The Humane Society of the United States released footage Thursday it says shows evidence of continued abuse to the Tennessee Walking Horse, further confirming the use of soring in the industry.
Soring is the practice of intentionally abusing a horse to accentuate its gait and often includes the use of caustic chemicals that eat away at the skin. Those who sore cause horses pain each time they step so they lift their front legs in an exaggeration of their natural gait in what is called the "big lick."
The video was taken by the United States Department of Agriculture in an inspection of the Maryville, Tenn., barn of top trainer Larry Wheelon in April 2013 and obtained with an open records request. The horses can be seen struggling to stand, walking stiffly and flinching away from the inspectors' touch. Photos from the same inspection show what appear to be scars around the horses' pasterns.
The video release comes as the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville goes into its final days for 2016, and as what appeared to be a sored stallion was discovered at an auction in Cookeville on Tuesday. The Horse Protection Act prohibits sored horses from participating in auctions, shows, exhibitions or sales.
Wheelon, who was arrested and charged with cruelty to animals, had 15 felony charges and three misdemeanors dropped, according to the Humane Society, when Blount County Judge Tammy Harrington ruled his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated in the raid.
When he was arrested in 2013, Wheelon was an active member of the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers Association, sitting on its ethics committee. He did not respond to a request to comment made through his lawyer.
The USDA has since proposed some amendments to the Horse Protection Act.
One of those changes would mean the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would train and license Designated Qualified Persons to inspect the horses at horse shows, exhibitions, sales and auctions for compliance with the HPA, whereas now, they are initiated and maintained by horse industry organizations. Many argue the current setup poses a conflict of interest.
Another amendment would ban the use of all action devices, pads and foreign substances at horse shows, exhibitions, sales and auctions, aligning the HPA regulations with existing equestrian standards set forth by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
The USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed amendments until Sept. 26, but some have asked the organization to extend that deadline by 60 more days. Doing so could push the decision off onto a new administration that may not prioritize an end to soring.
Mike Inman, CEO of Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, denied that the stacks and chains cause horses to experience pain. Stacks are elevated pads attached to the horses' front hooves like high heels, and the chains are wrapped around their ankles.
"There is no big lick gait," Inman said. "Animal welfare is number one for The Celebration."
He said each horse must pass as many as 13 inspections by those belonging to horse industry organizations and the USDA, which test for foreign chemicals, palpation, locomotion, CT scanning and digital radiography.
"We urge the USDA to move away from subjective inspection and toward objective inspection," he said, arguing that digital radiography is the only objective exam. "We don't want any sore horse in the ring."
But Keith Dane, senior adviser on equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States, said some can fool the machine by making a ball out of hoof clippings and acrylic to match the density of the surrounding tissue.
Inman said no one has ever been disqualified for placing a foreign object between the shoe and the hoof at The Celebration, a practice called pressure shoeing.
The horse must also be clear of visible scars.
"If (the soring) is done to the extent where it causes physical damage, they can't show them anymore," said Tawnee Preisner, founder of the Horse Plus Humane Society. "They're worthless to them after that."
Preisner said she found Skywalks Magical Dream, a 4-year-old registered Tennessee Walking Horse stallion on stacks with chains, dumped at an auction on Tuesday. She took him to an equine veterinarian, who documented the damage and scarring on the horse's skin. Dream's last owners are listed as Sammy and Gayle Cogle, the owners of last weekend's champion Extra Special Jose.
Sammy Cogle said they were no longer in possession of the horse as of last January. "I'm sorry but the lawyers told me not to say anymore."
Preisner said it's the third time she's found sored horses at an auction in Tennessee.
Dane estimates there are up to 15,000 horses put on stacks and sored at any given time. He urged the USDA to pass the reforms to stop the remaining abusers.
"The culture is evolving," he said, comparing the competition of sored horses to dogfighting or cockfighting. "People are turning away more and more."
Source: The Tennessean
Those interested in submitting a comment to the USDA can do so at: http://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=APHIS-2011-0009.