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Humane Approach Pays Off for Equestrian Champion

Naturally-trained Tennessee Walking Horse stands out in an industry with a history of soring cruelty

  • Elissa and Blue share a special bond that is evident both in and out of the arena. Elissa Dauberman

  • Blue's natural talent, athleticism and personality shine during competition. Castle Photography

  • Elissa and Blue have won 28 national competitions and will exhibit at the World Equestrian Games in September. Elissa Dauberman

By Julie Hauserman

On a hilly farm in central Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old girl and a two-year-old Tennessee Walking Horse formed what can only be described as a mystical bond. They spent hours riding through pasture and woods, and she trained him without using a saddle, crop or a bit in his mouth. The two learned to communicate with body language and intention, and over time, they developed a remarkably fluid grace together.

Today, that girl—Elissa Dauberman, now 26—and that horse—Craving Blue, now 13—have won 28 national equestrian championships. In September, they will represent the Tennessee Walking Horse at the world's most prestigious horse riding competition: the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The games will attract 600,000 spectators, and the competition will be broadcast live on NBC.

What is remarkable about Dauberman and Blue is not only their high level of skill and achievement in the equine world, but also the example they are setting for more humane treatment of horses in general—and Tennessee Walking horses in particular.

Cruel Intentions

Tennessee Walking Horses are famous for their running walk, which is a four-beat gait that can reach speeds of up to 12mph, during which the rider sits absolutely still in the saddle without bouncing. But the sad truth is that the high-stepping stride exhibited in the top levels of Walking horse competition too often comes at a horrible cost.

The culprit is "soring," a cruel practice that involves intentionally inflicting pain to a horse's legs to enhance its gait. Commonly used techniques include applying caustic chemicals to the horse's ankles to cause irritation, or "pressure shoeing"—cutting the horse's hoof almost to the quick and tightly nailing on a shoe. Soring is illegal under federal law, but inspections reveal that this cruelty is still routinely practiced by some Tennessee Walking Horse owners and trainers.

In 2006, the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn. failed to name a World Grand Champion because most of the finalists were disqualified for violations of the federal Horse Protection Act. In 2009, a record number of violations were cited at the event.

"This deliberate infliction of pain upon these noble, stoic horses is animal cruelty—no less so than dogfighting or cockfighting," said Keith Dane, Director of Equine Protection at The Humane Society of the United States.

Understanding the Language

When she trained Blue in Pennsylvania, Dauberman had never heard about the cruelty that many other Walking Horses suffered. She simply followed her instincts.

"Blue was the first horse I trained from the beginning. He had never been ridden," Dauberman said. "We taught each other."

Dauberman followed the principles of natural horsemanship, which is based on the idea that the best way to work with horses is to use body language they can understand.

"A lot of people don't understand the language of the horse," Dauberman says. "It is definitely a deeper level of communication. When you understand the language, the horse is going to listen because it chooses to listen. It becomes a natural thing."

A Natural Talent

"What sets Blue apart from other Tennessee Walkers is he's 100 percent natural," she says. "His talent, athleticism and personality really shine."

Dauberman follows a natural care regime for Blue, using products from one of her sponsors, Zephyr's Garden.

"I do a lot of things that others don't do to keep him comfortable. He gets bi-weekly full body massages, daily supplements and magnetic therapy. He gets the spoiled horse treatment and he definitely deserves it."

"His care routine includes daily turnout into the pasture with his brothers. He is allowed to be a real horse, rather than being cooped up in a stall all day like most show horses. He is barefoot, which is virtually unheard of in the heavy-shod Walking Horse industry."

Changing the Industry Standard

Dauberman is active in the Alliance to End Soring, a group formed in 2008 to work with the USDA, Congress, and Tennessee Walking Horse industry stakeholders to advocate for increased enforcement of the Horse Protection Act and to raise public awareness of the pervasive use of soring. Founding Alliance members include The Humane Society of the United States, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute, the American Horse Defense Fund, Friends of Sound Horses and the Horse Protection Commission.

"The anti-soring initiative is getting a lot of notice," Dauberman said. "I think we're starting to change things."

In Pennsylvania, Dauberman is busy preparing for her worldwide performance at the World Equestrian Games.

"We do a bareback, bridle-less jumping routine in an open field," she says. "Everybody has their talents. I feel I was born to do this. A great horse can teach you everything you need to know about life. All you have to do is listen."

Check out Blue's fan page on Facebook and follow his blog to get updates on the road to the World Games!

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