cover_story (2006-45)

NOT SUCH A CELEBRATION: Shelbyville’s Calsonic Arena, site of the annual TWH National Celebration.

CHAIN REACTION: Applying chains to a horse’s sored pasterns (below) results in the horse shifting its weight to the hind legs to compensate for the pain (above).

Despite the late-August humidity, there was a chill in the air at this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, held annually in Shelbyville. But some in attendance at the competition, which drew 4,981 entries and 230,246 paying spectators, say its edgy atmosphere was a long time in the making, as tensions had been building for months beforehand. “It was a nightmare waiting to happen,” says a local Walking Horse owner who witnessed the drama firsthand, “and it did.”

In the barns, rumors raged that the show’s USDA inspectors were being particularly stringent, disqualifying horses for reasons the owners and trainers considered arbitrary, unfair, even fabricated. With 20 World Championship titles and $650,000 in prize money on the line, competitors who’d traveled to Shelbyville from across the country and beyond were being turned away just moments before entering the ring, and they weren’t happy about it.

Some residents and business owners in the Shelbyville community, a prime beneficiary of the show’s regional $38 million economic impact (as calculated by Murfreesboro marketing consultant Sport Insight Group), seemed equally distraught. In response to the USDA’s unwanted presence, a billboard at the local Huddle House diner read, “We need less government.”

From the federal inspectors’ perspective, they were just doing their job, examining the horses’ legs for evidence of “soring,” or “fixing” as it is referred to by insiders. According to federal definition, soring is the abusive practice of accentuating a horse’s natural gait though the infliction of pain. The methods by which this may be accomplished vary: caustic substances may be applied, externally or internally, to the leg; tacks, nails, screws or chemical agents may be injected into the leg; or the leg may be cut, burned or lacerated, among other tactics. Violators are subject to up to two years in prison and $5,000 in fines and may be banned from the show ring for one or more years.

Three days into the show, on the heels of around 30 violations and disqualifications, tempers were flaring. On the evening of Friday, Aug. 25, a shouting match broke out between federal inspectors and competitors after six of the 10 horses they’d just examined were disqualified before their class. The Tennessean reported that “the dispute turned so ugly and loud that the Tennessee Highway Patrol called in state and local reinforcements to create a wall of about 20 law officers to keep an angry crowd of Walking Horse enthusiasts from the federal regulators.” When the clash let up, the show was shut down, to resume the following night.

In the week that followed, some competitors packed up and left early, while others grew increasingly frustrated with the frequency of disqualifications and, resultantly, sparsely attended classes. According to the USDA, by the end of the show, there were 50 violations for soring one leg, 21 violations for soring both legs, 153 violations for scars indicating to inspectors that soring had been employed in the past, 19 foreign-substance violations, and seven equipment violations—250 violations in all, a 30 percent increase from last year’s violation total of 191. In other words, three out of every 10 horses that might have passed inspection last year were disqualified this year.

The situation came to a head on the final evening when, for the first time in the Celebration’s 68-year history, no World Grand Champion was named. Seven of the 10 horses set to vie for the title were disqualified before the class by inspectors, an announcement that evoked a surge of boos from the 26,103-person crowd that had gathered to watch the event.

The details of what happened next are unclear: Area newspapers reported that the remaining three trainers declined to compete, in support of the USDA’s decisions. In later interviews, however, the trainers said they were ready to go into the ring when the show’s management canceled the class, allegedly concerned that the already-fractious crowd might get out of hand. Then, to thicken the plot, it was disclosed that Mike Walden, the owner of one of the disqualified horses, favored to win the class, offered the three trainers with approved horses $10,000 each not to compete. (Walden was subsequently suspended from participating in the celebration for two years, and the three trainers were awarded $15,000 each—the equivalent of the class’s purse—by the Celebration.)

Celebration PR Director Chip Walters, who was manning the PA that night, seems hesitant to go into detail. “Technically, the show made the call to not have the class, because the best information we had at the time was that the three eligible entries weren’t going to show. So we felt there was no class to call,” he explains, adding, “It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.”

The crowd’s reaction to what was happening, on the other hand, was crystal-clear. At Walter’s announcement that, “The [trainers] that were left decided they weren’t coming tonight,” the booing ceased, giving way to a standing ovation. As police escorted show personnel out of Calsonic Arena, the organist launched into the show’s traditional, if somewhat ironic, closing number, “Just the Way You Are.” And with that, the show was over.

The showdown, however, had only just begun.

To understand the phenomenon of soring, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the breed itself. Designated the official state horse of Tennessee, the Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) has long been considered an emblem of the state’s identity. Even the UT Athletic Department allows it to step foot on precious Neyland Stadium turf each year for homecoming (unless it’s raining, which—perhaps conveniently—it was during this season’s UT/Vanderbilt match). Athletic Event Manager Bill Higdon notes, “[TWHs] used to be at every game through the ’60s.” 

The breed was developed in the Southeastern United States, mainly in Tennessee, by crossbreeding smooth-moving horses such as Morgans, Narragansett Pacers, Standardbreds and Saddlebreds. The breed was intended as a suitable mount for plantation owners, who spent long hours in the saddle each day riding over their land and overseeing field workers. It had to be a horse that moved comfortably and efficiently, so that neither horse nor rider would get tired, hence the anecdote that you can ride a TWH with a glass of champagne in hand and never spill a drop.

As the breed became more popular, it wasn’t uncommon for plantation owners to stage match races between their TWHs, a competitive pastime that eventually bled into the show ring. Increasingly, the horses were bred for their flashy gaits: the flat walk, running walk, and canter. They were trained for years with progressively heavier, taller shoes to produce the highly animated “Big Lick” gait that drew crowds and was favored by judges. In this movement, the horse snaps its knees up to its chest, head held high, while the weight-bearing hind legs reach far beneath the horse to compensate. The combined effect gives the appearance that the horse is half-sitting while it glides around the ring, tail flagged and skimming the ground, rider dressed to the nines in coattails and a fedora.

In the early 1950s, trainers began experimenting for faster, easier ways to achieve the same end result. It was discovered that applying caustic substances—mustard oil, diesel fuel, kerosene, etc.—to the horses’ front legs caused them to snap their knees up higher, especially when combined with circular chains (“action devices”) wrapped around the pasterns (comparable to a person’s ankles). Logically, the practice makes sense: The horse, subjected to pain whenever its front feet hit the ground, shifts its weight backwards and keeps its front legs in the air for as long as possible.

Dr. Steve Adair, associate professor of equine surgery at UT’s School of Veterinary Medicine, explains that “soring” is merely the headline under which any number of pain- or discomfort-inducing practices may fall. “The reason it’s called soring is it usually involves some induction of pain,” he says. “That pain may be due to chemical irritation or pressure, under the shoes or between the shoes and the hoof.” He notes that the UT Vet School does not condone the practice.

Today, the methods by which soring is accomplished are limited only by trainers’ creativity, and ruthlessness. One might mix mustard oil with Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO, to help the chemicals absorb through the skin), wrap the leg with plastic wrap covered by leg wraps, and let the leg “cook” overnight. Another might overtrim the horse’s hoof down to the sensitive laminae, or create an acute pressure point by adding a welded bead of metal to the underside of the horse’s shoe.

By the 1960s, the practice of soring had become widespread. A public outcry condemning its grotesque consequences—horses’ legs could actually be seen bleeding in the show ring—prompted the government to step in. Congress passed the Horse Protection Act, which specifically outlawed soring, in 1970. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was granted a budget of $500,000 per year to enforce the act by performing inspections at competitions, showing up unannounced and examining the horses’ legs for signs of soring.

Despite the government crackdown, the practice of soring persists. “Sorers” have merely become stealthier, perpetually devising new and increasingly complicated ways to sore their horses without getting caught. The crude irritants that left the TWHs of yesteryear with open sores and scars have been replaced by more potent chemicals, which work beneath the skin’s surface to produce the sought-after painful effect. Inhumane shoeing tactics are also difficult to detect unless the shoe is removed completely, an impracticality for a horse that is just moments away from entering the show ring.

Some trainers have even resorted to employing others, including children, to do the dirty work for them. John Anderson, a Bell Buckle schoolteacher, was alarmed when he recently heard two minors talking about being hired to chemically sore horses for competition.

One said that a particular caustic soring agent was being made and sold in Bedford County. The minor described the experience of being driven out to a house in the country with a TWH trainer and being told to stay in the car while the trainer went into the house to purchase the chemicals. The minor described the chemical’s “harshness,” explaining how it burns the nose just to smell it, and the sensation of it burning skin, an experience the minor had clearly encountered. Which is particularly disturbing considering the fact that many of the chemicals used are highly toxic and corrosive carcinogens, some of which are capable of causing second-degree burns on contact and severe health problems—convulsion, gastrointestinal changes, rapid heartbeat, and fertility problems, among others—upon inhalation or ingestion.

On Sept. 15, Anderson outlined his ensuing conversation with the minors in a letter to the Bedford County School Superintendent, various government organizations including the USDA, FBI, TBI and Sheriff’s Department, and to the chairman of the TWH Celebration. He has since received no response.

“That concerns me because it appears we have children, minors, being trained and employed to commit a federal crime, a very distasteful one that is contributing to the torturing of animals,” he says. “I’m not surprised I haven’t gotten any response, because there’s so much money invested in the industry, and so much of that money winds up being fed into the government one way or another. I suppose it’s accepted now as common knowledge that within the industry there is some bribery and corruption.”

The USDA, at least, appears to be doing what it can to address the abuse—a task that isn’t always as straightforward as it sounds. USDA spokesman Darby Holladay says that when the USDA’s white van pulls up to a TWH show grounds, there’s a decent chance the whole show may be canceled or postponed. For instance, the USDA’s April 2006 Show Report discloses that two USDA-monitored shows on the same weekend, one in Kentucky and one in Tennessee, were postponed on account of rain when the USDA arrived, even though the vets present noted that it was not raining. Both were rescheduled for a later date when the USDA would not be present.

“That occurs quite often,” Holladay says. He explains that when the show does go on, individual competitors are prone to withdrawing. “Our assumption is that their horses have been sored, but we cannot prevent them from pulling out. That’s their own personal choice.” But it also makes determining the frequency with which soring occurs more difficult.

During an inspection, which takes place immediately before the horse enters the ring (inspectors are prohibited from entering the barn area), USDA inspectors evaluate the horses’ movement, observe the horses’ appearance during the inspection, and perform a physical examination of the horse’s forelegs from the knee to the hoof. Signs of chemical soring include abnormal tissue damage, swelling, pain, abrasions or oozing of blood and serum.

One of the most controversial and most frequently violated aspects of the Horse Protection Act is what’s known as the Scar Rule. “One way to detect soring is the appearance of permanent scars in the pastern area,” Holladay explains. Such scars are symmetrical and bilateral, or occurring on both the inside and the outside of the pasterns, indicating that the skin has repeatedly been rubbed raw from chains. In an attempt to erase the scars, some sore-horse trainers attempt to “burn off” the scarred skin with salicylic acid, a procedure that may be more painful than the procedure itself.

But some argue that the scar rule, while useful in some respects, is too rigid to be fair. Cookeville TWH owner/trainer Stephanie Slagle brings up the 14-year-old stallion she bought two years ago as an example. She says he already had scars on his pasterns when she bought him, but her excuse didn’t fly at a horse show earlier this year, when an inspector issued her a Scar Rule violation and deemed the horse ineligible to compete. “We can’t claim the horse was injured in the field because we don’t know! We’ve only had him for two years,” she says, exasperated. “They’re killing the older horses’ chances at being show horses.”

Slagle also takes issue with the inconsistency with which she feels USDA inspectors perform their examinations. At the show she attended earlier this year, she got the impression that her horse was being singled out and placed under greater scrutiny than the other horses. “He was clean as a newborn colt going into this class, and we watched the vets send people through without really pressing or pushing the issue, and then our horse shows up. If you mash on any horse’s foot hard enough, they’ll jerk away.”

The experience made Slagle wary of entering other competitions, especially higher-profile shows where she knew the USDA would be present. When it came time for this year’s TWH Celebration, for instance, Slagle says she “saw the writing on the wall” and passed on competing in the show for the first time in more than a decade. Between the time investment and the thousands of dollars Celebration competitors drop on entry fees and their own accommodations, the possibility that her horse would be disqualified before he even stepped foot in the ring was a risk she couldn’t take.

Slagle acknowledges that, “If this many people are soring the horses, something needs to be changed,” but as it stands, she believes well-intentioned horse owners like herself are paying the price for other trainers’ abuses. After all, she says, TWH horses aren’t the only breed with a little “dirt under the rug”—pointing out, for example, the practice of putting broken-legged thoroughbred racehorses down rather than trying to rehabilitate them.

“It feels like a witch-hunt,” she explains. “The whole industry is being blackballed for this. Even people who know us are like, ‘You have Tennessee Walking Horses? Do you do those things to your horses?’ No one is seeing how well these horses are being treated. It’s a good industry with good people, and there may be a few out there who are abusing their horses, but the people we know treat their horses like children.”

Slagle says she doesn’t know what the solution is, but that addressing the issue of inconsistency would be a good start. “If we don’t know what the rules are, how do we know what rules to follow?” she asks.

But the inconsistency may not lie so much in what the rules are as who is enforcing them. Because the USDA is only able to attend about 10 percent of the TWH shows that take place, it trains other horse industry professionals—veterinarians, farriers, trainers, etc.— to be Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs), certified to perform inspections at shows. Each DQP in turn belongs to a certain Horse Inspection Organization (HIO). The DQPs may be less strict than the USDA inspectors, letting violations slide that would otherwise warrant penalty. Therefore, from a competitor’s standpoint, it would appear that the standards for what is and is not permitted fluctuate from show to show.

The USDA’s Holladay maintains that the bar is a set one, and that USDA inspectors hold competitors to it at the shows they attend. “Contrary to trainers’ allegations that it’s not consistent, it’s the same (five) vets conducting the inspections throughout the year. It’s the USDA’s attempt to keep regulations consistent,” he says.

But Jerrold Pedigo, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association (TWHBEA), says his organization is confident that inconsistencies within the inspection process are at fault, and that the development of one uniform inspection procedure will erase any confusion about what does and does not constitute soring.

“We have developed a plan called the Sanctioning Plan that is a mechanism by which all industry organizations that offer inspections (HIOs) would work under one rulebook, to certain standards each and every time at each and every venue,” he explains. “We are the breed registry, and we want to have consistent rules across the entire industry.” Considering the ongoing effort some trainers put into inventing means of avoiding detection, though, the consistent set of rules and procedures Pedigo suggests seems likely to become outdated as soon as it is produced.

When questioned about TWHBEA’s stance on soring itself, Pedigo responds, “We are always concerned about anything that negatively impacts the breed,” adding that he doesn’t think the practice is as rampant as it’s made out to be. “If you’re looking at the entire data, less than 10 percent [of all TWH in at given competition, not just the “Big Lick” horses] are out of compliance. And some of those would just be technical violations, meaning something minor is wrong, not something that would really lead to or be in the realm of soring. We have industry rules that are not necessarily in the Horse Protection Act.”

Those include mandates on the horse’s “package,” or a platform of pads affixed to the horse’s hoof that may be up to five inches in height; the weight of the ankle chains; and the length of the bits’ shanks. Other tactics, such as the severing of tendons in the tail (also known as “breaking the tail”) and using bandages to fold the tail up into an arc or, alternately, setting it with a crupper, are unregulated.

Keith Dane, executive director of the nationwide organization Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH), points out that such practices are inhumane in their own right. He likens the use of packages, which are not removed when the horse is not being ridden, “to standing on high heels all the time,” while placing unnatural stress on the horses’ hind legs and spine. Unfortunately, he notes, there have been no studies on the long-term physical effects of employing such tactics. “Walking Horses were bred to be a very hardy horse, but its strength is also one of its downfalls,” he says. “Mentally and physically, the horse can take a lot of misuse and abuse.”

Dane places some blame on insufficient government funding for perpetuation of the soring practice. A limited budget means the USDA has to pick and choose which shows its attends, and the bar slides when the USDA isn’t around to enforce it. “The average rate of violation is sometimes around 10 times higher when the USDA is present than when it isn’t present. What this says to us is that when the USDA isn’t present, a lot of horses are getting through that shouldn’t be.”

The government’s allocation of $500,000 per year to enforce the Horse Protection Act hasn’t changed since it was passed in 1970, even though the TWH is the second-fastest growing breed in the nation, with more than 430,000 registered TWHs throughout the world. “What they could do with $500,000 36 years ago they can do a lot less with now,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of things competing for their limited budget.”

One of them is the development of new technologies that can detect even well-masked soring. These include chemical “sniffers,” similar to what is used in airports to detect explosives; digital thermography, used to detect abnormal heat patterns in the leg; gas chromatography, a method of isolating and analyzing volatile chemical constituents; and pressure-sensing algometers, which could put an end to complaints that the pressure inspectors apply to legs to check for soreness is inconsistent.

Exploring and adopting such technologies takes money, says Dane, but there may be good news on the horizon. In September, an anti-slaughter amendment to the Horse Protection Act, designed to stop the sale or transport of horses to foreign-owned slaughterhouses for overseas consumption, sailed through the House and is currently sitting before Congress. If the bill passes, the Horse Protection Act’s annual funding allotment would be raised tenfold, to $5 million per year. “Raising the funding cap would allow the USDA to get to more shows,” Dane explains. It would also allow USDA inspectors to examine any horse at a show, even if it’s not competing, targeting trainers who withdraw presumably sored horses when the government inspectors show up. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has been especially vocal in his support of the bill. 

Some TWH owners, trainers and vets, however, are pushing for a different approach. They’ve formed an organization called the National Horse Protection Agency with the aim of reexamining and revising the definition of soring.

“I believe the title (National Horse Protection Society) is a misnomer,” Dane says. “That group has drafted a set of language to amend the Horse Protection Act that would basically weaken the act, making it more of an Owner/Trainer Act than a Horse Protection Act. The changes aren’t for the good of the horse. Whole classes of violations that are currently illegal would become legal.”

At press time, the Agency’s attorney, Tom Blankenship, was out of town and unavailable to comment.

Between the red tape and the horror stories, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. “Performance,” the division under which the majority of soring occurs, is only one of many disciplines in which TWHs compete, often happily and successfully. Not all TWH owners strive to achieve the “big lick” gait; many of their horses are flat-shod and admired for their natural movement, unhindered by artificial means.

One of the nation’s finest examples of the breed’s versatility happens to live nearby, in Lenoir City. The 12-year-old chocolate-brown gelding’s show name is Bold Aggression, or Bo, and he’s got a trophy room’s worth of accomplishments under his belt: international and national TWH grand championships in a variety of disciplines, including overall versatility, barrel-racing, trail obstacle, pleasure, model, stock-seat equitation, and dressage. “He started out as just a trail horse, but he was very talented and very smart, and I caught the bug to show him and it just evolved from there,” explains owner Cindy Anderson. She applauds TWHBEA’s versatility program, which spotlights the TWH’s potential to participate in a variety of events.

Bo’s latest endeavor? Jumping.  Anderson, declaring herself too set in her Western-riding ways to teach him to jump, handed the responsibility to local three-day event rider/instructor Erika Adams earlier this year. By autumn, Bo had been named 2006 National Grand Champion Over Fences by the National Walking Horse Association, one of several alternative TWH breed organizations that openly and adamantly oppose the practice of soring.

“He absolutely loves jumping,” Adams says. “He’s figuring out his job, and he trusts me. He’s such a willing guy.”

Bo has even won a blue ribbon or two competing against non-Walking Horses at local hunter/jumper shows. “Go walking horses!” Anderson says. “No matter what we ask of him, he gives 120 bazillion percent.”

Anderson says that while she’s aware of the soring that goes on in the TWH industry, she hopes the USDA’s crackdown at this year’s Celebration will serve as a wake-up call to owners and trainers, reminding them that there are other, humane ways to achieve the same result. Blue ribbons don’t necessarily have to come at the expense of abuse. “It think people are trying to get away from that,” she says. “I think they’re becoming more enlightened as to how to get the gait without cheating or fixing the horse. The trainers are remembering that they actually have to train the horses. They can’t just use gimmicks.”