I was born and raised on a horse farm in Ohio. We had American Saddlebred horses which we showed in fine harness, three gaited and five gaited classes. My father was an accomplished horse trainer, and I spent about half of the first 25 years of my life inside a stable. I learned a lot about horse and the care they required.
One evening at a horse show in Columbia City, Indiana I was watching the show with my father when he abruptly turned his back to the ring. I was surprised.
"What's up?" I asked.
"Those are Tennessee Walkers. I won't watch them." He explained brusquely. Mom noted the question mark over my head.
"They hurt those horses to make them do that." Mom explained, indicating the running walk.
And that's the start of how I learned about Tennessee Walkers and what the owners, riders and trainers are willing to do to get that notorious big lick motion in the running walk. They burn the horse's feet with acid and other caustic chemicals. They shoe the front feet in artificially high, heavily weighted shoes that injure the horse's tendons. They put chains around the ankles of the front feet and burn the horses hide so that the chain causes pain. They call this practice soring.
I found this post this morning: Bayou Renaissance Man: Tennessee Walking Horse scandals continue, which provided me with the inspiration for this post. Go and read it as you like.
The practice of soring likely started around 1950. By the '60s things got so bad that the federal government finally took notice, and in response to protests and complaints the U.S. Congress passed the Horse Protection Act in 1970 and amended it in 1976. Enforcement of the Act was turned over to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Due to a lack of funding, not much changed.
In July of 2006 two things happened that I found particularly noteworthy. The first thing was that my father passed away after a long, debilitating illness. A few days later during the Tenneesee Walking Horse National Celebration inspectors from the USDA disqualified over half of the championship horses for soring. Dad would have loved it.
The New York Times covered the event here: Horse Show Ends in Uproar Over U.S.D.A. Inspections. Ultimately the show was canceled as owners and trainers who refused to allow their horses to be inspected fled out the back gate and the mind-your-own-damn'-business crowd threatened violence.
Screw 'em. They aren't bullet proof and they are a long way from being the only armed people in Tennessee.
I would have thought that after this explosion we would see an end to soring, but it looks like I'm wrong. Recently Fran Jurga over at The Hoof Blog wrote an excellent article ABC News / HSUS Tennessee Walking Horse Expose Brings Soring Case to National Attention, which is a commentary on the ABC News article Video Reveals Torture of Horses Trained to Win Championships. As a result of this exposé Pepsi has withdrawn (jerked the rug out from under, maybe?) its sponsorship from the Walking Horse National Celebration in Tennessee (see links here and here).
I'll bet Dad's happy about this. I know I am.
Some of these horses have been sored so badly they can barely walk. This is abuse of the worst kind, and it should never have been tolerated. The practice is not confined to a few bad apples, either. Soring is widespread and is accepted by the owners, the trainers and the riders. I think it's past time that the law was enforced.