In a report issued recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of Inspector General recommended that veterinarians replace current inspectors for the purpose of examining show horses for evidence of soring, an illegal practice in violation of the Horse Protection Act.
The USDA’s Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service (APHIS) program is responsible for evaluating the horses, but their budget is grossly inadequate, allowing them to send veterinarians to only a very small percentage of horse shows each year.
Conflicts of interest are also a problem.
In order to bridge the APHIS inspection gap, horse show sponsors hire their own inspectors, known as Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs). Since the DQPs are employed by the people putting on the shows, and are often exhibitors themselves, they are not highly motivated to ticket other exhibitors or remove horses from shows.
Penalizing exhibitors with sored horses can result in retribution if those exhibitors work as DQPs at other shows. Pulling sored horses from shows affects the bottom line, which is not something the organizers are in favor of.
As a result, DQPs issue few violations when not accompanied by an APHIS employee.
Another problem is the overt hostility of exhibitors toward APHIS workers at horse shows. The USDA audit revealed cases of inspectors denied access to horses requiring examination, and instances of verbal abuse of inspectors. The hostile environment has led APHIS to bring armed security or police with them to shows.
The USDA’s report states, “Many in the horse show industry do not regard the abuse of horses as a serious problem, and resent USDA inspections. The practice of soring has been ingrained as an acceptable practice in the industry for decades.”
In its response to the report, APHIS states that it will seek another $400,000 in funding for 2011 to bring its budget up to $900,000 per year. Another recommendation from the report, publishing lists of Horse Protection Act violators on its website, already has been put into effect by APHIS.
But turning the inspections over solely to veterinarians is not a move APHIS is willing to make right now, says USDA spokesperson Dave Sacks.
“We want to revise the regulations to require those DQPs to be licensed with APHIS and independent from the horse show industry instead of saying it’s going to be nothing but veterinarians,” Sacks explains.
Dr. Becker’s Comments:
I doubt anyone is surprised the APHIS ‘Designated Qualified Person’ horse inspection program isn’t working. Industry self-regulation is an oxymoron on the order of jumbo shrimp.
‘Soring’ – A Benign Term for a Cruel Practice
Soring, in a nutshell, is deliberately hurting a horse to change his gait.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, APHIS describes it this way in the Horse Protection Act:
Soring is a cruel and abusive practice used to accentuate a horse’s gait. It may be accomplished by irritating or blistering a horse’s forelegs through the application of chemicals such as mustard oil or the use of mechanical devices.
Walking horses are known for possessing a naturally high gait, but in order to be successful in competition their natural gait is often exaggerated. The exaggerated gait can be achieved with proper training and considerable time, however, some horse exhibitors, owners, and trainers have chosen to use improper and inhumane training methods to shorten the time it would take to produce a higher gait without abusive practices.
There are many methods of soring, and some have been held as closely guarded secrets through generations of horse owners and trainers. Among the more common tactics:
- Applying caustic chemicals like diesel fuel and kerosene on the horse’s pasterns, wrapping the legs in plastic, then adding leg wraps over the plastic so the acid burns into the animal’s flesh.
- Injecting harmful chemicals or drugs into the pasterns.
- ‘Pressure shoeing,’ which involves putting an object like a screw, a bolt or even one half of a golf ball against the soles of a horse’s front hooves, then shoeing the animal. An alternate method involves cutting the hoof wall and sole down to the quick, then shoeing over the raw surface.
As a sore horse puts weight on a front leg he feels intense pain, and he pulls his foot up quickly, giving the effect of extraordinary lift in the front. Once he realizes both front feet are painful, he tries to shift his weight to the rear. The resulting gait is known in some circles as the ‘praying mantis crawl.’
History of Soring
Popular in the 1940s and 1950s, Tennessee Walking Horses were known for their exaggerated front leg action. Audiences applauded, and this leg action was also rewarded by horse show judges.
Owners of less gifted horses learned they could produce similar movements in their animals through the use of weighted shoes, weighted chains around the pasterns, and stacked pads.
Over time, as more horses displayed the ‘big lick’ movement, front leg action got higher, and judges rewarded the most dramatic performers in shows, a percentage of trainers turned to ever shadier and harmful tactics to produce quick results in their animals.
Though the practice began with Tennessee Walking Horses, it has spread to other gaited breeds. Gaited horses are those with a natural tendency toward an easy-to-ride, ambling gait that is faster than a walk but slower than a gallop.
A short list of some other gaited breeds includes:
- American Saddlebred
- Icelandic horse
- Missouri Foxtrotter
- Peruvian Paso
- Racking horse
There are many completely natural, painless ways to train gaited horses to exaggerate their natural inclination to ‘step lively.’ This harmless method of training takes time and skill, but conscientious owners and trainers of sound horses would have it no other way.
The Situation Today
Despite the fact soring has been illegal since the passage of the Horse Protection Act in 1970, the practice is still prevalent. The USDA’s recent audit and report is evidence of how widespread the problem is.
According to the non-profit Friends of Sound Horses, if every Tennessee Walking Horse show in the U.S. could be inspected, soring violations could be as high as 10,000 to 20,000 a year.
The reason for soring? Human entertainment. Show ribbons. Better breeding fees.
This incredibly cruel practice needs to stop. Hopefully, as a result of the USDA audit, future APHIS inspections will be more widely applied and have more teeth.
In the meantime, organizations like Friends of Sound Horses, Stop Soring and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) will continue to raise awareness and keep the pressure on APHIS and the horse industry to put an end to the needless torture of walking horses.