Not so long ago Marty Irby described his life as a bad country music song.
"I went bankrupt, lost my business, my father and I didn't speak for five years, my wife and I divorced, and I had death threats," said Irby.
His fall was hard and fast. Irby was a key member of the tightly controlled and lucrative world of horse shows and thoroughbreds. He won equestrian world championships and held the office of president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association from 2010 to 2012. But his public stand supporting legislation to ban soring, a commonly used training tool, was seen as a major betrayal.
Soring is an intentional infliction of pain to a horse's legs or hooves to force it to use an exaggerated gait. It takes different forms, but Irby noted it goes back to the 1950s, when trainer Winston Wiser deduced that liniments that irritated a horse's feet would also cause it to step higher in response to the pain. The gait in Tennessee Walkers, known today as a Big Lick, turned heads and won ribbons in the ring.
"Eventually, someone figured out what Wiser was doing and they copied it. So, what you see is not natural," said Irby of the gait. "Naturally, maybe the greatest horse might be able to step one-third as high as what we see."
Today soring isn't limited to the use of irritating liniments and caustic chemicals that blister the skin, adds Irby. It can include pressure shoeing or forcing a horse to stand for hours with the sensitive part of his sole on a block or raised object.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) came out against soring decades ago. The group describes the practice in all its forms as inhumane and unethical and notes it has long been associated with violations of federal law under the Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA). The HPA made it illegal for sored horses to participate in shows, sales, exhibitions or auctions, and prohibited transporters from shipping sored horses to or from these events. Enforcement of HPA falls under USDA authority, but the agency has blamed budget limitations for limited inspections and convictions.
DANGEROUS STANDS, ROYAL RECOGNITION
Proponents of the practice of soring have never been very forgiving of those who publicly oppose their choice of training method.
Irby, an eight-time world champion equestrian rider, said he received death threats after testifying before Congress in 2013 on behalf of legislation to ban soring.
He decided to stay in Washington, D.C. and start a new career working for a Kentucky congressman as press secretary, communications director, and legislative aide. Later he went to the Humane Society of the U.S. as a lobbyist. In 2018, Irby and others created the Animal Wellness Action group, where he's been ever since.
Irby's decision to stand up for the welfare of horses laid a foundation for his work as a well-known Capitol Hill lobbyist, a job he's been recognized for multiple times over the years.
He also received royal attention in 2020, when Queen Elizabeth II honored Irby for his activism on behalf of horses. Renowned American horse trainer Monty Roberts, a founder of Join-Up International, a non-profit that promotes gentle, effective alternatives to violence and force in both equine and human relationships, publicly congratulated Irby on the honor.
"Marty Irby is our hero and has paid a huge price in his own life in the interest of being fair to the horses. Along with thousands of supporters, Her Majesty and I strongly recommend the necessary rules and regulations to remove violence from this breed and all other competitions involving the horses we love."
OVERACHIEVER FOR WELFARE
Within the animal welfare community, Irby admitted he has a reputation for being more than a little unconventional. He is a self-described "meat-eating Republican, animal welfare lobbyist," which even on a good day doesn't earn him a lot of love from either side of the political divide.
"I'm not a vegan. I'm not a vegetarian. I'm about raising animals humanely, where they only have one bad day in their lives. My heroes are people like Pete Eshelman, a Wagyu beef producer in Indiana who keeps his cows up in a barn at night where they listen to old baseball games; and Georgia's Will Harris, of Whiteoak Pastures where the focus is on sustainability and soil regeneration. These, and farms like them, epitomize the best of America's livestock producers."
Irby's approach as a lobbyist has been highly effective. In 2019, he was at the Oval Office to watch President Donald Trump sign the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act. It was one of six bills signed during Trump's presidency, all containing issues Irby had lobbied for. He jokingly told reporters that his time in Washington has given him a lot of ideas for a book. The working title: "Crazy Animal People."
A MARRIAGE OF POLICIES
Irby's ability to laugh at himself, and sometimes those within the world of animal welfare, puts him in a unique position to help the nation's livestock producers.
Georgia cattleman Will Harris has known Irby about 10 years and describes him as "a wonderful ally." He said the two came together over compassion and animal welfare, as well as the need to see land regeneration management used to rebuild impoverished rural communities.
Harris, known to be a bit of a farm philosopher, believes most animal welfare advocates have a shallow view of their relationship with the animal kingdom.
"Many of them have a view that all animal relationships are the same as they would have with a companion animal. I have a companion animal, Judge. He's laying at my feet while we talk. But then I add another kind of relationship with the animal kingdom, one that is more complex. Livestock, working animals, wildlife ... these are different kinds of relationships. To say they are all the same is shallow. Marty gets that."
Harris calls Irby "a bridge between people like me and people who view every relationship with an animal at that companion level."
"They have a contempt for those of us who produce livestock. We need people to bridge that gap, and Marty Irby has worked hard to do it. It's a very different world he works in than where I live here in rural Georgia."
Despite how different that Capitol Hill world is, this unconventional animal welfare rights lobbyist has found his place in it.
"I think everyone in agriculture has a big job ahead of them today," said Irby. "One of the biggest problems we have in Washington, D.C. is that so many of our politicians have sold out the family farmer and animal welfare with policies they've created. I am here to say you can absolutely have a happy marriage between animal welfare policies and raising animals for food. That's what I fight for every day."
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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