Ky. voices: It's time to end walking horse abuse

Padded front hooves and chains can be seen on a Tennessee walking horse at Tattersall's in 1999.
Padded front hooves and chains can be seen on a Tennessee walking horse at Tattersall's in 1999. Herald-Leader file photo

Kentucky has a proud tradition of celebrating horses. It also harbors a dark reality of abuse toward the beautiful, gentle Tennessee walking horse. This contradiction became more clear last week with the news that state Sen. Robin Webb became embroiled in such abuse.

Webb and her horses' trainer have reportedly been cited for violating the federal Horse Protection Act by entering horses showing signs of abuse into a competition. Specifically, the animals were allegedly subjected to a cruel training method known as "soring."

Soring is the painful application of chemicals or other training methods to force the animals to perform an artificial high-stepping gait — known as the "Big Lick"— for show competitions.

Despite being made illegal by the federal Horse Protection Act in 1970, soring continues to be prevalent in the walking horse show industry, and Kentucky horse owners and trainers have the second-highest number of citations, after Tennessee.

The Humane Society of the United States is dedicated to seeing the law properly enforced and the practice of soring come to a long-awaited end. But we need legislators like Webb to join the effort to crack down on this criminal practice, not disavow or defend the cruelty that exists.

In response to the allegations of horse abuse, Webb has taken the path most traveled by many in the Big Lick industry — deny, deny, deny. She has also made an appalling attempt to defend the actions of an admitted violator of the Horse Protection Act, Tennessee walking horse Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell.

An undercover investigator for The HSUS caught McConnell on camera soring horses as well as beating and shocking horses' faces. The story made national headlines and McConnell ultimately pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony. While horse lovers around the country were horrified and irate over the video, and lawmakers in Congress are working to improve protections for Tennessee walking horses, Webb called the defenseless horses "dangerous," and blamed the hours of damning undercover footage for "demonizing" the breed.

The real demons are trainers like McConnell, and he is not alone. There is no question that the cruel practice of soring is widespread in the Big Lick horse show industry. Unscrupulous trainers apply caustic chemicals to horses' ankle area, then ride them with chains on their ankles that hurt their sensitized skin with every step. "Stacks" — like high-heeled horseshoes — are nailed to the horse's front hooves to add weight and height, and are frequently used to conceal objects and methods used to inflict pain to the soft tissue of a horse's hoof.

These practices force the horse to snatch his feet off the ground in an attempt to relieve the pain, creating the Big Lick that is rewarded by judges. Major veterinary groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, have called for a ban on these devices.

Instead of defending horse abusers like McConnell, Webb should be working to protect horses by supporting stronger laws to crack down on such criminals. Soring has no place in Kentucky, the Horse Capital of the World and the heart of Tennessee walking horse country. A December 2012 Mason-Dixon poll indicates that the majority of voters support federal legislation to strengthen the Horse Protection Act and state legislation making soring a felony offense.

Soring also has no place at the Kentucky Horse Park, which Webb is lobbying to host a sale later this month that would showcase Big Lick Tennessee walking horses. Horse advocates are disturbed that this state-run park would provide a venue for a horse show discipline frequently associated with such extreme cruelty.

Tennessee walking horses have a beautiful natural gait that has been grotesquely exploited. They are forced to endure this pain throughout their entire show careers. Due to weaknesses in the federal law and a failed system of industry self-policing, the trainers who are caught inflecting the torture pay little penance. It's time for a change.

At issue

: Jan. 13 Herald-Leader articles "Webb cited for violating Horse Protection Act; she says 'scar rule' is 'very subjective'" and "Possible sale of 'padded' horses has many upset." Also Jan. 17 Herald-Leader article, "Park to allow sale of walking horses to proceed"

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