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. Caustic chemicals—blistering agents like mustard oil, diesel fuel and kerosene—are applied to the horse's limbs, causing extreme pain and suffering.
A particularly egregious form of soring, known as pressure shoeing, involves cutting a horse's hoof almost to the quick and tightly nailing on a shoe or standing a horse for hours with the sensitive part of his soles on a block or other raised object. This causes excruciating pressure and pain whenever the horse puts weight on the hoof.
Soring has been a common and widespread practice in the Tennessee walking horse show industry for decades. Today, judges continue to reward the artificial "Big Lick" gait, thus encouraging participants to sore their horses and allowing the cruel practice to persist.
Which horse breeds suffer from soring?
Tennessee walking horses, known for their smooth gait and gentle disposition, commonly suffer from the practice of soring. Other gaited breeds, such as racking horses and spotted saddle horses, also fall victim.
The life of a sored horse is filled with fear and pain. While being sored, a horse can be left in his stall for days at a time, his legs covered in caustic chemicals and plastic wrap to "cook" the chemicals deep into his flesh. In training barns where soring takes place, it is common to see horses lying down in their stalls, moaning in pain.
Whenever the horses are ridden, in training or competition, trainers put chains around the horse's sored ankles. As the horse travels, the chains slide up and down, further irritating the areas already made painful by soring.
Instead of wearing regular horseshoes, the feet of Big Lick or "performance"-gaited show horses are fitted with tall, heavy stacks of pads to accentuate their gait. These "stacks" force the horses to stand at an unnatural angle, much like wearing high heel platform shoes all day, every day. Foreign objects are often inserted between the horse's hoof and these stacks, adding to the horse's suffering.
Performance horses aren't allowed to go outside to graze and play with other horses. Except when being trained or shown, these horses spend all of their time confined to stalls.
Hasn't soring been outlawed by Congress?
Yes. In the early 1970s, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act with the intent of banning this cruel practice. From the beginning, underfunding and political pressure from industry insiders have plagued the U.S. Department of Agriculture's enforcement of the HPA. Lack of adequate funding prevents the USDA from sending agency officials to every Tennessee walking horse and Racking Horse show. As a result, they have instituted a system that allows horse industry organizations (HIOs) to train and license their own inspectors, known as Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs) to examine horses at shows for signs of soring. With the exception of a few who are committed to ending soring, most HIOs are made up of industry insiders who have a clear stake in preserving the status quo.
Despite this and several state laws banning the practice, soring is still widespread in places like Tennessee, Kentucky and other states in the southeast.
How is soring detected?
Federal law requires all Tennessee walking horses and Racking Horses entered in exhibitions, shows, auctions or sales be inspected for soring prior to entering the ring. Any horse who receives first place in a show or exhibition must also be inspected after the winning class.
Typically, an inspector will manually examine or "palpate" the front legs of a horse to see if the horse reacts in pain and to look for other abnormalities. Horses born after October 1, 1975 are also subject to what is know as the "scar rule": Their legs should show no evidence of scarring that is indicative of soring, such as missing hair, scars or cuts. While inspectors have jurisdiction to inspect horses anywhere on the grounds of a show, exhibition, auction or sale (as well as in transport to these venues) intimidation, harassment and threats from industry participants have kept inspectors from examining horses outside of a designated inspection area, directly before entering the show ring. This system gives trainers ample opportunities to attempt to conceal soring before the horse is inspected.
In an effort to mask soring, some trainers will apply numbing agents to their horses' legs prior to inspection so the horse won't react. Others "steward" their horses at home, putting them through mock inspections wherein if the horse reacts to palpation, he is beaten with a whip, bat or other blunt instrument. The horse learns to be more fearful of the beating than the pain in his legs and learns to stand quietly. Other trainers will attach alligator clips and other pain-inducing objects to sensitive parts of the horse prior to inspection, causing him to focus on the new source of pain rather than his legs and feet.
In addition to extreme suffering from being sored and shown, many Tennessee walking horses die at a young age from colic, believed to be caused by the extreme stress placed on them in training and by exposure to the toxic chemicals used for soring.
What is the HSUS doing to end soring?
Working on a national level
The Humane Society of the United States is actively working to end soring by encouraging Congress to pass the PAST Act. We are also strongly urging the USDA to step up its enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, encouraging Congress to provide more funding for the HPA, offering rewards to bring horse abusers to justice and supporting breed and industry organizations that promote the natural gait and humane treatment of Tennessee walking horses.
Reaching out to law enforcement
As part of a larger effort to educate and assist law-enforcement agencies regarding animal cruelty, the HSUS has sent county sheriffs in Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky resources such as posters [PDF] advertising rewards for tips on soring and details about how our Animal Rescue Team can help law enforcement agencies care for animals who are at risk during natural disasters.
A recent HSUS undercover investigation led to the arrest and indictment of renowned trainer Jackie McConnell on 52 counts of violating the law—including felony violations of the Horse Protection Act. The undercover video that documented the abuses aired on ABC’s "Nightline" and excerpts from the video aired on CNN's "Headline News."