One horse lies down in his stall, moaning and in too much pain to stand. Another lifts his hooves in the air in distress, trying to step out of a pain that won’t go away.
These scenes of suffering at ThorSport Farm, a training barn in Murfreesboro, Tenn., belonging to NASCAR truck team owner Duke Thorson, are the result of trainers regularly applying caustic chemicals to horses’ lower legs, an HSUS investigation found.
This practice, known as “soring,” is the intentional infliction of pain to Tennessee walking horses and related breeds. In addition to using chemicals, trainers use chains, heavy platform shoes called stacks and more, in order to get the horses to perform a high-stepping gait called the “Big Lick” that wins at shows.
This is the second HSUS undercover investigation in less than five years to expose a prominent industry figure at the center of rampant horse abuse, highlighting the need for legislators to take action and pass the federal Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act.
In 2011, the HSUS uncovered Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell soring horses. The industry argued that McConnell was “one bad apple” in a business that it claimed had nearly eradicated soring, but the new investigation confirms that this is not true. Thorson himself is on the board of directors of the Performance Show Horse Association and the Tennessee Walking Show Horse Organization, groups that claim to be putting an end to the practice, says Keith Dane, HSUS vice president of equine protection.
“It really speaks to the lack of credibility this industry has,” he says.
For several months, an HSUS investigator witnessed trainers and grooms applying the chemicals to more than 20 horses housed at the farm. Additionally, Thorson’s adult daughter, Allison, who keeps her show horses at the barn, knew it was going on—she was present while horses were being sored.
“Anybody who cares about horses and their welfare should find this to be a vile practice and should want it to end,” Dane says.
Thorson and his family have already been cited for multiple violations of the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970, which aimed to end soring. Due to loopholes and the failed system of industry self-policing, the practice has continued.
The HPA addresses soring only when horses are being publicly shown, sold or transported. The PAST Act would ban soring a horse anywhere for the purpose of sales or shows, including training barns, where most of the abuse occurs, says Dane.
"Right now, these abusers think they can sore a horse all day long in the barn, and get away with it,” Dane says.
Another shortfall of the HPA is the self-policing system that allows inspectors licensed by the same organizations that run the shows to check for soring. This conflict of interest means the welfare of horses doesn’t come first. The PAST Act would implement a new system that relies on independent, third-party inspectors who are accountable to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, the Act would also make it a felony to sore a horse and ban all devices, including heavy stacked shoes and chains, known to be associated with the abuse.