I don’t know what the weather’s like where you are, but here in the south I think we’re all feeling like maybe, just maybe, we’ve really managed to dodge winter’s bullet. The birds are singing, the daffodils are blooming and everybody’s getting the spring horse show itch.
Like most people, I associate horse shows with good stuff: hard work, goal-setting, the occasional pay-off and, mostly, a heap of fun with my friends and my horse. But not everybody is quite so happy-go-lucky. There is, and always has been, a darker side of the horse show scene, a part that usually remains concealed but, every now and again, blows its own cover.
Yesterday, a disturbing story came out about a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer in Tennessee who was sentenced to one year in prison and a $4,000 fine for his participation in the practice of soring.
According to its federal definition, soring is the abusive practice of accentuating a horse’s natural gait through the infliction of pain. The methods by which this may be accomplished vary: 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.
Perhaps the most controversial element of this particular trainer’s testimony (besides the part when he held up his soring tools, an arsenal of wooden blocks, metal chains, bolts and washers) was his assertion that soring is a widespread practice. It’s a claim that the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeder’s and Exhibitor’s Association denies and has been fighting against for years, arguing that a few bad apples are contaminating the image of their whole sport.
In 2006, back when I was a real-world journalist, I got an assignment to do an in-depth investigative story on the practice of soring in an effort to determine just how widespread the practice really was. Ultimately, it was a question that I was never truly able to answer. I dug up plenty enough damning evidence to convince myself beyond a doubt that, yes, some trainers were actively engaging in soring practices. But it was EQUALLY clear that many, if not most, TWH owners genuinely care about their horses and would never do anything that would endanger their welfare.
A few insiders warned me on the front-end that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, involving myself in the business of the “bad apples,” and I really didn’t. The story ended up winning some prestigious awards, and I was proud of it–it was immaculately researched and, I think by anyone’s estimation, extremely fair. But in its aftermath I still got hit with a wave of threatening phone calls, emails and letters from irate trainers. In a couple of cases, the threats involved bodily harm. As a horseperson, it made me wonder how an activity as wholesome (in my experience) as horse-showing could simultaneously exist, in a different arena, as a hostile battlefield.
Today, we’ll have at least a couple stories that explore the points I’ve touched on this morning–one soring related, one not. As I’ve said before, the one thing that unites us as a Horse Nation–no matter where we live or what kind of saddle we ride in–is our love for horses. When situations arise that threaten the welfare of horses, we have to band together to protect them.
That doesn’t mean embarking on a witch hunt, or accusing every person who owns a TWH of soring their horse–because that is ABSOLUTELY not the case. But when individuals do cross that line, they need to be punished within the extent of the law, as the Tennessee trainer was in court yesterday. It was a benchmark day for horse welfare because it was the first time in 20 years that the crime has been prosecuted. We applaud U.S. District Judge Harry “Sandy” Mattice for upholding the law (in stark contrast to the court that let Kelsey Lefever off the hook last week), and hope more lawmakers will follow his lead in the future.
Go TWHs, and Go Riding.