by George Looby, DVM
The Tennessee Walking Horse is a light breed of horse developed over time in the 1800s by farmers in the that state to meet their needs for a horse that could work in the fields and also serve as a comfortable horse to ride while overseeing their holdings. The breed evolved as the result of crossing several different breeds including Thoroughbreds, Canadian Pacer, Saddlebreds, Morgans, American Standardbreds and Naragansett Pacers. These crosses eventually evolved into an animal with a unique gait which became known as a running walk. This breed’s temperament and stamina allow it to be used in almost any role from western, driving or as a mount for those with handicaps. One of the claims made for this horse is that its easy gait make it the ideal horse for those with back problems.
One characteristic that makes this breed unique is its ability to overstride which means that as the horse moves in this manner the point of impact of the rear hoof over rides the point of impact of the front hoof on the same side. The most desirable gait of the breed is the so called running walk which allows it to achieve speeds of up to 10 miles per hour. In addition to this gait the Walker is able to perform most other gaits. Advocates claim that this breed has a “rocking chair” canter which is a collected gallop and is able to do this in a manner that is more relaxed than that most other breeds.
It is increasingly common to read about the use of performance enhancing drugs among human athletes, often talented and gifted people who feel, or have felt, that taking various illegal substances will make their already considerable abilities even better. This done in spite of the well recognized fact that such materials are illegal but further may cause great harm to their own well being after taking such substances most especially after their careers as professional athletes are over.
The horse unfortunately has little or no control over substances which it may be fed, given, injected, applied or otherwise administered by its owners or caretakers. Given a choice the horse would probably refuse such boosters. For an animal with considerable athletic ability that is placed in a competitive situation it has been the inclination of many owners to want to further enhance that animals ability to perform by whatever means available, legal or illegal. To many observers much of what goes on in the ring or on the track is viewed with more than a little suspicion and their suspicions are not without substance. Doping horses is an old game and despite efforts to curtail the activity it continues to be practiced by those whose scruples leave much to be desired. The agencies whose responsibility it is to enforce existing laws and regulations are too often understaffed and greatly underfunded.
In 1970 Congress passed a law which was written to eliminate the practice of soring especially in the Tennessee Walker with certain amendments made in 1976. More than 40 years later the practice continues and now new legislation is being introduced to make enforcement more stringent and the punishment for violations more severe.
Soring involves applying devices or substances to the pasterns of performance horses in order that the animal extends its leg further than animals it may be competing with in the ring, the so called “big kick”. This gait is considered most desirable in the breed and counts heavily in tabulating the total points an animal may receive in any given class. The device or substance applied causes severe discomfort or pain, thus the horse reasons that the fewer steps taken the fewer the painful impacts when its hoof hits the ground. The mind of man can take many devious routes and so it is with the irritants that have been used to sore a horse. Among these are mustard oil, croton oil, kerosene, diesel fuel, WD-40, scarlet oil and ether to name just a few. Mechanical devices, often called action devices, include boots, chains, collars and rollers that encircle the pastern joint. When shoeing these horses the unscrupulous farrier may insert metal objects between the sole and the pad or pare the sole down to sensitive tissue. It is particularly disturbing to note that many within industry justify the use of such techniques for the sake of increasing their chances of winning in the ring, this above the health and well being of the animals they profess to admire. Particularly upsetting is the fact that many of these individuals occupy positions on the Boards of Directors of several breed associations. The dollar rules supreme.
In as much as earlier legislation failed to accomplish its intended goals a new piece of legislation is being introduced H.R. 1518/S jointly supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) which take the strongly held positions of both groups and make it the law of the land. The law, if enacted, would make the actual act of soring illegal and further clarifies and broadens who is culpable when horses are sored. The bill further increases civil and criminal penalties and allows for the permanent disqualification of violators.
At the present time individuals called designated qualified persons (DQP’s) oversee the inspection of horses for evidence of soring at shows, sales and auctions. This practice has proven to be woefully inadequate. To correct to system now in place it is proposed that independent inspectors be trained, licensed and supervised by the USDA. Despite the fact that the present inspection system is flawed the rate of detection is five to 10 times higher when USDA regulators are present as compared to those events that are self policed by the industry. At the National Celebration held in 2012 nine percent of the participants were found to be in violation of the Horse Protection Act. There seems to be dark cloud over the industry that needs to be lifted to make competition within it as clean as it can be.
As of this writing bills have been introduced in both the House (H.R. 1518) and the Senate (S.140-6) and have been referred to designated committees in both bodies for review. This legislation should not be influenced by party differences; it is based solely making the lives of a group of competitive horses more bearable. An act of humanity if you will.
For readers who would like further information regarding this practice and the status of pending legislation visit www.avma.org/soring
Soring in Tennessee Walking Horses
by George Looby, DVM