I've been around horses since I was a kid. But when I was assigned a story about the controversy surrounding soring, I knew I was entering a whole new world.
Of course, I'd heard of soring--the application of irritating chemicals or mechanical devices to the legs of a show horse to increase his animation. But because it is done primarily on Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and other gaited show horses that I had no experience with, I had never witnessed the practice. To prepare, I pored over everything from government reports and legal affidavits to newspaper articles and breed publications. I also began interviewing a broad range of sources inside and outside the show world.
But I quickly realized that before I could write a single word, I had to see for myself whether the accusations about soring were true or simply exaggerations about a horrible practice, once widespread but now rare.
So on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2004, I drove to a two-night Tennessee Walking Horse show in a southern Virginia town just off I-81. At the outset, it seemed like any other horse show. A few hours before the first class began, trailers started to arrive, parking in neat rows behind the stabling area. All around me, horses were unloaded. But here and there, others were left standing in their trailers as their handlers gathered and conferred in low tones. By the time the show began, many horsemen had left without ever unloading their horses. It was not something I was accustomed to seeing.
Later that evening, as I leaned up against the rail of the main arena, I wondered aloud why so many classes had been canceled. "The government's here," said a man standing nearby, nodding toward a white tent beside the showring. As we watched a single horse and rider parade before the judges, he added, "Usually, there'd be eight or 10 showing in this class."
The man moved down the rail to talk to another horseman, but not out of earshot. "I've got 10 here," he said, gesturing over his shoulder to his trailer, "and I guess two can still go."
"Well, we're outta here," the other man replied. "But I'll bring a full load tomorrow. They never come back a second day."
Tradition, Technology and Red Tape
Various versions of this cat-and-mouse game have played out between government inspectors and certain exhibitors for more than 30 years. Soring was banned by federal law in 1970, and inspections have been part of all Tennessee Walking Horse shows ever since. But, ultimately, the law has generated controversy rather than ending it.
A key aspect involves dollars and cents. Government veterinarians, working under a limited budget ($500,000 or less annually), manage to directly supervise inspections at only 30 to 50 of the more than 600 shows under their jurisdiction each year. The rest are overseen by horsemen who have been trained and licensed to detect soring by nine designated Horse Industry Organizations that have themselves been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (see list at end of this article).
Of course, self-regulation is not necessarily a problem—if it works. But a growing body of evidence suggests that significant disparities exist between government and industry inspections of Tennessee Walking Horses. For example, a USDA summary report for the 2000 show season indicates that when government veterinarians were present, inspectors evaluated 17,500 horses and issued 293 violations. By comparison, at shows where government officials were not on site, industry inspectors who examined five times that number of horses—roughly 100,000—gave out only 139 violations.
Nonetheless, many in the Walking Horse show industry say that, if anything, the current system is too intrusive. Many deny that soring extends beyond a few isolated cases, and they question the necessity of continued government oversight.
In contrast, equine welfare groups—and a few industry insiders—say that soring, though less conspicuous than it once was, continues to a substantial and disturbing degree. Enforcement of the law, they say, has been spotty all along, and they see only more trouble ahead if the industry is granted even greater autonomy.
In one form or another, this conflict has been wending its way through the courts and halls of government for more than three decades. However the legal issues are resolved, a moral one remains: In 21st century America is even a low incidence of soring acceptable?
For a Competitive Edge
Soring, also known as "fixing," is found in several gaited breeds, but the practice is most prevalent among Tennessee Walking Horse show horses. As the breed's name implies, the Tennessee Walking Horse has long been known for his distinctive running walk, a smooth and rapid four-beat gait prized by riders for its comfort and practicality. About 50 years ago, the running walk seen in the show ring underwent a striking transformation, from sweeping and ground-covering to high-stepping and showy.
How much soring contributed to the emergence of what became known as the "big lick" running walk is a matter of debate. To be sure, selective breeding has helped to shape the modern Tennessee Walking Horse's gaits. But most accounts suggest that soring grew out of the desire to find a quick and easy means of achieving the sort of animation that would win in the show ring.
Various techniques have been used over the years, but the most common method is fairly simple. A few drops of mustard oil, kerosene or another irritating substance are brushed on the horse's front pasterns, often along with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to increase the chemicals' absorption. Then the legs are covered with plastic wrap, bandaged and allowed to "cook" for a few days until they are tender to the touch.
Next, chains are placed around the horse's pasterns. Considered legal "action devices" in the industry, chains themselves are not harmful, but they rub against the already irritated skin and increase the horse's pain. In response, his gait becomes flashy: He picks up his sored feet more quickly and lifts them higher than normal, and he shifts some of his weight to his hind end to escape the pain up front.
Soring generally has been done at home rather than at the show grounds. In some circles, the techniques for mixing and applying solutions have been passed down through generations. Don Bell, who began training Tennessee Walkers 45 years ago, has seen this firsthand. For example, he says, if a horse wearing chains didn't lift his feet high enough, the soring mixture might be applied to the front of the pasterns. Or, if his gait broke too high without enough outward reach, the solution would be concentrated in the pocket of the pasterns.
"When a person sold a horse to another trainer, as a courtesy, they would give instructions on how they fixed that horse," Bell says. These techniques were common in Tennessee Walking Horse show barns in the 1960s, says Bell, who admits to soring horses himself for nearly three decades. "Everyone was doing it--it was unbelievable. Oil of mustard and croton oil were popular because they were easy to get. You could buy them in tack shops, sold in eyedropper containers. I could order oil of mustard in a pint bottle through my druggist."
But a sorer's task didn't end there, he says. Steps were also taken to hide the raw, bloody skin that often resulted from the practice. "People would use screwworm smear [called Globe Smear 62], which was tar-colored, to cover up the bleeding," he says. "It was common to see black pasterns, no matter what color the horse was."
Bell boots were also used to hide the results of soring, according to Pam Reband, who showed Walking Horses for 30 years through the late 1990s and has served as vice president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA). "In the showring, you'd have to turn one of the boots upside down to prove there were no tacks hitting the horse on the pastern," she says. "If the judge couldn't see blood [from where he was standing], your horse passed inspection. Even if there was blood, [the groom] would just kick some dirt on it to cover it up."
But just as often, it was impossible to hide a horse's pain, says Morgan Rhoads, a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer who wrote a 2002 expos? on soring called From the Horse's Mouth under the pen name Eugene Davis. "Some horses were in such pain from soring they would spend their time lying down until they were prodded to stand," says Rhoads. Reband adds that when she showed, "horses had to be whipped to rise, and it was not considered a horrible thing."
In the early 1960s outrage over soring helped to mobilize the equine welfare movement. In 1966 the American Horse Protection Association (AHPA) was founded to address two issues: the treatment of feral horses on public lands and the prevalence of soring. Three years later Sen. Joseph Tydings (D-Md.) introduced federal legislation addressing these issues, and in 1970 the Horse Protection Act (HPA) was passed by Congress.
The HPA prohibits the transport, sale or exhibition of sored horses. The law extends protection to all breeds, but the regulations put in place to implement it recognize that Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and other gaited breeds are most frequently subject to soring. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is charged with enforcing the act with a budget that cannot exceed $500,000 a year.
The regulations also established a designated qualified persons (DQP) program, allowing knowledgeable horsemen, such as veterinarians, farriers and trainers, to be certified to check horses for soring. Specifically, the USDA certifies Horse Industry Organizations (HIOs), and they in turn certify inspectors who check horses before they compete and reinspect the top finishers after each class.
The horse inspection process is outlined in regulations and the so-called operating plan, a voluntary contract between some horse industry organizations and the government that has been challenged and changed many times over the years by the show industry. Under the current plan, evaluations of show horses include these components:
- General appearance. The horse's condition and expression are assessed for signs of pain. Are his flanks tucked up or his nostrils flared? Does he breathe heavily even without exercise?
- Locomotion. The horse is walked on a loose rein, usually around a cone, away from and toward the inspector, who observes him for signs of pain.
- Physical examination. The inspector palpates the front legs from knee to hoof, paying close attention to the pastern and fetlock to detect a pain response, inflammation or scarring. The hooves, especially the heel bulbs, also are checked for tenderness. In addition, inspectors assess shoes, pads and action devices for compliance with Horse Protection regulations.
- Compliance with the scar rule. One of the most controversial issues regarding the inspection process is the rule that states that "bilateral pastern scars"--scars on both forelegs--can constitute a soring violation. Horsemen complain that the language specifying which scars are soring-related is confusing and difficult to interpret, in particular since some areas of "uniformly thickened epithelial [skin] tissue" are permitted on the lower legs. To help clarify the rules, the USDA released a 23-page document titled "Understanding the Scar Rule."
Although the majority of inspections are performed by industry inspectors (DQPs), USDA veterinary medical officers (VMOs) from APHIS attend a sampling of shows annually to monitor the process and ensure that the law is enforced.
An "Acceptable Level of Soreness"?
After 35 years, it's apparent that governmental intervention has helped to eliminate the most obvious evidence of soring, but it has failed to end the practice. Bell acknowledges that there appear to be improvements in the way show horses are treated, and that "pasterns are cleaner than they used to be," but he asserts that the practice of soring is still pervasive.
"The problem today is that trainers have become much more sophisticated in their methods of soring to avoid detection by the USDA inspectors," Bell says. He estimates that within certain Tennessee Walking Horse organizations as many as 80 to 90 percent of show horses are sored to some degree, but enforcement efforts focus on only the most flagrant violations. The end result, Bell says, has been the establishment of "an acceptable level of soreness."
Attorney Craig Evans, a member of TWHBEA's board of directors, refutes claims that soring is widespread today. People "respond to soring from a historical perspective," says Evans, who contends that only a small fraction of the show community still resorts to the practice. "Those who claim [high soring rates] may be well-intended people, but I'm incredulous that they would talk this way," he says. "Are they inspecting each and every horse? What kind of criteria are they using?... The HPA violation rate is 2 percent or less."
Horse welfare advocates counter that the violation rate does not reflect the actual incidence of soring because unscrupulous individuals manage to hide the obvious effects and evade enforcement. Methods of avoiding penalties, documented by individual observation and cited in government reports and publications such as the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, include:
- Skipping shows where government inspectors are present. Todd Behre, DVM, horse protection coordinator for USDA APHIS Animal Care, confirms that "when APHIS veterinarians show up, people leave [without showing]."
- Applying short-acting numbing agents to sored legs. Rhonda Hart Poe, editor of The Gaited Horse, says that topical anesthetics such as lidocaine and benzocaine are used to help sored horses pass inspection. DQP Martha Day has had firsthand experience with this practice. Two years ago, she told Poe's publication, "I inadvertently touched the corner of my mouth with my finger while performing an inspection, which caused [it] to go numb, indicating that a deadening spray had been applied to the horse's pasterns."
- Training horses not to flinch even when palpation causes pain. Reband says horses can be taught to stand still even when sore areas are touched: "Mine were schooled not to move [during inspections]," she says.
- Minimizing scars resulting from soring. A paste made from a mixture of salicylic acid and DMSO can help reduce calluses and scarring that result from repeated application of irritating chemicals. "Conditions are much improved in the way horses look," says Reband.
However, efforts to conceal soring are not always successful. In an article in The Gaited Horse, Day describes an inspection she conducted in 2003: "I found a horse so sore and sensitive to palpation that it reared on its hind legs and nearly flipped over backwards from the pain."
A Few Bad Apples?
Most Walking Horse industry officials acknowledge that these accounts are compelling, but insist that they simply spotlight isolated incidents and put forth a misleading picture of Tennessee Walking Horse shows today.
"Is the Horse Protection Act program successful? Does it meet its goals? Yes," says Evans. "Does it eliminate [soring]? I don't think anything can entirely. Has it dramatically changed things, based on what I've heard? There's no question."
If there is a problem with the system, says Evans, it is that improper inspection techniques lead to wrongful violations. Specifically, he says, inspectors may apply too much manual pressure, causing a skittish or anxious horse to react in a way that is identified as a pain response.
Misinterpretations of the scar rule and incorrectly conducted evaluations--particularly when government inspectors are present--have driven innocent competitors away from the show ring, says Evans, who is also a member of the board of directors of the National Horse Show Commission (NHSC), an HIO which "affiliates" a large number of Walking Horse shows each year.
"When people leave one show with [government veterinarians] to go to another one with different [government veterinarians], what does that tell you?" asks Evans.
Day, who as a DQP has evaluated numerous gaited show horses, dismisses these claims. Competitors who follow the rules have little risk of being wrongfully cited, regardless of who conducts the inspection, she insists. "The [inspection] procedure is clear. You could palpate all day long and put as much pressure as you want on the pastern, and a normal horse who has not been [sored] will not flinch," Day says. "If these people had nothing to hide, they wouldn't run."
Statistics have shown that the number of violations increases when government officials are in attendance. Behre says that in 2003 the violation rate at Tennessee Walking Horse shows was about 0.197 percent when APHIS veterinarians were not present, but with government veterinarians on hand, the rate was nearly 15 times as great, going to 2.92 percent.
Evans, however, calls such comparisons "meaningless. Unless you have the same [government veterinarians] and the same [inspectors] looking at the same animals, it's not significant." In fact, Evans says, the industry has taken the initiative in combating soring. Since 1999, he notes, operating plans have been drafted to standardize enforcement and penalties, as well as to facilitate conflict resolution between industry inspectors and government veterinarians.
At the same time, Evans continues, the NHSC is working to discourage soring by publicizing transgressions: With funding from TWHBEA, the organization is developing an online database of suspended exhibitors that will be accessible to all organizations.
A Matter of Conscience
What sometimes gets lost in the back-and-forth about regulatory remedies to soring is the emotional component of the issue. Some of the most powerful weapons against soring have little to do with the law or inspections.
After training big lick horses for 28 years, Bell says he was shamed into stopping in 1988 when his 13-year-old son expressed dismay upon first learning about soring. "I didn't think much about [soring] because I was raised in Tennessee and everyone was doing it," he says. "But when my son was old enough, I told him about it and he was so upset. I just couldn't do it anymore."
In the 1990s Bell helped found the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA), an HIO with a "zero tolerance" policy toward soring. As of this year, the NWHA no longer offers any classes for horses wearing pads or chains. Other HIOs, including Friends of Sound Horses and the Horse Protection Commission, have taken similar hard-line stances against soring.
Like Bell, Reband did not question the ethics of soring for many years. In the 1960s, she allowed some of her show horses to be sored, she says, and after the HPA was passed in 1970 she was devastated when her father ordered that she stop the practice. "I cried," she says. "I had been dreaming about winning at Celebration [the country's most prestigious Tennessee Walking Horse show], and I knew that sound, we wouldn't be able to do it."
Years later, as an adult, she permitted some of her show horses to be sored, but she had a change of heart in the 1990s when her children became old enough to compete. "I didn't want them involved in the [big lick] part of it," says Reband, who quit showing. "Here's something I loved that I had done my whole life, and I didn't want my children involved." This realization caused Reband to speak out against soring in the late 1990s. As a result, she says she was ostracized and even threatened by other Walking Horse owners and trainers. "I developed a conscience and I lost a lot of friends," she says.
Of course, this is the dynamic of any significant cultural change, as defenders of the status quo resist those who are ready to move on. As Day, who as a DQP has seen many sored horses, observes, "Soring is on its way out but it'll die a slow, ugly death."
Just how long that process will take depends on how many people are willing to challenge the morality of soring. In the end, it is the relatively small steps made by people like Bell and Reband that will yield the larger shifts in consciousness and conscience needed to accomplish what the law alone has been unable to do.
To learn more about certified Horse Industry Organizations contact:
Friends of Sound Horses
Heart of America Walking Horse Association, Call (417) 833-6588
Horse Protection Commission
Kentucky Walking Horse Association
Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breed Association, Inc.
National Horse Show Commission
National Walking Horse Association
Spotted Saddle Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association
Western International Walking Horse Association
This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of EQUUS magazine.