Soring: A short history of an incredibly stupid practice

It’s a sore subject, literally, that alternately seems to cause great waves of controversy and then disappear beneath the surface. Yesterday, it reared its ugly head once again.

In today’s “Morning Feed” editorial, we discussed the incident and its significance. To wit, a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer in Tennessee was sentenced to one year in prison and a $4,000 fine for his participation in the practice of soring. The trainer’s defense was, basically, “But everybody’s doing it”–which didn’t fly with the judge, who made the benchmark animal welfare decision to prosecute someone on soring charges for the first time in 20 years.

For those unfamiliar with the practice of soring, here’s some background:

According to its federal definition, soring is the abusive practice of accentuating a horse’s natural gait through the infliction of pain. It’s the headline under which a variety of methods fall: caustic substances may be applied, externally or internally, to the leg; tacks, nails, screws or chemical agents may be injected to the leg; or the leg may be cut, burned or lacerated, among other tactics.

To understand the phenomenon of soring, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the breed itself. The Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) was developed in the Southeastern United States, mainly in Tennessee, by crossbreeding smooth-moving horses such as Morgans, Narrangansett Pacers, Standardbreds and Saddlebreds. The breed was intended as a suitable mount for plantation owners, who spent long hours in the saddle each day riding over their land and overseeing field workers. It had to be a horse that moved comfortably and efficiently, so that neither horse nor rider would get tired, hence the anecdote that you can ride a TWH with a glass of champagne in one hand and never spill a drop.

As the bred became more popular, it wasn’t uncommon for plantation owners to stage match races between their TWHs, a competitive pastime that eventually bled into the show ring. Increasingly, the horses were bred for their flashy gaits: the flat walk, running walk, and canter. They were trained for years with progressively heavier, taller shoes to produce the highly animated “Big Lick” gait that drew crowds and was favored by judges. In this movement, the horse snaps its knees up to its chest, head held high, while the weight-bearing hind legs reach beneath the horse to compensate. The combined effect gives the appearance of a horse that is half-sitting while it glides around the ring, tail flagged and skimming the ground, rider dressed to the nines in coattails and a fedora.

In the early 1950s, trainers began experimenting with faster, easier ways to achieve the same end result. It was discovered that applying caustic substances–mustard oil, diesel fuel, kerosene, etc.–to the horses’ front legs caused them to snap their knees up higher, especially when combined with circular chains (“action devices”) wrapped around the pasterns. Logically, the practice makes sense: The horse, subjected to pain whenever its front feet hit the ground, shifts its weight backwards and keeps its front legs in the air for as long as possible.

Today, the methods by which soring is accomplished are limited only by trainers’ creativity, and ruthlessness. One might mix mustard oil with Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO, to help the chemicals absorb through the skin), wrap the leg with plastic wrap covered by leg wraps, and let the leg “cook” overnight. Another might be to overtrim the horse’s hoof down to the sensitive laminae, or create an acute pressure point by adding a welded bead of metal to the underside of the horse’s shoe.

By the 1960s, the practice of soring had become widespread. A public outcry condemning its grotesque consequences–horses’ legs could actually be seen bleeding in the show ring–prompted the government to step in. Congress passed the Horse Protection act, which specifically outlawed soring in 1970. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was granted a budget of $500,000 per year (in 2011, the allotment was raised to $700,000) to enforce the act by performing inspections at competitions, showing up unannounced and examining the horses’ legs for signs of soring. At shows the USDA does not attend, industry professionals such as vets and farriers are trained to stand in as Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs), certified to perform inspections at shows.

Despite the government crackdown, the practice of soring persists even into the present decade, though hopefully to a far lesser degree. In 2008, 187 soring citations were issued at the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General issued a report highlighting serious shortcomings in enforcement of the Horse Protection Act that have permitted widespread abuse of show horses. “Sorers” have merely become stealthier, perpetually devising new and increasingly complicated ways to sore their horses without getting caught. The crude irritants that left the TWHs of yesteryear with open sores and scars have been replaced with more potent chemicals, which work beneath the skin’s surface to produce the sought-after painful effect, or pain-masking agents are used. Inhumane shoeing tactics are also difficult to detect unless the shoe is removed completely, an impracticality for a horse that is just moments away from entering the show ring. And, of course, it’s always possible for a sore horse to be withdrawn from a show when it becomes known that a USDF inspector is present.

While the government seems to be doing what it can to curb the practice, and while many, if not the majority, of Tennessee Walking Horse owners do not condone the practice, the topic is still a “sore” one within the industry. Only time will tell if and when the practice will finally vanish completely into history.


Video & top photo: Human Society of the United States

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14 thoughts on “Soring: A short history of an incredibly stupid practice

  1. Amanda says:

    Isn’t this the same breed that breaks the dock of the tail so that it will “stand” up unnaturally?

  2. Fawn says:

    or slice the tendon that allows them to hold their dock down and keep it in a brace holding the tail upright. :(

  3. Jessica says:

    I live about 30 minutes from the TWH celebration. I decided a few years ago to go watch. (I’m an eventer/foxhunter/pony clubber myself.) I have never seen a horse show quite like that, and I dont plan on going back. And any show that has a 10 foot high chain link fence topped with barbed wire to keep spectators away from the warm up… makes you wonder what’s going on in there.

  4. Sara says:

    What can we do to get involved in helping to end this?

  5. sara beth says:

    I was the photographer at a 4h event and there was a tn walker with such a weak back end. The poor thing was falling down when the VERY LARGE woman got on, would sink down to almost sitting like a dog when lined up waiting. And all of the people at the gate and in the warm up just kept the horse going. Of course I lost it on the show management and they finally got the girl off the poor thing. It was the most terrible thing I’ve ever had to see. :(

  6. Candy says:

    It is brutal to see such huge people on these finely built horses. Some of these men must weigh at least 250 pounds!

  7. Laurel says:

    I own a TWH and luckily he was never shown. We just lost a beautiful TWH mare over the weekend. She had been shown previously and still had the scars on her front legs. Although we’ll miss her terribly, we do take peace in knowing she’ll never hurt again or be nervous about people being around her legs.

  8. Amanda says:

    So from the footage in the SPCA video it looks like the horses actually WEAR chains in the ring? Is that correct? I know nothing about TWH shows, so I could be out of line, but to me that seems that wearing chains is something high on the list of things to ban in any show ring.

  9. Katie says:

    I would just like to say everytime soring is a topic the only breed mentioned is TWH. There are many other disciplines that having their own methods of soring/cruelty. Saddlebreds also sore feet, break/cut tails etc. and there are many others!! The only way to stop this type of cruelty is to change the way theses horses are judged! Not spend 700,000 a year to fine them! As you can see they only became more crafty at their work. If they judged them on the best natural gate, not how high they can step, problem solved. These trainers are soring to have a winner! Make having a winner achievable through not soring! Sorry for the rant, i’m off my soap box!

  10. Sandi Inches says:

    Why do people want to hurt the horses? The more I learn about this, I don’t want to see the Dressage shows anymore. Break my heart to see them in pain for humans’ greed and no feelings for their horses’ pain.

  11. Raye Lynn says:

    sandi, I don’t believe this topic has anything to do with Dressage horses. The topic is gaited horses, specifically TWH and the other gaited horses mentioned in the article. Please don’t confuse the discipline of dressage riding with the horrific cruelty being discussed in this topic.

  12. Heather says:

    Ok, HOW is that gait/movement/look something someone wants to achieve!?! They look so unnatural and ridiculous with those huge shoes and crippled hind-end. A natural TWH movements are beautiful, why would they ruin it for the showring??? And the judges….im not even going to go there. Just utterly disgusting

  13. Malia says:

    It’s like dog fighting, only no one stops it because it’s rich people doing it.

    It’s completely sickening, and no horse with an unnatural high stepping gait (as opposed to the natural Tennessee Walking Horse Gait, which looks nothing like this atrocity) should be permitted. The judges, owners, riders, barn workers, farriers, and audience should all be arrested. Treat them just like dog fighters are treated, and this practice will at very least be reduced.

  14. Candy says:

    Look at the map of where soring is highly concentrated. Then look at a map of the bible belt in the USA. Do you see a similarity? Inbred and illiterate hicks that abuse horses now instead of slaves. All of the trainers and owners in the TWH industry should have their calves sored and their feet shaved until they bleed.

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