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January 6, 2010

High Stepping Toward Stiffer Penalties for Soring

Keith Dane works to end equine abuses such as the widespread practice of “soring” Tennessee Walking and other gaited show horses

  • Chains and "stacks" are commonly used to intentionally inflict pain to horses' hooves, a practice known as soring. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • Keith Dane, Director of Equine Protection, has been working on legislation to criminalize the practice of soring. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

  • "Stacks" force horses to stand at an extreme, unnatural angle and can be used to train Tennessee Walking horses. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

Two strange bulky black objects sit on Keith Dane's desk at The HSUS. Shaped like horses' hooves and known simply as "stacks," the wedge-shaped devices (4" high in the back and 2" in the front) are made of hard plastic pads nailed together. A heavy horse shoe is affixed to the bottom.

These devices are nailed to the bottom of the hooves of Tennessee Walking horses destined for the professional show horse circuit.

The stacks force the horse to stand at an extreme, unnatural angle, causing pressure and pain in the horse's foot. They are part of a series of harmful devices and practices which are commonly used to train the top show horses in the breed.

As Director of Equine Protection for The HSUS, Dane is determined to see an end to the use of these practices, collectively known as "soring".

What is soring?

The name says it all: Soring involves the intentional infliction of pain to a horse's legs or hooves in order to force the horse to perform an artificial, exaggerated gait. Tennessee Walking horses are born with a smooth-flowing natural gait.

But the extreme, unnatural high-stepping they are famous for can only be achieved through soring techniques: the use of stacks, weights and even objects wedged between the horse's hoof and stack to make the horse pick up his feet in an attempt to relieve the pain and pressure; the use of caustic chemicals and chains which sensitize the horse's pasterns (ankles); and a cruel method of trimming the horse's hooves down to the quick known as "pressure shoeing", which puts excruciating pressure on the soles of the feet. Read more about soring. 

In top level walking horse competitions, horses who have not been sored stand little chance of winning, according to Dane. For example, the list of winning trainers at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration (the breed's premier showcase) regularly reads like a "who's who" of past soring violators.

And these shows are "all about winning and money," Dane adds. "Champion stallions bring $2,000 to $3,000 in stud fees and can sell for a million dollars."

Dane—who is an experienced gaited horse owner, competitor and licensed judge—estimates that in more than 500 gaited horse shows staged annually across the country, about two-thirds feature horses who have been sored.

Despite widespread use, soring is illegal

Though a 1970 federal law (the Horse Protection Act) prohibits the practice of soring, it persists because of a nod-and-wink attitude among industry trainers, owners, inspectors and judges. Inadequate funding for enforcement by federal inspectors exacerbates the problem. (Dane says USDA inspectors cover only about seven percent of walking horse competitions.)

Now Dane is focusing on state legislation, and he recently took a big step forward when he testified at a hearing of a key subcommittee of the Kentucky legislature to study soring as a prerequisite towards criminalizing the practice. Kentucky, which promotes itself as the "Horse Capital of the World", has the second highest soring violation rate in the nation (Tennessee has the highest).

Kentucky outlawed the practice of soring in the 1950s, but the penalty—a paltry $10 fine—hasn't deterred owners and trainers. The HSUS-proposed legislation Dane is working on would make the first offense a Class A misdemeanor (punishable by up to one year in jail) and a felony for subsequent violations.

The bill, introduced during the last legislative session, never made it out of committee. But the recent decision by Kentucky lawmakers to re-examine the issue keeps alive the possibility that criminal penalties will be strengthened enough to reform what Dane calls "The Cruelest Horse Show on Earth."

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