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Walking horse reforms urged

The largest group of horse veterinarians on Thursday called for changes in regulating Tennessee walking horses to end the breed's “culture of abuse.”

The American Association of Equine Practitioners released a “white paper” with recommendations for how the walking horse industry can eliminate the abusive practice of “soring,” which they called “one of the most significant welfare issues affecting any equine breed or discipline.”

Soring involves deliberately injuring a horse with chemical irritants, weighted chains or pads, painful shoeing or hoof trimming to exaggerate the natural walking horse gaits.

The recommendations come as walking horse owners and trainers, including many in Kentucky, are preparing for their biggest show of the year, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn.

Chip Walters, spokesman for the celebration, said the show would take a close look at the recommendations. He said they want to do everything they can to be “100 percent compliant.”

The vets say the federal Horse Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1970, has failed to eliminate soring, largely because funding for enforcement has been permanently capped at $500,000, which they called “woefully inadequate.”

Few shows are inspected by USDA veterinary medical officers. Instead, the shows rely on paid industry judges. The chances of a citation dramatically decrease when U.S. Department of Agriculture vets are not present. When the USDA came to a July 4 show in Owingsville, hundreds of competitors left rather than go through inspection.

The paid industry program “should be abolished since the acknowledged conflicts of interest which involve many of them cannot be reasonably resolved,” the white paper said.

Instead, the AAEP Tennessee Walking Horse Task Force said, the walking horse industry needs to pay for a new system of objective scientific inspections, similar to that employed by horse sports regulated by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

“It's very clear the abuses have not been eliminated,” said Dr. Midge Leitch of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, chair of the task force. “There are very few disciplines of animal performance that don't include abuses. The walking horse folks are not unique. But their egregious practices are really unacceptable.”

The veterinarians' recommendations include:

■ Immediate institution of drug testing.

■ Prohibition of any medical treatment or syringes in the preparation ring before competition.

■ Have 24-hour security and inspectors in stabling areas.

■ Inspection of all horses by a vet before competition, including thermographic screening for hot spots in limbs and swabbing for foreign substances.

■ Re-examination after competition, including the removal of front shoes for selected horses.

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