Are Showhorses Being Abused?

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Imagine calling off the Super Bowl because most of the players tested positive for drug use, and you have an idea of how a crowd of 26,000 horse lovers reacted Saturday night when the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration ended without a grand champion, after USDA inspectors disqualified six of 10 finalists. Reason: the inspectors said the horses had been sored — abused — to exaggerate their already exaggerated high-stepping foreleg stride.

It marked the first time in the celebration' s 68-year history that a grand champion was not named. And it prompted 20 federal, state and local police to converge on the fairgrounds to hustle the inspectors away from the angry crowd. But it was far from the first time federal regulators have gone to war with the Walking Horse industry. More than half of the chemical swabs analyzed from the 2005 National Celebration — and all of the swabs analyzed from the Kentucky Celebration that year — tested positive for chemicals shown to cause soring and numbing. "You need to decide which way you're going to go. You can step up and do your job, or you will put us in a position where we are forced to do it for you," Chester Gipson, USDA deputy administrator for animal care, told members of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry at a meeting in February.

Responding to the judge's command to "Walk on!," riders urge their mounts into the running walk — an exaggerated foreleg stride called the big lick, a gait originally bred into the horses by Southern plantation owners who spent long hours in the saddle. (Imagine running barefoot across a bed of hot coals.) Now, many trainers apply caustic chemicals, particularly diesel fuel and mustard, to the horses' legs or even cut the tissue above the front hooves, to force a horse to step higher to avoid the pain, bringing its knees up and throwing its forelegs out. The practice has been banned since Congress passed the Horse Protection Act in 1970, but it has not died out. The more exaggerated a walking horse's gait, the more likely they are to win shows. The descendants of Allan F-1 — the founding stallion of the breed — sell for between $35,000 and $500,000 for a grand champion stallion, each of which is capable of commanding at least $1,000 in stud fees, Considering that breeding is done through artificial insemination, and up to 200 mares can be serviced each season, it becomes clear that a lot of money is at stake.

The industry itself is divided over soring. Many claim soring has been gone for years and that USDA inspectors are too subjective in their examinations. Other owners and trainers say soring is all too common, and that the practice has perverted the breed, creating false standards of achievement and an invalid breeding standard.

The three trainers whose horses were cleared> by inspectors Saturday night would likely agree. After the disqualification of most of the field, they urged that the race continue — even refusing an offer by the trainer of one disqualified horse of $10,000 apiece if they would refuse to enter the ring. But the grand championship was canceled anyway. By Tuesday the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association had already proposed a sanctioning plan against owners who allow soring, as well as the creation of a single rulebook and inspection standard.