Trainer now puts horse first
For Carl and Tammy Bledsoe the horse comes first. After a life training horses in the controversial “Big Lick” style, Carl now utilizes “sound,” natural horsemanship, which focuses on the horse’s natural instincts and the philosophy that horses do not learn best through fear or pain. Here, the Bledsoes at the premier horse expo WNY Equifest in March where they were featured presenters. They taught about the natural gait of the Tennessee Walking Horse, the most common horse used in Big Lick training.
A few years ago, second generation “Big Lick” horse trainer Carl Bledsoe’s life looked much different than it does today. Bledsoe, who achieved wealth and success showing Big Lick Tennessee Walking Horses, went from making over $17,000 a month to next to nothing before having to rebuild his world.
While to many the “Big Lick” is a beautiful and elegant gait, Bledsoe, who now works from his Marble Hill farm MadiLaney Ranch, said the exaggerated high-step is achieved using inhumane methods.
“The competition and the blue ribbon meant too much to me,” Bledsoe said. “I woke up one day and wasn’t okay with who I was looking at in the mirror, and I saw how for sale you had to be to be in the show horse world. I lost almost everything, but it was worth it.”
Bledsoe’s ethical meltdown came from the realization that he was a part of the problem, taking part in cruel practices Tennessee Walking Horses go through to get the gait so coveted in some arenas of the show horse world.
No pain, no prize
To get the exaggerated Big Lick, trainers use a painful method called “soring.” They put caustic chemicals like kerosene and diesel fuel on horses’ hooves and wrap them in plastic wrap to soak the night before competition. During competition, heavy chains are put around the horses’ hooves that rub those sore areas, cause pain, and get them to do the unnatural high step.
Left: The exaggerated and unnatural “Big Lick” gait revered at events like the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, also called “The Celebration,” the largest show for the Tennessee Walking Horse held annually in Shelby, Ky. photo/HumaneSociety.org
The horses shoes are what’s called “performance packages” that have extra pads that make them taller, as well as nails and other painful elements.
After time, horses develop sores trainers cover up with paint and other means so they can pass pre-competition inspection. Bledsoe mock demonstrates this portion of the painful method in a video on YouTube.
“As a trainer, you’re only as good as your last ribbon,” Bledsoe said, who admits he once loved the competitive edge, “but I’m not that guy anymore. It was up to me to right my wrong.”
Bledsoe gave up everything he knew, and lost many friends along the way, in his quest to right that wrong. In 2013 he wrote a letter to Congressman Ed Whitfield.
“I’ve seen and have used every sort of caustic agent that can be used to enhance and to achieve the ‘Big Lick’ gait, he writes. “It excited me to see one sit down on his hocks and step up against the chains and ‘reach,’ and I now realize that the horse was put in a great deal of pain, physically and emotionally, and it was simply struggling to move. It sickens me now to realize the difference.”
In the letter, he goes on to talk about the horse show world as cutthroat, conniving, and money driven, including payoffs in inspections arenas.
In YouTube video, Horse trainer Carl Bledsoe does a mock demonstration of the cruel and decietful practices used in “Big Lick” horse training. Here, he uses paint to cover up sores caused by the inhumane method. screen shot/YouTube
Horses, au naturale
He removed all performance horses from his barn and is now what’s called a “sound,” humane trainer that works in natural horsemanship. His focus is to have the owner and horse develop a strong relationship, as opposed to Big Lick owners who were many times out of the equation when professional training was involved.
At their farm, Bledsoe and his wife Tammy give lessons, hold clinics and board and train horses – although Carl doesn’t like using the word “train.” He says “conditioning” better suits what he does.
“I don’t train for circus tricks,” he said, explaining the nuances of how he does what he does. “Now I train from the horse’s perspective first, and if the owner is not in the equation I’m not interested. Horses are social, they need safety and to thrive, and if you want a relationship with them it’s there for the taking.”
A matter of the heart
For Bledsoe and his wife horse training is all in the heart - the horse’s heart and the trainer’s heart. They describe it as a symbiotic relationship in which they learn as much about themselves through the process as the horse does. Tammy pulls out her phone and shows a meme about empaths, who are affected by people’s energy and able to intuitively perceive how others feel. This is what they say a horse is like. Tammy has had her own success in competitions with sound horses that weren’t considered prime specimens, but “my horse had the heart” and won.
The Bledsoe’s train in all breeds, but are most passionate about gaited breeds like the Tennessee Walking Horse, which they say has the best, most gentle temperament. The tagline for their farm is “Just Gait.”
In addition to training at the east Pickens farm, Bledsoe also spends time traveling to give presentations on sound horsemanship at events like the Sound Horse Conference. This March, him and Tammy traveled to New York as featured presenters at the prestigious WNY Equifest about the Tennessee Walking Horse’s natural gait.
It’s been a long and sometimes hard road to get where he is now, but Bledsoe said from this point on there’s no way but the horse’s way.
“The horse comes first,” Bledsoe said. “I don’t compromise on that anymore.”
Learn more about the Bledsoes and their farm at www.carlbledsoehorsemanship.com.