Editorial: Clean Sport for Walking Horses? We’ll see

The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, held annually in Shelbyville, TN, kicked off yesterday–supposedly with a new zero tolerance policy in place for soring or numbing agents.

The Walking Horse industry, which has been the subject of scrutiny for several years, has been especially engulfed in flames this year thanks to the release of an graphic undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the United States showing one of the sport’s leading trainers beating and soring horses. An ABC News investigation followed, as did a public outcry and PepsiCo’s announcement that it was dropping its sponsorship of the Celebration.

The one thing that (most) people seem to agree upon is that soring is bad and the testing procedures the industry has had in place aren’t fixing the problem. Which gives rise to a flood of new questions: What are acceptable standards, and what’s the best way to test for them? Are just the trainers to blame, or the owners as well? What’s a fair punishment? Who should conduct the tests? Is the industry capable of policing itself or should it be the responsibility of the USDA, enforcer of the Horse Protection Act? And, last but not least, who is going to pay for it all?

This summer has been a big mess of debates, accusations and lawsuits between various acronyms: HSUS, USDA, SHOW, TWSHO, TWHBEA, WHOA, WHTA, APHIS… the list goes on. A post last week on the Fugly Horse of the Day blog attempted to wrap its head around the situation, with little success: “Watching the whole mess is a bit like watching a group of Telatubbies fighting over a purse; not a lot of higher order thinking going on right now.”

As of right now, each horse entered in this year’s Celebration will be swabbed for chemicals that harm the horse or mask soring. But–wait for it–the tests are being conducted by SHOW (Sound Horses, Honest Judging, Objective Inspections, Winning Fairly), an organization that has since been decertified by the USDA for noncompliance with new mandatory penalties.

At last year’s Celebration, a random inspection by the Department of Agriculture found that 50 of 52 horses tested positive for some sort of foreign substance around front hooves, either to cause pain or to hide it. What will this year’s Celebration look like?

Entries this year are down 9 percent over last year, and entries in 2011 were down about 9 percent from 2010. Advance ticket sales have also been slow.

I’d love to think that rather than wasting everybody’s time and energy tying knots in red tape, TWH competitors would just take it upon themselves to act in the best interest of their horses.

Unfortunately, with over $650,000 in prizes and some 20 world championship titles at stake, I just don’t think that’s going to be the case.

HN archives: Learn more about the practice of soring here, and read our stance on the issue here.

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