This Whistleblower Faced Death Threats for Exposing the Atrocities Committed on American Show Horses

No American animal is more iconic than the horse. From colonizing the West through harsh terrain, to being used in wartime during land battles, to becoming the mode of transportation before the invention of the internal combustion engine, we’ve grown as a nation riding on the backs of horses.

Having taken so much from them over the centuries, the very least we could do in modern times is protect horses from cruelty. This is a story about an unexpected hero who is dedicating his life to doing just that.

Marty Irby grew up on a family farm in southern Alabama. In his community, horse enthusiasts flocked to the Tennessee walking horse industry, so he became involved at an early age. He began riding in competitions at the age of four and eventually won eight world championships and one world grand champion title.

After graduating from college and managing the country's largest walking horse breeding farm, Irby earned himself a board seat at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, the industry’s biggest trade group. A few years later, he became the youngest president in the organization’s history.

The association advocated for the players and companies within the industry and viewed animal advocates as a threat to their way of life, rather than an ally in protecting horses. The animal advocates pressed for reforms and for an end to a practice known as soring. Soring involves intentionally inflicting pain on the horses’ hooves to force an exaggerated gait in the show ring. When animal advocates expressed concerns about this mistreatment, the association viewed its role as protecting the industry against those allegations.

Irby carried on this tradition for a time. It was how previous association leaders had mentored him, and it was what his community wanted him to stand for. But he knew something wasn’t right. He began to witness improper practices perpetrated against the horses. He started becoming more aware of the rampant, mostly hidden atrocities in the industry. The most egregious is the hidden, yet standard practice of soring.

As Irby could no longer deny, horse trainers, behind closed doors, were applying caustic chemicals like mustard oil, diesel fuel and kerosene to the horses’ legs and feet. Another technique they use is to cut deeply into the horse's hoof and tightly nail on a shoe. This creates agonizing pain in every step the horse takes, causing them to barely touch the ground when they step. This may make their walk appear majestic, but actually, the horses are trying desperately to protect their throbbing, burning feet. 

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An  investigator with The Humane Society of the United States recorded a horse named Play Something Country, lying down in his stall groaning in pain 40 minutes after a chemical substance had been applied to his front legs. Other horses have died after suffering colic likely brought on by the pain and stress of soring. (Photo by The HSUS)

Irby couldn’t take knowing what was happening to these poor horses any longer. He fought for changes from within the system and when that didn’t succeed, he did something that would forever change his life; he became a whistleblower.

He spoke out in the media about the dark world of horse soring, and traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify in Congress in favor of legislation that would crack down on this abuse: the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act. This decision to speak out against his own industry, his own community, came with a heavy price.

Marty Irby's brave act cost him the most special relationships in his life. It led to his divorce and the destruction of his relationship with his father. The Tennessee walking horse community, a part of his life since birth, excommunicated him from its ranks. He even faced death threats.

Irby eventually accepted a position at the arch nemesis of the breeders’ association he once led: The Humane Society of the United States, where he works with family farmers and horse advocates to speak up for horses and other animals in statehouses and on Capitol Hill. 

His pursuit to finally get the protections for horses continues. Irby’s leadership, as well as undercover investigations, celebrity campaigns and the support of more than 300 House and Senate members, is keeping this issue front and center in government. He’s working with family farmers and agriculture leaders all across the country to advance the interests of farmers who are pursuing more humane methods of farming, protecting rural communities and fighting factory farming. 

It took courage and a healthy dose of self-reflection for Irby to confront years of belief and values, especially while doing so triggered such negative personal repercussions.

His journey is also a reminder to all of us that we never know who might be the next person to take a life-altering pivot. Treating everyone with kindness and respect—even those with whom we strenuously disagree—is always the right thing to do. Aside from being morally aligned in creating a compassionate world, it’s a way to ensure we’re helping the Marty Irbys of the world find the courage they need to do the right thing.

All animals, including those horses we’ve built such a special relationship with throughout our history, deserve the chance for more heroes to join the ranks standing by their side.


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