Herald-Leader Editorial

Soring hurts more than Tenn. walking horses; cruel practice damages entire equine industry's image

July 8, 2014 

This week's Lexington Junior League Charity Horse Show is at risk of guilt by association.

No less than U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R- Lexington, during a recent meeting with the editorial board, cited the 77-year-old show as an example of our state's Tennessee walking horse tradition.

"Oh, no, absolutely not," a staffer at the American Saddlebred Horse Association assured us. The Lexington-based association represents riders and horses now competing at The Red Mile in the world's largest outdoor Saddlebred show, the first leg of their sport's triple crown.

The distinction between the breeds is especially relevant now as the barbaric practice of soring comes under fire from the mainstream equine and veterinary worlds and many in Congress.

Unlike walking horses, American Saddlebreds are not routinely subjected to soring and must pass legitimate soundness tests to compete.

If the congressman from the Horse Capital of the World doesn't know the difference, why wouldn't the average person assume that all high-stepping horses — indeed, all performance horses — are subject to the same kind of intentional cruelty as Tennessee walking horses?

Even if Barr and some of his fellow Republicans don't care about the horses, they should care about collateral damage to the image of the horse industry, which employs many Kentuckians and must attract new owners and riders to thrive.

Barr, Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and Rep. Hal Rogers have lined up with several lawmakers from Tennessee behind a bill that would provide just new cover for the same old abuses.

Congress outlawed soring in 1970 as part of the Horse Protection Act, but industry self-policing and fines so small as to serve as no deterrent allowed it to continue.

The Prevent All Soring Tactics or PAST Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, another Kentucky Republican, and 288 co-sponsors, is the best chance for finally ending soring by outlawing the instruments of torture, the chains and padded shoes.

Soring intentionally produces so much inflammation in a horse's legs that the moving animal keeps its feet high in the air as long as possible because it hurts when they strike the ground.

Michael Blackwell, former dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Tennessee, has likened the "excruciating" pain to biting something solid with an abscessed tooth; even at rest the inflamed area throbs.

By contrast, American Saddlebred enthusiasts achieve their horses' animated gaits through horsemanship and breeding — which is how the walking horse folks did it until about 60 years ago when the sport took a sadistic turn. Trainers began painting horses' legs with acid and other caustic agents, then aggravating the pain with chains and shoeing methods to produce the "big lick" coveted in the show ring.

The exaggerated gait achieved by soring is not a walking horse tradition — it is an aberration of that tradition. Just ask the many flat-shod walking horse enthusiasts who prefer the natural gait and are represented by the National Walking Horse Association, also headquartered in Lexington.

The American and Kentucky Farm Bureaus, which oppose the PAST Act, no doubt think they are defending the rights of livestock and poultry farmers and other animal owners against advances by animal-rights activists. In fact, by appearing to defend an indefensible practice, they give ammunition to the animal-rights movement. Farm Bureau opposition to the PAST Act reinforces public perceptions of agriculture as insensitive not just to the welfare of animals but to the worst kinds of suffering.

Kentucky's delegation in Washington should get behind the PAST Act for the future of the whole equine industry.

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