Advocate Profile

Unconventional Activist

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Marty Irby (Joel Reichenberger)

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," Irby says.

His fall was hard and fast. Irby was a key member of the tightly controlled yet 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 notes 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," Irby says 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, he adds. 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 constraints for limited inspections and convictions.

ROYAL RECOGNITION

Proponents 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, says 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., to 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 during 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 nonprofit 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 admits 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 White Oak 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 Trump sign the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act. It was one of six bills signed during Trump's presidency, all containing issues for which Irby had lobbied. 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 Harris has known Irby about 10 years and describes him as "a wonderful ally." He says 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," Irby says. "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."

LIFELONG LOVE OF HORSES

Marty Irby continues to fight for tougher penalties for horse soring, among a mix of other animal-welfare issues, as one of Washington, D.C.'s most effective lobbyists. His passion for the work goes back to a childhood spent growing up at his grandparents' farm, near Mobile, Alabama. By Irby's mid-teens, he had decided he wasn't going to college so he could become a horse trainer.

"I changed my mind about college when I received a scholarship through a fund from the walking horse industry. When I graduated, Bill Johnson, a man I'd sold a walker mare to and who founded The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., told me I had a job. I think he was afraid I'd actually become a horse trainer," Irby laughs.

By 2003, the newly graduated Irby was working as director of sales and marketing for a large walking horse farm in Tennessee. At that time, he recalls, they were breeding 2,000 mares a year and shipping semen globally. It was a great opportunity. As his star began to rise, Irby found himself at the helm of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association.

It was during this time that an exposé was done on America's walking horse industry, revealing those soring practices that to the average person seemed nothing short of barbaric. Irby says he knew then to keep the industry alive, things would have to change.

He publicly supported federal legislation aimed at amending the Horse Protection Act, ending self-policing by the show industry and improving the USDA's ability to oversee inspections and punish violators. It would increase civil and criminal penalties for violations (up to $5,000 per violation and up to three years incarceration), and allow for permanent disqualification for violators on their third or higher violation from participation in horse shows, exhibitions, sales or auctions.

This amendment, known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (PAST), passed the House in 2019. It has yet to become law, however, despite bipartisan support. Most recently, it was reintroduced in 2021 by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia) in an effort to codify the rule and end unnecessary suffering on competitive horse breeds. The two also led a bipartisan letter of 46 Senate colleagues to USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging the agency to publish and reinstate a final rule on soring. At press time, the issue remains unresolved.

TODAY'S KEY ANIMAL-WELFARE ISSUES

Marty Irby says society places a high value on animal welfare, and there will be more legislative issues related to that in the future. Some key issues the lobbyist was following at press time included bills around the slaughter of horses, mink farming and private ownership of big cats.

-- HORSE SLAUGHTER. Irby says the Animal Wellness Action group has been working hard to get legislation passed to ban transport of horses for slaughter. "This is a huge priority, and we hope to get it in an infrastructure package," Irby said at press time. By banning this practice, he wants to stop the large-scale slaughter of wild horses and racehorses that have outlived their usefulness or become ill. In many cases, Irby says it's possible to find homes for these unwanted horses.

"When I was still with the Humane Society, we saved nearly 1,000 wild horses. We found homes for all but a couple that were blind. So, I truly believe we can find homes for many of these horses, it just takes effort and time."

Acknowledging that euthanasia of horses is a part of life, and that carcass disposal can be a serious issue, Irby says his group would like to set up a euthanasia fund to subsidize vet care facilities.

"I think humane euthanasia, where horses don't have the best quality of life, is far better than the trauma associated with hauling these animals to slaughter. I've seen them packed tight, without water for days, broken legs. Because they are going to slaughter, no one cares. This is something we have to address."

The House passed the Anti-Horse Slaughter Transport Amendment, which would ban transport of horses across state lines to Canada or Mexico to slaughterhouse, processing them for human consumption. It was stripped out of the Senate version but at press time was still in play as different versions of the infrastructure bill continued to be considered.

-- MINK PRODUCTION. The U.S. mink industry today is down to about 60 producers across the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin, Irby explains. "This isn't a fur issue," he adds. "We produce more mink fur than we can sell in the U.S. Mostly, it goes to China.

"This is more a concern over the fact that mink can transmit the COVID virus; I think it's a recipe for disaster. We have a stand-alone bill that gives us a shot at getting these operations shut down, but it will take time."

In July 2021, U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced legislation to ban mink farming, called the Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces Are Superspreaders (MINKS) Act. This amended the Lacey Act, which forbid possession, sale or trade in captive American mink or their parts.

-- CUB-PETTING BUSINESSES. Big cats are another area where Irby says legislation is needed. He calls for the elimination of private ownership of big cats unless someone is a USDA-licensed breeder. It's a growing worry as the popularity of "cub petting" has increased.

"This is an industry where cubs are raised for three to six months, and people pay to handle them and have their photos taken with them," Irby says. Once these animals are fully grown, they are dangerous, and their care is often financially overwhelming.

"People either turn them loose, or they take them to a rescue," Irby says. "It can cost $1 million over the life of one of these animals. This has become a concern for police nationwide, and it's something we need to stop not just for the future of these animals but for public safety."

At press time, the House bill to prohibit public contact with big cats like tigers, lions and leopards, and to ban possession of these animals as pets had been reintroduced in April as The Big Cat Public Safety Act in the Senate. The bill passed the House with a two-thirds majority.

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-- Follow Vicki on Twitter @myersPF

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