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Vet Talk

A Sore Spot
January 7, 2013 (published)

Photo courtesy of Dr. Rachel Cezar of USDA

1970 was a significant year for the welfare of horses. I was unaware at the time – primarily because I was busy being born – but in 1970 the Horse Protection Act (HPA)  was passed to curtail the sadistic practice of soring in gaited horses. There are a number of techniques used to “sore” a horse, but the basic premise is this: horses with pain in their front feet and lower legs lift those legs higher in order to escape from the pain. In a gaited horse such as the Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH), this behavior produces the exaggerated and “reach for the sky” motion called the “Big Lick.” Not only is the name gross, but many of the training practices used to achieve this gait are even more disgusting – whips, chains, caustic chemicals, ground glass, and thumbscrews (well, hoof-screws).

And, no, these horses are not consenting partners in these games of sadism. Soring produces unrelenting pain and psychological trauma. Many of these horses are so painful that they spend most of their time lying down in their stalls – unable to stand. The horse, remember, is a range animal, intended by nature to roam in the open and to stand even when sleeping. Lying down for prolonged periods is neither physically nor behaviorally healthy.

Soring began in the 1950s to improve a horse’s chance of winning in the show ring by producing increasingly exaggerated gaits. By the 1960s, it was almost epidemic in gaited horse show circles. And, after all, if everyone does it…

Fortunately, some folks didn’t think that what everyone does was okay, and in response to public outcry over an expose of soring practices, the HPA was signed into law. In the words of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “The HPA ensures that responsible horse owners and trainers will not face unfair competition from those who sore their horses and that the horses will not be subjected to the abusive practice of soring.” I’m sure someone told my mom I would sleep through the night, too.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan. The HPA was amended in 1976 to add further protections. Sounds good, right? Let’s set the Wayback Machine forward 30+ years to the 2006 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration – the biggest of the big shows for gaited horses. So many violations of the HPA were found at that event that the show was cancelled. In 2012, the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration had a violations rate of roughly 9 percent.

What went wrong? Well, for one thing, HPA enforcement has historically relied upon inspections by what are called Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs) – the problem of three-letter acronyms (TLAs) is another issue entirely. The DQP concept was great in theory. In addition to USDA-accredited veterinarians, experienced horse people (farriers, trainers, owners, etc.) would be formally trained and certified to check horses at shows for indications of soring. So far, so good. However, the people with the most experience with the gaited horse industry are – wait for it – people with ties to the gaited horse industry. Oops.

Hopefully we all see the pit underneath the branches here.

This pit, by the way, is also lined with nasty spikes. Because ‒ and herein lies the problem for all animal performance competitions ‒ self-regulation doesn’t work. And yet, unless the individual breed, show, and regulatory associations opt to change their standards, people will keep finding ways to skirt outside regulation.


The "wrinkle" is evidence of soring. Photo courtesy of Dr. Rachel Cezar of USDA.
 

TWH folks are taking the publicity hit for soring, but ethically sketchy practices can be found in a number of performance disciplines from dog shows to horse racing. It’s all well and good to say “Then we shouldn’t use animals for human recreation,” and if that’s your choice, I’m not going to question it. Frankly, I gave up the world of horse shows for myself a couple of decades ago because there was just too much that wasn’t fun anymore. However, we can’t go back and un-domesticate animals. In reality, domestic animals have been a part of human sport for centuries, and that isn’t going away any time soon.

The veneer of civilization is thinner than we like to believe and there is a line where grey slides into the shadows. In my part of Northern California, the various Quarter Horse disciplines such as reining, cutting, and Western pleasure are popular. A number of reining and cutting horses develop hock arthritis at a fairly young age. I could see the argument for retiring them early, not allowing them to perform as young horses, or breeding only those horses with conformation less likely to predispose to that condition. However, I never refused to help manage these cases and treat the horses, even though I knew that their job was contributing to the wear and tear on their joints. For me, the balance swung toward maintaining the comfort of the animal – grey maybe, but pretty light grey.

I’ve been lucky in that I have only had to face questions on the other end of the performance spectrum once. A client approached me about “blocking” her horse’s tail. She looked genuinely confused when I recoiled and didn’t hesitate before blurting out “I don’t do that.”

Thinking (I assume) that I just wasn’t educated enough, the client then tried to explain how tail blocking is something “everyone does” in Western pleasure showing, and how it doesn’t hurt the horse. Sadly, she wasn’t too far off on the first point and, in my opinion and that of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), dead wrong on the second.

If you haven’t seen a Western pleasure horse show, the “ideal” look is sedate – almost comatose, in fact. Tail swishing or “wringing” in the show ring is considered a sign of agitation on the part of the horse, and thus non-pleasurable. “Blocking” involves injecting a local anesthetic agent around the nerves controlling the tail, rendering the tail peaceful and compliant.

However, horses don’t live entirely within a show ring. The equine tail is the best fly-swatter around (also a great face swatter for interfering humans). Imagine living in a barn or outdoors during fly season and having your hands tied to your waist. If this slow torture by fly bite and tickle isn’t bad enough, photos of tail-blocks gone wrong are enough to nauseate even me, and I’ve been known to discuss lunch plans while lancing an abscess. Let’s just say that infection ascending to the spinal cord isn’t good and the photos of them are from post-mortem examination.

This client wasn’t a bad person who didn’t care about her horses. I’ve shared tears with her as we euthanized more than one of her horses due to the ravages of age or illness. But even when I explained the veterinary perspective on tail-blocking, she couldn’t wrap her head around my point. How could something be so awful if all of the best trainers were doing it? How could it be wrong if that was what the judges expected? Obviously I just didn’t understand the horse show world.

In a way, she’s right. I don’t understand the horse show world, the horse racing world, the dog racing world, or the dog showing world. I don’t understand breed standards that diminish the health and longevity of the breed – when was the last time you saw a show-quality bulldog that could breathe properly? I don’t understand breeding animals with obvious physiological defects simply because they carry the right color genes or have the “ideally” shaped head. And, I really, really don’t understand causing animals physical or psychological harm in the name of human esthetics. Where is the medical value in cropping ears to stick up like demon horns rather than flop over?

External regulation such as the HPA and the current proposed amendment to the HPA, H.R. 6388, are critical to curtailing some of these practices. However, if change is going to come, it must come from within. Stakeholders in these disciplines – horse owners, trainers, judges, veterinarians, breed associations – need to sit down and hash out new standards. It is time for a new set of norms – a normal that focuses on the welfare of the animal, rather than the esthetic pleasure of the human.

Editor’s note:
If you want to see what "the Big Lick" looks like and see how soring is accomplished, watch this expose video "Fighting Cruelty to Horses" from ABC News Investigations. WARNING: This video is graphic and disturbing.
Update: On April 1, 2013, former Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Jackie McConnell, seen in the above ABC news video, was indicted on 22 counts of animal cruelty.

Dr. Bob Judd of the Texas Farm Bureau has written about the illegal and unethical practice of soring and the 2012 ban on soring from AAEP and American Veterinary Medical Association.

2 Comments

Michele 
October 27, 2013

Just found this article.  I LOVE this statement of yours: "The veneer of civilization is thinner than we like to believe and there is a line where grey slides into the shadows." 
The enormous ethical disconnect of many horse owners, particularly those that actively show their horses, continues to amaze me.  They seem to understand the pain and suffering that their horse with, say, a small intestinal torsion is feeling, wanting the horse to immediately feel better.  They condemn the practices of trainers and owners in other equestrian sports ("oh what they do with Tennessee Walkers is just awful!!") but then blithely ask for a tail block (or more likely, help fixing a bad tail block) in their QH or oodles of inappropriate medications for their OTTB so their darling daughter can safely show it in hunter classes.
I could go on, but just wanted to say thanks for a great article that hit a lot of points that are a big source of annoyance in private equine practice.


Holly
February 11, 2013

"How could something be so awful if all of the best trainers were doing it? How could it be wrong if that was what the judges expected? Obviously I just didn’t understand the horse show world." Yeah well. There are a lot of things that people do that are neither ethical nor good for the recipient. Tail blocking is one of them. A tiny bit of critical thinking on the clients part might go a long way toward the overall health of her horses rather than following a fad. I decided a few years ago, I was only showing locally. The pressure to perform and the things that people do in order to win are pretty horrifying for me. So DD and I will be hitting the trails and the roads to really school our horses this year. Then when I retire, I might try the local show circuit. AQHA and APHA can keep those people who will push the boundaries of good horsemanship without me

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