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


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

Marty Irby was a leader in the Tennessee walking horse industry. But as he became aware of rampant animal abuse, he switched sides.

Josh Balk / AlterNet

February 1, 2017

Perhaps there’s no more iconic animal to symbolize America 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 their backs.

With us taking so much from them for centuries, the very least we could do in modern times is protect them from cruelty. This is a story an unexpected hero who’s now dedicating his life to do just that.

Marty Irby grew up on a family farm in southern Alabama. He knew that in his community, the Tennessee walking horse industry was where horse enthusiasts would flock, so he became involved at an early age. He began riding in competitions at the age of four and he eventually won eight world champion and one world grand champion titles.

After graduating college and managing the country’ 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 – which involves intentionally inflicting pain on the horses’ hooves to force an exaggerated gait in the show ring. Animal advocates expressed concerns about this mistreatment of the horses and 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 mentored him; what his community wanted him to stand for. But something wasn’t right for him. He began to witness improper practices perpetrated against the horses. He started becoming more aware of the rampant, mostly hidden, atrocities within it. The most egregious being 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 cutting deeply into the hoof and tightly nailing on a shoe. This is all to create pain in every step for the animals, causing them to barely touch the ground when they step to make their walk appear majestic when it’s actually a way for the horses to avoid abject suffering.

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,” culminating in him traveling 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.

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

Irby eventually did the once unthinkable. He 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 in speaking up for animals in statehouses and on Capitol Hill.

His pursuit to finally get the protections for horses he’s sacrificed so much for 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. And 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.

Irby’s story is one of modern-day Amazing Grace, where he “once was lost, but now am found.” It took courage and a healthy dose of audacious self-reflection to confront years of belief and values, especially while doing so triggered such negative personal repercussions.

This 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, even those with whom we strenuously disagree, with kindness and respect, is 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 future Marty Irbys of the world find the valor needed to follow the courageous light ahead.

All animals, including those horses who 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.

Josh Balk is the vice president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshbalk.