Lexington, Ky. —
The American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) wants to crack down on an illegal and abusive practice called soring by placing veterinarians at show events to examine horses and impose sanctions for alleged welfare violations.
On Thursday, AAEP’s Tennessee Walking Horse Task Force issued a white paper
recommending ways to end soring of the breed’s show animals. Prohibited by the federal Horse Protection Act, the practice involves using chemical agents or even nails to inflict extreme pain on a horse’s forelegs to exaggerate its gait. Despite its illegal status, soring continues to be applied by trainers, officials say.
That became evident in 2006, when United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors arrived unannounced at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, known as the show circuit’s Super Bowl, and disqualified six of 10 horses going into the high-stakes event’s final class. The reason? A new drug detection method employed by USDA sensed chemicals used for alleged soring violations. Hundreds of entrants dropped out and USDA called in additional security to control the reportedly enraged crowd. For the first time in the show’s 67-year history, no grand champion was named.
Under the radar
Since then, Celebration officials say they have beefed up their anti-soring regulations, which include drug testing. Still, AAEP points to USDA’s “woefully inadequate” inspection budget and lack of manpower as reasons why soring continues today.
USDA, which hasn’t increased its $500,000 budget to enforce the Horse Protection Act since it passed 1970, allows event leaders who’ve signed contracts with the agency to hire private inspectors to ferret out soring cases. Trained by USDA, these inspectors are known as Designated Qualified Persons, or DQP agents.
Show insiders speculate that many DQPs overlook soring infractions; their objectivity is skewed because they are paid by the event, AAEP Executive Director David Foley contends.
“It’s hard to say how widespread this is,” he says. “But statistics show that when the government shows up, there are many more violations than DQPs ever catch. Many people will just load their horses in their trailers and leave.”
In addition to the DQP program’s abolishment, AAEP’s white paper calls for drug testing at every competition and the development of an objective method to detect soring. Judging standards should value the “innate grace and beauty of the breed” instead of rewarding a currently manufactured exaggerated gait, and a single industry organization with governance responsibilities should be established to set and enforce uniform standards and regulations, the white paper states.
“This has been going on too long,” Foley says. “We want to help the industry and help the horse. We are advocates for welfare, and we stand ready.”
At press time, reaction to the white paper was limited, although Celebration spokesman Chip Walters contends that, “Every one of the key points is something that should be seriously considered.” While the world championship horse show strives for 100-percent compliance, with 2,300 animals, that’s hard to deliver, he says.
Walters questions the practicality of eliminating the DQP program and wonders if smaller, one-night shows have the ability to implement drug tests.
“Soring has always been a controversial issue, and we fully support anything that can be done to eliminate this,” he says. “Do bad things happen? Yes, but I don’t think the problem’s that prevalent. Industry is tightening its own screws. We’ve come a long way on this.”