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Lance and Mike Meisenheimer apply chains on On Call to demonstrate how they are used in training and now in some show classes at their stable area at Celebration Arena.
DAILY Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Lance and Mike Meisenheimer apply chains on On Call to demonstrate how they are used in training and now in some show classes at their stable area at Celebration Arena.

Chained together?
Racking horse group hopes it has resolved controversy that depleted its membership

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer

phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

PRICEVILLE — The dingy aluminum chains hanging loosely above some hooves this week have the luster of a gold medal to many racking horse owners and trainers.

For the first time, World Celebration has allowed the controversial devices that help the show horse exaggerate its four-beat gait.

Though the conflict isn't likely to die soon, the fact that show classes featuring chained horses are so popular makes it evident the chains are here to stay.

Through Thursday night, 99 horses had shown in the nine "specialty action" chained classes. Excluding the pleasure division, which features horses that double as the trail riding mounts, the chained classes were the most popular among the strictly show horse division.

Chains of various weights are hung in the Meisenheimer stable area at Celebration Arena.
DAILY Photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Chains of various weights are hung in the Meisenheimer stable area at Celebration Arena.
That's good news to the hundreds of people who own and ride horses that perform better with chains, as well as to the Racking Horse Breeders Association of America, which wants to lure back members who left because they couldn't show at World Celebration.

"Without the chain class, there's be no reason to be here. I couldn't compete," said Lisa Stinnett of Clyde, N.C., who is attending her first World Celebration.

Her horse, He's Something By Nothing, will do the smooth racking gait where only one hoof hits the ground at time, but the weight of the chains makes it lift its legs higher and do "the big lick" that wins blue ribbons.

"Most every horse on this ground has been trained with them," said Mike Meisenheimer. "It just makes them flow better."

Basically what happens is the horse will lift its front legs higher and throw the hoof forward as if trying to fling the chains off. Meisenheimer demonstrated the difference with a horse named On Call.

The experienced horse that has won blue ribbons without chains still did the rack while barelegged. With chains, he suddenly had more push in the back legs, his head raised higher and the front legs lifted higher. The lower part of the front legs also showed a crisp action when throwing the hooves forward, as if snapping a whip.

"It makes some work better, but we've got some horses that are better without (the chains)," he said, saying the chains rub hair off the ankle like a man's wristwatch but don't hurt the horses.

Meisenheimer said he once was staunchly opposed to showing racking horses with chains as the Tennessee walking horses always had done. He changed his mind, however, after he saw that doing so offered more opportunities to some horse owners and that it helped some horses perform at a higher, more fan-pleasing level.

Still, many RHBAA members, particularly the pleasure horse owners, remain opposed to chains, saying they want to hold to the breed's founding fathers' desire never to allow chains.

Natural vs. enhanced

"I like to promote our more natural ability and breed for our natural ability rather than an enhanced ability," said Darlene Harris of Perry, Mich., owner of the 2000 world grand champion, Pursuing Perfection.

Around her home and other Northern states, racking horse shows not only deny chains, they won't allow the long-accepted padded shoes either.

The question of chain usage started rising to prominence about 10 years ago, when Joe Lane started a new association in White Pine, Tenn., that allowed chains. The United Racking Horse Owners and Exhibitors Association grew quickly, and five years ago, the RHBAA began wrestling with the issue.

The governing board became polarized over it, and the resulting conflict and inability to settle the issue soured many members. Membership has dropped from about 4,000 to less than 2,000 since then.

Last year, association members voted to allow limited use of chains. Spurred by its popularity during the spring and summer show season, the membership last month voted 273-198 to continue their use.

Harris, though opposed to chains, voted in favor of their use, as did many on the no-chain side, because they wanted to halt the departure of members and trainers.

"I did not want to see our trainers, who had the possibility of making more money, not be able to come to our shows and end up going to shows that were a lot closer," she said.

Cindy Bryant of Waynesville, N.C., who has attended every World Celebration since 1978, said she couldn't understand the argument against chains because it doesn't affect the non-chain classes.

"There's a lot of people fighting it, but there's room for everybody. It's not going to make the bare-legged horses extinct," she said.

Because of the allowance of chains this year, she was able to persuade five friends who showed at last week's pro-chain championship in White Pine to show in Priceville, too.

"We hope to bring even more next year," said her husband, Ed Bryant.

Strong showing

Barbara Johnston, World Celebration show chairwoman, said at least 25 to 30 horses came to Priceville that showed in White Pine last week. That's an encouraging sign for the member-depleted association that some local officials feared was going to have its final Celebration this week.

Though this year's show likely will end as one of the least attended in years, the strong showing of the chain classes gives Johnston hope that more and more former members will come back to the fold and return World Celebration to its position as Morgan County's premier event for attracting out-of-town visitors.

"Years ago, none of us ever thought we'd see a racking horse wearing chains in that ring," Johnston said. "But you have to have an alternate plan sometimes."

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