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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