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One Step at a Time

HSUS program rewards those who handle walking horses the humane way

All Animals magazine, July/August 2014

by Sarah Kowalski

  • Tennessee walking horse Miss Anny is the star of the equine-assisted therapy program at Tuthill Farms Therapy Center. Courtesy of Sandra Tuthill

When two wild-eyed Tennessee walking horses arrived at an equine therapy center outside St. Louis last October, trainer Gary Lane immediately recognized the telltale signs of past abuse: anxiety, muscle tension, fear, inability to relax.

For Tennessee walking horses, that abuse likely took the form of soring—the intentional infliction of pain on a horse’s legs and hooves to exaggerate the breed’s high-stepping gait for competitions.

Lane worked with 10 owners throughout the two-day, sold-out training clinic, held by Friends of Sound Horses. Only after lessons in equine biomechanics and the importance of a horse’s emotional well-being did the owners begin riding, with the focus always on keeping the animals relaxed. Lane led riders through exercises that got their horses to swing their backs, lower their heads and release tension through their necks and jaws.

By the end, all 10 horses were showing improvement, but none so much as the two who’d once been abused. “You see a softening in their eyes,” says Lane, as well as relaxed jaws, slower foot movement and deeper breathing. “... They will give you their feet. They just relax.”

Thanks in part to a grant from The HSUS’s “Now, That’s a Walking Horse!” program, more will get the chance to do the same. The grant will allow Friends of Sound Horses to host another clinic with Lane this October to reach other owners who, as FOSH president Teresa Bippen says, want to learn “how to ride their horse in a healthy manner.”

The grant program, designed to encourage opportunities for the care and training of Tennessee walking horses outside the traditional show ring, is one facet of a larger campaign against soring. “We’re not against showing or riding horses, but we are against hurting them,” says Keith Dane, HSUS vice president of equine protection. “There are those who work with the horses in natural, respectful ways. We want to incentivize them.”

Another 2013 grant went to Sandra Tuthill, who has experienced just how beneficial Tennessee walking horses can be. When a back injury threatened to make Tuthill give up riding, a friend suggested she try a Tennessee walker. “Sure enough,” she says, “the way they carry the rider is so smooth and gliding that it kept me feeling like I could continue to ride.”

Tuthill was so impressed with the breed that she began incorporating them into her equine-assisted therapy program at Tuthill Farms Therapy Center in Michigan, where the HSUS grant is helping fund construction of an indoor arena. The program helps people suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and fear issues, and one particularly gentle mare has proven indispensable. Miss Anny’s smooth gait keeps riders balanced and calm, says Tuthill, and her “quiet demeanor just puts people at ease.”

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