Op-Ed

Help end cruelty of soring horses

Jo Ellen Hayden
Jo Ellen Hayden

I have owned, cared for and competed on horses much of my life.

Soring is, without question, the most cruel training practice I have ever seen or heard about in the entire horse world.

Don’t know what soring is? You are not alone. It ranks right up there with dog fighting, but it requires a bit of explanation. It’s used by a hard core of trainers in the Tennessee Walking Horse world, and involves putting caustic chemicals on the horse’s front legs, wrapping the legs in plastic wrap and bandages, and letting the chemicals “cook” into the flesh.

After several days, the bandages are removed and chains are fastened around the ankles of the horse, biting into the injured flesh. Extremely heavy, tall shoes (“stacks”) are then attached to the front hooves with metal straps.

The effect of this painful process is that the horse tries to remove all weight from his front legs, adopting an exaggerated sitting position when moving and flinging out the front legs in a movement that is referred to as the “Big Lick.”

Among a very entrenched group of aficionados, the Big Lick is the pinnacle of show-horse movement. Among everyone else, it is horrifying cruelty.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees enforcement of the Horse Protection Act of 1970 that was supposed to end soring forever, has finally developed a set of regulations that have (somewhat) more teeth than the original legislation proved to have.

The new regs will eliminate the tall stack shoes (but not all weights in shoes), and also address a key problem in the inspection process at shows by mandating the use of USDA-approved inspectors — up to now, the industry paid its own inspectors, with predictable results.

USDA already has a few inspectors, but they can only cover about seven percent of all shows. But when they are present, they find a lot of horses that have signs of banned substances or scarring from soring chemicals and chains. Over 85 percent of horses that USDA tested were found in violation at the industry’s biggest championship show, the National Celebration, in 2015.

Soring has been going on for about 60 years. It has been immoral all of those years, and illegal for 45 of them.

With stronger regs in the offing, the industry is claiming that economic devastation of entire areas of the country will ensue.

Ridiculous, of course.

Soring advocates talk out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, they have recently started insisting that soring either does not happen anymore or that only a tiny number of trainers use these methods. Out of the other hand, they insist (most recently at a public comment session held by USDA in early August) that the proposed regulations will have huge economic impact.

They can’t have it both ways. Either there is no more soring going on, in which case the proposed regulations won’t impact anyone, or soring is happening every day, and they most certainly have to change their ways.

The solution is obvious: Stop training for the Big Lick. Do what many others do — train for a natural movement, which these beautiful horses are bred for. They will start to see spectators in the stands again, instead of empty seats. Charitable sponsors will come back. And they and everyone else won’t have to see billboards about horse torture. People will come back to this breed, instead of turning away from it.

For those who love animals and hate cruelty, go to http://www.regulations.gov and add your voice in favor of the regulations. Public comment is open until Sept. 26.

Jo Ellen Hayden, a prize-winning dressage rider and horsewoman, lives in Lexington.

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