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The Cruelest Horse Show on Earth

A record-setting number of violations reported at 71st Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration


Amid allegations of bribery and horse abuse, the 71st Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration recorded the greatest number of Horse Protection Act (HPA) violations of any show in recent memory—and perhaps ever.

Despite long-running industry claims that the cruel practice of soring has all but become a thing of the past, the number of violations of the HPA has actually been on the rise.

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About soring

“Soring” is the intentional infliction of pain to a horse's legs or hooves in order to force him to perform an artificial, exaggerated gait—the “Big Lick”.

Unethical trainers may use painful chemicals or pressure shoeing, which involves cutting the hooves painfully short or inserting a foreign object and nailing the shoe on. In a newer kind of pressure shoeing, trainers force a horse to stand on concrete with blocks of wood or other hard materials taped to the sensitive surface of her hoof until she is in so much pain that she can’t bear weight on her front feet.

Today, judges continue to reward this gait, thus encouraging participants to sore their horses and allowing the cruel practice to persist.

Congress passed the Horse Protection Act in 1970 to stop this intentional abuse and tasked USDA with the responsibility of monitoring horse shows to prevent the exhibition of "sore" horses. But even if a sore horse isn't detected as being “sore” the day of the show, his gaits have been created over a lifetime using painful, inhumane techniques.

In perhaps the most shocking development of this year’s show, after the placing of the prestigious World Grand Championship class, USDA officials inspected and cited all three of the horses who took home the top awards—for violations of the USDA “scar rule” regulation.

USDA officials released the final numbers from this year’s event: More than 400 violations were documented by industry inspectors and USDA officials during the 11-day Celebration—compared to a total of 187 for the entire 2008 show.

A “winning” tradition

In an oft-repeated theme at Walking Horse shows, this year exhibitors—and horses—who were previously cited for soring violations (even during inspections at this Celebration) returned later to win high honors.

There is no prohibition against a horse returning to compete in a later class at a show, after having been cited for a soring violation.

Several 2009 Celebration exhibitors had previously been suspended for Horse Protection Act violations or other allegations of cruelty.

  • The 2009 World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse is trained by former Trainer of the Year and past HPA violator Jimmy McConnell, and owned by William B. Johnson, who only recently settled a previous HPA case involving trainer Billy Gray.
  • Gray, himself a repeat HPA violator, won the 2-year-old championship to thunderous applause, having come off his own three-year federal HPA disqualification just days before. People in the jubilant crowd were overheard to say “It’s great to have Billy back”—although Gray’s Southern Comfort Farm continued to train and show horses during his suspension.
  • Trainer Dick Peebles—suspended for five years in 2007 by the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association for alleged abuse, was back in the Celebration ring after being quietly reinstated sometime in 2009 without public announcement or explanation.

Bribery charges

Walking horse industry participants will seemingly go to any lengths to tilt the scales in their favor.

Local newspapers reported that horse owner Clay Mills was immediately and indefinitely suspended for alleged bribery of an inspector licensed to prevent sored horses from being exhibited.

The inspection program overseeing the Celebration said it will hold a hearing and seek a five-year suspension and $25,000 fine against Mills, a past director of the breed’s registry.

Mills was not the only past or present industry official with his share of Celebration troubles, as horses owned or trained by several others were prohibited from competing due to HPA violations. Some training barns allegedly received dozens of tickets at this one event.

Inspection inconsistencies

USDA is charged with inspecting Tennessee Walking Horse events to document and prevent abuse. They also certify industry-run programs to self-regulate when USDA can’t be present. But despite the tough enforcement suggested by the high number of violations, there were disappointing lapses in inspection consistency at this year’s event.

  • Inspectors did not regularly watch for stewarding—a practice wherein a horse’s handler will frighten or hurt the animal to get him to stand still during inspection—even if his feet are in pain. Stewarding is a chronic problem: Three trainers were suspended for life earlier this year for applying a cruel device to a horse in their care during inspection.
  • USDA veterinarians did not appear to be inspecting all horses placing first through third, as was promised prior to the show.  The post-inspection holding area was not maintained according to federal regulations, which state that only the trainer, groom and exhibitor of a horse may be in the secure area.
  • The drug screening that was implemented by show management in 2008 to identify and eventually prohibit whatever harmful medications may be in use was not in place whatsoever in 2009, despite the finding of a variety of medications in a third of the 30 samples taken in 2008.

Catching the abusers

The USDA and industry inspectors detect soring by touching the ankles or 'pasterns' of horses to see if they find pressure painful. They also inspect for scars and other signs of inflammation.

Because the industry is increasingly using numbing and masking agents to hide the evidence of pain or scars on sored horses, the USDA has started using sophisticated detection technology, including chemical analysis using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry; heat detection using infrared thermography; and digital radiography.

The USDA only has funding to send inspectors to 7 percent of all Tennessee Walking Horse shows nationwide. It is clear that more funding is needed to fully enforce the federal Horse Protection Act—and end cruel horse soring once and for all.

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