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Report concludes veterinarians should perform exams to detect soreness in Tennessee Walking Horses

The National Academies of Sciences report also recommends revising the scar rule.

WASHINGTON — To detect soreness in Tennessee walking horses, only veterinarians should administer inspections at shows, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends. Inspections should follow proper technique and employ sufficient observation of horse movement, palpation of limbs to detect local pain and inflammation, thermography, and swabbing to detect inflammation or prohibited substances. Physical exams should take into account current understanding of how horses experience and present pain.

The Tennessee walking horse is a breed that originated in Tennessee over 100 years ago. “The big lick,” an exaggerated gait unique to this breed, is presented and rewarded in some Tennessee walking horse shows. While some people train horses to produce “the big lick,” others resort to soring — applying chemical irritants such as kerosene or friction devices that make the horse’s forelegs sore — to encourage “big lick” movements. The 1970 Horse Protection Act made soring illegal, and authorized the inspection of horses by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at shows.

A Review of Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses says differences in training and experience account for the discrepancies between inspections done by APHIS veterinarians and designated qualified persons (DQPs), who are mostly non-veterinarians licensed by the horse industry organizations that host shows. The report recommends inspections only be administered by veterinarians. If budget constraints necessitate the use of third-party inspectors, they should be trained by APHIS, evaluated, and screened for conflicts of interest. The report also recommends specific information and methods that inspectors should learn in their training.

The decision to disqualify a horse from a show should also be driven by an experienced veterinarian, such as a veterinary medical officer. This decision should be made based on diagnosis of local pain where a horse is touched, but it should also include a thorough assessment of the horse’s gait, and other signs such as excessive restlessness, weight shifting, or pointing a front limb. The report also recommends that the “scar rule” — language included in the Horse Protection Regulations that requires horses to show no evidence of soring scars during inspections — should be revised and be based on what can be accurately assessed by a gross examination during an inspection, and proposes new language.

The report recommends that thermography be used during the inspection to help detect inflammation, and that swabbing to detect prohibited substances — such as topical pain relievers — be administered both randomly and to suspect horses. The report also recommends that serious consideration be given to blood testing, which is used in other types of horse competitions to detect medications that could alter the horse’s response to pain.

The physical exam is critical in detecting soring, and protocols for the exam should draw on current knowledge of how horses experience and present pain. Inspections should no longer require that the horse be repeatedly sore in a specific area to be disqualified, due to the physiological changes that occur after repeated stimulation of a painful area. Conducting the inspection in an area with as few distractions as possible will reduce the impact of environmental effects — such as noise, lights, or other animals and people — on the horse’s behavior, and make pain response clearer.

The study — undertaken by the Committee to Review Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses — was sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

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