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April 12, 2013

A Sore Subject: The Tennessee Walking Horse Industry

Under a cloud of abuse, the Celebration continues

A horse and rider at a Tennessee Walking Horse event

The HSUS

By Keith Dane

There wasn't much to celebrate when the 2007 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration drew to a close. To the contrary, the crowning of another World Grand Champion turned out to be just another missed opportunity to clean up this industry.

The high-stepping stride of the Tennessee Walker has long entertained equestrians in the South. But the gait of these splendid animals too often comes at a cost, when they are intentionally made to suffer for the sake of the spectacle—their distinctive ambling walk exaggerated by inflicting pain on their feet.

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A Tradition of Violations

In 2006, the breed's National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn. was shut down. To the mortification of organizers and spectators, most of the finalists were disqualified for violations of the federal Horse Protection Act.

This year was supposed to be different: Management and horse owners were supposed to show the world they could restore credibility to this industry. In advance, they sought advice from The Humane Society of the United States, among others. Come the competition, the Tennessee Walking horse would be shown with assurances that the animals were treated humanely.

Sadly, it didn't turn out that way.

It is a big step for an ingrained culture to re-make itself, particularly a proud old culture that has grown up around these wonderful horses. That's what organizers promised this time around. But when the crowd gathered, there were no bold steps forward. Rather than restore the reputation of these horses and this event by letting the world see exactly what was happening, management chose to throw up barriers to scrutiny. In so doing, they completely failed to dispel clouds of suspicion that have darkened this event for too long.

Soring's the Culprit

The culprit in the Tennessee Walking Horse story is the inhumane practice of "soring." This is the intentional infliction of pain to the legs of a horse in order to enhance its gait. It can be accomplished by applying caustic chemicals on the horse's ankles, or by pressure shoeing—cutting the horse's hoof so short that it is painful to bear weight on it.

But Americans have no tolerance for endeavors that inflict suffering on animals, certainly not for the sake of entertainment. We need only to look at the outrage generated by the recent headlines over dogfighting for evidence of this.

Faulty Inspections

You see, at those times when the U.S. Department of Agriculture can spare an inspector to attend a Walking Horse competition, violations can be 10 times as numerous as when the industry regulates itself. In 2006, with USDA on hand to oversee industry inspectors, the entire event unraveled.

Stop soring now »

This year, with inspectors hired by show management conducting the examinations, HSUS observers watched horses react in pain upon inspection and still be allowed to compete. Handlers held horses during inspections in a manner prohibited under federal regulation. Numerous other regulations were repeatedly violated. Despite a promise to limit the number of handlers in the warm-up area, as many as seven people tended to a single horse as the competition neared an end.

As a safeguard against illegal activity, the show had promised random inspections of the barn area during the show. Instead, inspectors simply rode around the barn on a golf cart for several hours each night.

This kind of enforcement sleight-of-hand just won't do. In order to restore its credibility, the Celebration needed to ensure that horses were not abused for entertainment and profit. They failed to deliver, leaving 2007 to be remembered as just another year that the Tennessee Walking Horse industry celebrated business-as-usual.

Keith Dane is the director of Equine Protection at The Humane Society of the United States.

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