Walking horse industry quick-steps after failed USDA soring inspections
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2006:
NASHVILLE–Between allegedly “sored” horses and sore losers,
walking horse competition burst into national view as never before in
late August 2006. But the attention was almost all embarrassing to
breeders and exhibitors in a business whose excesses, a generation
ago, prompted passage of the federal Horse Protection Act a year
before the passage of the Animal Welfare Act.
The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration championship
competition in Shelbyville was cancelled on August 26 after USDA
inspectors disqualified seven of the 10 finalists for alleged soring
violations of the Horse Protection Act. For the first time in the
67-year history of the event, it named no grand champion.
The National Celebration reportedly brings as much as $38.5
million a year into Shelbyville.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) on
September 7 asked USDA undersecretary Bruce Knight to “clarify” the
USDA definition of soring to enable inspectors to enforce the Horse
Protection Act “in a more consistent manner.”
Soring, explained Pat Raia of The Horse, “is a practice
whereby horses are subjected to deliberate skin lacerations around
their hooves or the application of caustic chemicals such as diesel
fuel, kerosene, or lighter fluid to irritate their forelegs,
thereby achieving higher stepping animation,” exaggerating the “big
lick” gait for which walking horses are known.
“Horses can also be sored by having nails driven into the
‘frog’ on the bottoms of their hooves, ” added Nashville Tennessean
staff writer Brad Schrade, “or by being made to wear overly heavy
horseshoes that can pull the hoof off the leg. In an effort to make
the pain stop, the horses step high in a reaction to the soring
agents, federal officials say.”
In practical terms, the Frist recommendation would mean that
the looser interpretations of the less experienced inspectors who
supervise local and regional walking horse shows would prevail over
the judgement of the experts who govern the top events.
Frist’s office subsequently refused to release a copy of his
specific regulatory proposals to news media, but Schrade and
Tennessean colleague Sarah B. Gilliam obtained a copy anyway.
The Frist request, co-signed by Senator Saxby Chambliss
(R-Georgia), “would decriminalize certain behavior that is currently
illegal, thereby protecting owners and trainers and not horses,”
Friends of Sound Horses executive director Keith Danes told Schrade.
The Frist proposals were endorsed by attorney Tom
Blankenship, who represented the National Horse Protection Society
in a posting to the Walking Horse Report web site. Blankenship
earlier argued for relaxing the soring rule as representative of the
Walking Horse Trainers Association.
Summarized Schrade and Gilliam, “The [proposed] new
language, in part, more narrowly defines soring as evidence of
injury or irritation, with current ‘pain, swelling, redness, heat
or loss of function.'”
In effect, it limits the definiton of soring to current
inflammation, without regard to past suffering inflicted on a horse.
“It completely eliminates the existing regulation referred to as the
scar rule,” Horse Protection Commission administrative director
Donna Benefield told Schrade and Gilliam.
Both Danes and Benefield are themselves veteran walking horse
USDA stands firm
“Where compliance fails, the USDA will enforce the Horse
Protection Act,” responded USDA deputy administrator of animal care
Chester Gipson, DVM, at a Sept-ember 11 “listening session” in
“We’re truly at the crossroads,” Gipson continued, “and the
industry needs to make some determinations, some decisions about
which way they are going. We are not going backward. So from our
standpoint, we’re going forward. You,” Gipson told the assembled
trainers and owners, “have to decide which direction you’re going.”
Listening session participants disputed whether the Horse
Protection Act had truly succeeded in eliminating “90%” of the abuses
seen 30 years ago, as trainer Mack Motes contended, displaying old
photos of abused horses, or whether trainers had simply become
better at concealing the evidence, as 35-year horse enthusiast
Lucille Davis argued.
“There is an obvious problem when horses pass inspection on
the scar rule one night, then fail inspections two nights later,”
Motes claimed. “There were three times more disagreements between
the National Horse Show Commission inspectors and the USDA inspectors
at the 2006 Celebration, compared to 2005.”
But alleged abuses observed at the 2005 Celebration produced
the 2006 crackdown. “At the 2005 Celebration,” explained Schrade,
“the USDA used a device that tests horses for prohibitive substances,
such as numbing agents and irritants, that may suggest soring. More
than half of 92 samples (54.3%) tested positive. The same device
used at the 2005 Kentucky Celebration found 100% of the 25 horses
sampled” had been treated with “one or more prohibited substances.”
“Weeks before the 2006 Celeb-ration,” Schrade continued,
USDA chief horse protection regulator Todd Behre “told an owner he
was ‘stunned at the condition of horses’ that industry-hired
regulators had allowed in Walking Horse competitions throughout
Middle Tennessee the previous weekend, according to an e-mail
exchange between the two.
“Exhibitors and trainers were at times bolting from shows
when regulators showed up,” Schrade continued. “The USDA
inspection teams last year started attending more than one show event
in a weekend, a practice that continued this year, Behre said. That
means it is less predictable where federal regulators will be.”
“Hearing trainers say ‘we don’t know what to do about the
scar rule’ has grown a little old,” Behre said in an e-mail posted
to The Walking Horse Report web page.
“Friction over interpretations of USDA scarring rules have
plagued walking horse events all season,” summarized Pat Raia of The
Horse, “but came to a head at the Tennessee Walking Horse National
Celebration, when USDA inspectors issued 225 notices of violation
The Horse Protection Act banned soring in 1970, but since
the walking horse industry itself trains and pays the “designated
qualified professionals” who inspect for soring, humane observers
have often doubted the vigor of enforcement.
That changed abruptly on August 25, 2006. Then, wrote
Raia, “Event organizers temporarily halted competition and postponed
preliminary classes, at the request of trainers who complained that
‘inspections were getting out of hand,’ according to Celebration
public and media relations director Chip Walters.”
Elaborated Schrade, “USDA inspectors disqualified six out of
approximately 10 horses they inspected, spurring near bedlam that
eventually led event organizers to cancel that night’s performance,
as well as the next morning’s. The dispute turned so intense that
the Tennessee Highway Patrol called in state and local reinforcements
to create a wall of law officers to keep an angry crowd of walking
horse enthusiasts separated from the regulators, before the federal
staffers could leave. The flap erupted further when the Grand
Championship contest was cancelled.”
Celebration CEO Ron Thomas told reporters at the time that
said they understood that the trainers and owners of the three
championship round horses who passed inspections had refused to
compete without the others.
Rebutted Allen McAbee, whose horse passed, “We were not
contacted or asked by anybody if we wanted to show. We don’t know
who shut the show down. We weren’t given an option; they didn’t ask
Thomas told Schrade that the show officials could not talk
directly tto the owners and trainers of the three qualified horses
because, “You can’t get through an angry mob of 150 people.”
A Celebration news release said that Tennessee Highway Patrol
officers “were confident they could protect the safety of the people
working in the inspection area, but did not have the manpower to
assure the health and safety of the 26,000 spectators, exhibitors
and horses,” Schrade summarized.
About 3,400 horses took part in the National Celebration.
Officers with the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department, the
Shelbyville Police Department, and the Celebration’s own security
guards joined about 30 highway patrol officers in trying to secure
the scene, Department of Safety spokesperson Julie Oakes told the
“The crowd was a consideration, but not the reason for the
shutdown,” Oakes said.
“How can the highway patrol stop a horse show? We didn’t
start it and we can’t stop it,” added Tennessee Highway Patrol
Lieutenant Johnny Hunter, to Sarah B. Gilliam of the Tennessean.
“Everybody’s just passing the buck.”
Amid the heavily publicized furor, the Kentucky Walking
Horse Association cancelled the Kentucky Walking Horse Celebration
that was to have been held in Liberty, Kentucky, September 21-23.
“It’s not a protest,” Kentucky Walking Horse Association
president Earl Rogers Jr. told Raia. “It’s that we felt we couldn’t
make any money. Many of the competitors could not come because they
were either suspended or banned from shows.”
The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’
Association told Associated Press writer Kristin M. Hall on September
21, 2006 that it will hold a new national championship in
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on November 24-25.
Offering $150,000 in prize money, divided among 50 different
classes, with $15,000 for the grand champion, “The Mur-freesboro
contest will be open to horse owner Mike Walden, who has been banned
from the Celebration for two years after accusations that he offered
$10,000 to trainers of competing horses if they dropped out of the
championship earlier this month,” reported Schrade.
“Walden’s horse, Private Charter, was a favorite to win the
grand championship at the National Celebration,” continued Schrade,
“but was among the horses in the title round that were disqualified
by federal inspectors looking for signs of possible soring. Whether
Walden and Private Charter will compete [in Murfreesboro] is unclear.”
Walden’s version of the incident was that he was “led to
believe” that the owners of the horses who passed inspection “did not
want to show as a sign of unity. The guys were riding for the money,
and I said owners should get together and pay for the reimbursement
for what the winnings would be, and unite and not show. It was not
my intention that I was paying them not to show,” he told Gilliam
The owners and trainers of the horses who passed all told the
Tennessean that they had intended to compete, until the show was
The Walden case was “not the first time that allegations of
money and influence threatened the Celebration’s image,” Schrade and
Gilliam recalled. “Allegations arose in connection with the 1997
Celebration that a horse trainer tried to bribe a judge. The trainer
was later fined $25,000 and the judge $20,000 in a 1999 settlement
that contained no admission or denial of the charges.”
Capping the Shelbyville fiasco, the Tennessee Department of
Health on September 10 warned about 4,200 National Celebration
attendees from 34 states that an exhibited horse from Missouri had
turned out to be rabid. Apparently bitten by a rabid bat while still
in Missouri, the three-year-old gelding fell ill on August 23, the
first day of the National Celebration, and was euthanized after
rabies was diagnosed on August 28.
“I keep preaching to rabies-vaccinate horses and cows,”
Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine professor Tam
Garland commented to ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Maybe some day people will not
think I am crazy for doing it. I hand-feed my cows, the big pets,
and I always vaccinate them.
“Many people hand feed their horses a treat or handful of
feed. That alone,” which exposes the person to potentially infected
saliva, “should make us vaccinate every horse. Having our hands in
an animal’s mouth can expose us to the rabies virus earlier than the
animal may demonstrate clinical signs. The cheapest insurance for
protecting oneself and the animals they love is vaccination.”
Soring horses to produce high-stepping is a practice unique
to walking horse trainers, but abusive practices also afflict other
branches of horse exhibition. Also in early September, for example,
the British Show Jumping Association asked the Jersey Police to
investigate an allegation that Kim Baudains, 36, fed a sedative to
rivals’ ponies in an attempt to help her 11-year-old son Josh win the
under-16 Young Showjumper of the Year final against Timmy Clark, 13.
“The event was cancelled over safety concerns after a tablet
suspected of being the veterinary sedative acetylpromazine was found
on the ground. Some owners complained that their ponies were
drowsy,” reported Richard Savill of the Daily Telegraph. “The worst
affected pony, Flying Sunbeam, which was not the subject of the
complaint, was reportedly unsteady on its feet.”
Flying Sunbeam is Clark’s pony, Savill wrote.
According to Savill, “Josh Baudains has been riding since he
was two and won his first championship at five. He has won two
trophies on the junior novice British circuit in the past 12 months.
Mrs. Baudains rode her first point-to-point winner at the age of 16.”
Lucy Bannerman of the London Times reported that Kim Baudains
was “confined to bed,” according to her mother, “receiving
medication as a result of stress from the allegations.”
“As long as there is competition, there will be cruelty,”
equine care and transport expert Sharon Cregier commented to ANIMAL
PEOPLE. Working from Prince Edward Island, Canada, Cregier
consults about horse protection issues throughout the world.
“Kudos,” Cregier extended, “to the inspectors who saw those horses
out of the championships.”