Imagine a little girl is taking ballet lessons. To make her jump higher and leap farther, her teacher fills her shoes with nails that poke every time she takes a step, and burns her ankles with chemicals so the ribbons on her shoes rub against her raw, blistered skin.
In fleeing from the pain, she looks like she’s dancing. “Ridiculous!” you say? Absolutely. Yet for more than 60 years, this heinous and deplorable practice has been done in the “training” of a specific breed of horse, the Tennessee Walking Horse.
Admired and loved since the 1930s for its loose, flowing motion, this “gaited” horse propels forward with more of a walk than a trot. Its motion is so smooth you could almost drink a cup of coffee as you ride. But this, and two other gaited breeds, the Spotted Saddle Horse and the Racking Horse, are all victims of the abusive practice called “soring,” defined as “intentionally abusing Tennessee Walking Horses and other related breeds to exaggerate their gait, causing the animals pain each time they step, so they lift their front legs higher in what is known as the “Big Lick.” (Tennessean, January 2017.)
It’s unclear how this exaggerated front leg kick began, and why it became so popular — and award winning — at competitions. One horse enthusiast speculated that “some horse did something different and it became ‘hip’ so everyone ran with it.”
In a 1930 documentary about Walking Horses, veterinarian Dr. Bob Womack narrates the beautiful movements of several well-known horses of the time, noting with admiration, moments when the horse naturally “reaches” its front leg out in a graceful kick. Whatever its origin, the “Big Lick” became a show-stopper and soon everyone wanted their horse to do it.
Trainers knew that a horse with good, natural movement could be taught to comfortably perform the high kick, but that it would take time — and the right horse — to accomplish. So instead, many of them went medieval, devising torturous ways to produce the results quicker and easier — at least for themselves. Wearing heavy gloves to protect themselves, handlers apply chemicals to the horse’s front ankles or pastern, causing pain, blistering and scarring.
They wrap chains around the pastern to further irritate the skin, and strap on “stacked shoes” made of thick padding, sloped at an angle like high heels, and filled with nails that poke at the hoof (which may have been filed to the quick) with every step. During the “performance,” many horses will lower their back legs under their bodies to take the pressure off their front legs, further exaggerating the “Big Lick.” And the crowds cheer.
Back to our little dance student … If you’re thinking, “I’d throttle the teacher and call the cops,” of course you would. So what happens to trainers and handlers who do the same to a horse? Apparently, not much. As in any scenario where it’s animal welfare versus human entertainment or monetary gain, the animals almost always lose.
Soring was actually outlawed in the Horse Protection Act of 1970, but the abuse has continued. The industry found ways to avoid getting caught for violations, such as hiring their own inspectors who, unlike USDA inspectors, are encouraged to “look the other way,” using short acting anesthetics during pre-show inspections, and “training” the horses not to react to pain by beating or zapping them with cattle prods if they wince during mock inspections. One notorious trainer, Jackie McConnell, drifted in and out of prosecutions from 1979-2011, but, as one observer wrote, “He’d wink and go on his way.”
In his book, “Horse, Follow Closely,” GaWaNi Pony Boy writes, “… it is more important and more productive to concentrate on the relationship between human and animal than on the results we hope to achieve. At the very foundation is the connectedness of all life, and the respect with which we, as humans, must treat the animals of our larger family.”
An amendment to the Horse Protection Act was proposed last January in honor of Sen. Joseph D. Tydings who spearheaded the HPA. The Prevent All Soring Practices Act would increase fines and require only USDA trained inspectors (preferably veterinarians) to do inspections at competitions. HR693 passed the House by more than a 4 to 1 vote last July, and is now awaiting Senate approval.
The issue is still very controversial in Tennessee and Kentucky, while horse lovers and humane-minded people across the nation remain dumfounded that these practices continue.
Be well, and go hug your horse.