy over the situation. After a yearlong discussion between the industry and the USDA over the issues raised at the 2006 show, the 2007 championship went off without significant controversy.
Trainers who oppose soring have formed and joined alternative breed organizations, including the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) and Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH). All of these organizations promote the sound Tennessee Walking Horse. In addition, in 2005, the national directors of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA) voted to remove themselves from the National Horse Show Commission (NHSC) the sanctioning body closest to the soring issues. The TWHBEA formed its own sanctioning body, developed a new rule book and strict guidelines for affiliated horse shows and Horse Industry Organizations [HIO] that applied and were examined by the APHIS. The issue remains very controversial, particularly in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.