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OPINION: Practice of soring holds back walking horse industry


EDITOR: The following op-ed ran in the Wednesday edition of the Tennessean and is used here with the permission of the Humane Society.

“For sale” signs stand outside many former “big lick” farms in Bedford County, reminding us of the consequences of obstinacy and callousness among leaders within an industry that has failed to root out its most despicable feature.

Soring, the act of intentionally injuring a horse’s pasterns and hooves to elicit an artificial, high-stepping gait, has long been used by unscrupulous trainers in the Tennessee Walking Horse show industry.

Caustic chemicals — blistering agents like mustard oil, diesel fuel and kerosene — are applied to the horse's limbs, and high heel-like “stacks” are nailed tightly to their hooves, often concealing uncomfortable or sharp foreign objects inserted within. For the horses, it’s excruciating, but it produces the desired effect: an absurd and unnatural amble that produces ribbons and other recognition for the winning owners and trainers.

Officially, soring was outlawed in 1970 with the passage of the Horse Protection Act, but the USDA has been unable to adequately enforce the prohibition due to insufficient funding and political interference from the industry’s congressional allies. The result is a system that allows horse industry organizations to train and license their own inspectors, and judges continue to reward “big lick” competitors despite routine torture. Data recently released by the USDA revealed that a stunning 87.5 percent of randomly selected horses at the 2015 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration in Shelbyville tested positive for illegal foreign substances used to sore horses or mask their pain during inspection.

As awareness of this barbaric tactic has spread, so has the adverse economic impact. At one time the celebration was a massive draw for equine enthusiasts, with some 30,000 attendees showing up annually to take part. Now, after years of controversy and public outcry, attendance barely creeps past 10,000. Where once a hotel room couldn’t be found for miles, vacancy signs dot the landscape, more markers of the downward spiral that soring has spurred.

It’s not just tourism; soring’s impact has been felt across the industry. Membership in the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association dropped from 20,000 in 1997 to 5,300 this year. Dozens of shows and sales have been canceled, many permanently. And in 2014, only 774 foals were registered, as more and more people shun the breed entirely.

Even the sport’s biggest names recognize the adverse effects of this loathsome practice. Bill Harlin, whose involvement with walking horses perhaps exceeds any other living person, has said soring is “killing the industry.”

Fortifying the federal ban on horse soring is the best way for the industry to reclaim credibility and lost fans. In April, in response to a petition from the Humane Society of the United States, the USDA proposed to strengthen federal regulations. Though the text is not public, it is believed to include some of the core elements of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act currently pending in Congress, which would ban the “stacks” and chains so often used in the soring process. A majority of members of Congress — more than 300 in all — are cosponsors of the PAST Act.

When that happens, a robust circuit of sound horse shows that eschew “big lick” are ready, in the best sense of the term, to capitalize. Many have already proved they can be profitable in the flat-shod industry, and the Humane Society is doing its part to encourage this transformation through our "Now, That’s a Walking Horse" program, which offers grants and recognition awards to encourage opportunities for the use, care and training of Tennessee Walking Horses outside the traditional show ring.

Cruelty baked into the business model of the “big lick” segment of the industry is a prescription for economic decline. More and more, people are waking up to the suffering of animals, and big changes are happening in every sector of the economy: food and agriculture, fashion, entertainment, and science and animal testing. It’s the humane economy in action. The Tennessee Walking Horse industry need not be shackled to the stacks and chains of the old order. When soring abuse ends, we’ll see the barns and breed revitalized, and we’ll realize we can have it both ways: better outcomes for people and for animals, too.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, is author of "The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals."