|The desired high-step that is so popular with gaited breeds can be obtained without having to rely on abusive soring.|
Soring: Disgraceful Practice Continues
Illegal or not, some still resort to this abusive and unethical method to enhance gaited horse animation and gain an edge in the show ring
By Frank Lessiter, Publisher/Editor
Robert Blackwell was a racetrack shoer until he got tired of the travel and decided to venture into other areas of footcare.
“I was looking to find other horses to do and one day did a Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH),” says the Seymour, Mo., farrier. “After examining a front foot and putting it back down, I was left with a handful of hair in my hand. I didn’t know anything about chemical soring at the time, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want any part of whatever it was.”
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Donna Benefield placed a TWH with a leading trainer a number of years ago. When the California filmmaker later visited the barn, realized the trainer had to beat the horse to get him out of the stall and saw a dried-up blister on the leg, she moved the horse to another trainer’s barn.
That was Benefield’s introduction to soring — the illegal injuring of a horse’s foot or leg in an attempt to use pain to promote hoof action that judges look for in gaited horse competitions
It also marked her joining the campaign to end the practice, a crusade she’s still involved with as administrative director of the Horse Protection Commission. She also helped provide evidence that an unsored horse can win one of the big events when one of her horses captured a TWH world championship in 1982.
Cruel, Abusive Punishment
There are many ways to sore horses, with the tricks often being as closely guarded as Aunt Jean’s pecan pie recipe.
In motion, a horse who has been sored by chemicals or mechanical means responds by quickly lifting his front legs to relieve the pain. Irritating or blistering a horse’s forelegs by injecting or applying chemicals may give this result — but can also lead to permanent pastern scarring. Inhumane trimming and pressure-shoeing techniques are other painful and illegal methods used to obtain the high-stepping “Big Lick” gait.
One TWH veteran sums up the perceived advantages of soring this way: “A horse’s foot moves toward weight and away from pain. So make them hurt a little, add a little heavier shoe and the horse will step a little higher and quicker than a natural, unsored horse. And even though he’s suffering from the pain, has long toes, heavy shoes, extreme bits and a rider sitting far back, a horse with heart and substance will keep trying to create the spectacle of the sored show horse.”
According to the U. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “The application of any chemical or mechanical agent applied to the lower leg or hoof of any horse that causes pain, or can be expected to cause pain, for the purpose of ‘enhancing’ the horse’s gait for show purposes is strictly prohibited under the Horse Protection Act (HPA).”
A number of TWH owners and trainers shoe their own horses, since many farriers don’t want to be involved in the unsavory and illegal style of gait enhancement so often associated with the breed. Some industry veterans maintain owners are as much to blame for soring as trainers, since they demand instant results without investing in proper TWH training, which requires time, consistency and patience.
While soring still takes place, it’s less conspicuous than in the old days when farriers and trainers wore gloves to protect their hands when working with chemically sored feet. Chemical soring also seems to be giving way to the more difficult-to-spot pressure shoeing in recent years.
While violators can still be found at almost every major TWH show, the truth of the matter is that most people involved show unsored gaited horses. Even though violators are not representative of the industry, they create serious concerns for the gaited horse community.
How Soring Got Started
Soon after the TWH breed organization was formed in 1935, prices skyrocketed and
|This pastern shows the classic “V” shaped granulomas that are only seen on the pasterns of horses that have been subject to soring. In addition, note several areas that show dried serum exudate. All these photos were provided by USDA.|
the breed drew favorable attention from the national media. But the industry hit a slump with a recession in the 1950s.
Stories among the old-timers differ slightly, but it was around this time that a trainer discovered that using mustard oil to treat a hoof ailment or kerosene to clear road tar off the lower front legs resulted in a much livelier step. Horses snapped their feet off the ground as if they were on fire (which they may have thought they were) and flew around the show ring, barely setting a foot on the ground before snatching it back up again.
Spectators loved the action. Judges rewarded the flying feet with grand championships. It was a potent combination, and soon, show managers were hiring those judges who rewarded the action that so enthralled spectators and kept them coming back to these events.
More experimentation and imitation followed and before long, soring rather than relying on conventional TWH training was fully accepted in the industry.
Benefield says trainers and owners who win with high-gaited sored horses often claim that superior breeding and genetics are behind those victories. But she maintains that soring has been accepted because it is seen as essential, while also having a tremendous affect on the economic impact of the industry in certain parts of the country.
“Some of these gimmick trainers are not true horsemen,” she says. “They resort to soring rather than relying on proper training to develop the proper gaits.
“The attitude is that the first one to quit soring will be the first one forced out of business."
Horse Protection Act Introduced
With more horses suffering from this inhumane treatment, a public outcry over soring practices led Congress to pass the Horse Protection Act (HPA) in 1970 and amend it in 1976. At one point in the late 1980s, the soring situation got so bad that a federal judge shut down the TWH industry for a short period of time.
The HPA goal was to eliminate painful soring and make sure that responsible horse owners and trainers didn’t suffer a competitive disadvantage due to their refusal to engage in this illegal practice.
“The HPA has been on the books for 38 years and soring still continues to plague the industry,” says Benefield. “USDA is too much influenced by the political ramifications in Washington. And with self-inspection, there’s too much of the ‘fox guarding the hen house’ mentality.”
Enforcement Is Tough
USDA inspectors are able to make only a limited number of unannounced inspections each year. These inspection teams include veterinary medical officers (VMOs), animal care inspectors and investigators. They examine horses for signs of soring or other violations of federal regulations and evaluate the work of voluntary industry inspectors.
The basic USDA soring examination for inspectors includes:
- Evaluation of the horse’s movement.
- Observation of the horse’s appearance during inspection.
- Physical examination of the horse’s forelegs from the knee to the hoof.
Particular attention is paid to the coronet band, the anterior pastern areas, the pocket of the posterior pastern area and the bulb of the heel since this is where chemical soring mainly occurs. Sored horses may exhibit abnormal tissue damage, swelling, pain, abrasions or oozing of blood or serum.
Inspectors also look at shoeing conformations and heavy or improperly applied training devices that bang on the pastern and cause pain during repeated workouts.
Scar rule violations are detected by observation and feeling the skin of the pastern.
|This is an example found by USDA inspectors of an illegal action device used to improve the popular high-stepping gait of Tennessee Walking Horses.|
However, pressure shoeing is difficult to detect without pulling the shoes and using hoof testers.
Unfortunately, the HPA language does not allow officials to inspect horses in barns, in trailers or elsewhere on the show or sale grounds. While USDA officials recognize that there are serious problems with soring and pressure shoeing, investigators have not been provided with the ability to effectively deal with them.
The real concern with HPA enforcement is a lack of federal funds. Congress budgets only $500,000 a year for this program. Enforcement over the years has been erratic. When USDA officials cracked down through inspections in the past, highly influential members of the industry and lobbyists complained to Congress. Enforcement efforts at USDA were consequently quickly trimmed back.
If convicted, criminal violators can spend up to 2 years in prison and receive penalties of up to $5,000. But it takes a long time to get a suspension case moved through the federal government process.
Civil complaints, imposed through federal administrative procedures, can result in up to a 1-year disqualification and $2,000 or more per violation. In addition, disqualified persons may only attend horse events as spectators.
To provide more HPA enforcement, despite limited federal funds, USDA established a Designated Qualified Person (DQP) program. DQPs are veterinarians, farriers, horse trainers or other knowledgeable horse people who have been formally trained and licensed by one of 14 certified Horse Industry Organizations (HIO). The managers of a show or sale then hire these certified inspectors to look for sored horses.
Unfortunately, the groups that hold the largest performance shows (padded and plantation shod TWH) where soring is most prevalent don’t seem to do a very good job of self-inspection. Statistics indicate that 8 to 22 times more tickets are written when USDA inspectors are present at these shows than when they are self-inspected.
Further complications arose when several groups refused to sign on to the latest HIO operating plan, which was written by a committee composed of members of the 14 HIO organizations and had been approved by USDA.
Another concern is a potential conflict of interest among trainers, farriers, veterinarians who serve as DQPs that are also involved in show or sale activities. Many observers see this arrangement as being the same as “hiring the fox to guard the hen house.”
Benefield says a major concern is that USDA refuses to decertify the HIO groups who are not doing their job. She says agricultural department officials maintain they would be committing career suicide if those decertified complained to members of Congress.
She also believes a major concern is the way violations are counted. “The industry reports 97% to 98% yearly compliance, which is a false barometer,” she says. “These
figures need to be based on the number of actual horses suspended rather than on the number of entries in all classes at a show.”
Suspension Rates Vary
In 2007, USDA veterinary medical officers attended only 6.3% of the TWH shows held in the U.S. “The HPA violation rate was 14 times higher when USDA inspectors were present,” says Lori Northrup, president of the Friends of The Sound Horse (FOSH) group. Some events have seen suspension rates escalate by as much as 90 times when USDA inspectors were on the grounds, she says.
|Without taking the time to carefully lift the hair on the pastern, these multiple granulomas scars that are indicative of a soring violation would not be visib|
At a South Carolina show, 12 of 44 classes had all entries withdrawn once USDA inspectors showed up. At an Arkansas show, all of the TWH padded and racking classes were cancelled when USDA inspectors arrived unexpectedly on the grounds.
Over the past 5 years, there have been 3,991 HPA suspensions, including 939 suspensions in 2007. Nearly 70% of the violations took place in Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and North Carolina, where the TWH is most popular.
An in-depth analysis by FOSH officials shows that the most frequent violation leading to suspensions is pastern scarring, making up 39.5% of the total. Other violations involved soring, pressure shoeing and use of foreign substances on the legs.
Among the HIO groups, members of the National Horse Show Commission had 72% of the violations while members of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association had 21% of the violations, says Northrup.
While the occupation of violators is not normally announced, at least one farrier and trainer was suspended last year by the Walking Horse Trainers Association board of directors and ethics committee. The trainer received a 5-year suspension of his license, a penalty normally reserved for pressure shoeing under the HIO operating plan.
The major event attracting what is known as the “Big Lick” high-stepping style of performance is The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, held each year in Shelbyville, Tenn. This event includes the classes that usually have the highest incidences of chemical and mechanical soring violations. While the padded or the “Big Lick” TWH is often labeled as the main culprit, soring has also been a problem in competitions involving several other gaited breeds such as Racking Horses, Spotted Saddle Horses, Missouri Fox Trotters and the Paso breeds.
More than 970 individuals have repeat HPA violations and average three violations each, with some having as many as 20 violations. Numerous violators continue to be honored by the industry, indicating little interest in eliminating soring by some TWH groups.
For example, 15 recent inductees into the TWH National Celebration Hall of Fame shared 13 violations. The 115 members of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders And Exhibitors Association board of directors have been cited for 43 violations. Among 54 2007 Trainer’s Cup honorees in 2007, there were a total of 204 violations, says Northrup.
FOSH estimates there would have been 4,700 HPA violations in 2007 if USDA had inspected all TWH shows. The group also maintains that sored TWH horses are shorter-lived than most breeds and have among the highest mortality rates, the lowest insurability rate and the highest insurance premiums.
Burning And Baking
Chemical soring techniques include painting diesel fuel, kerosene, mustard oil or other caustic liquids on the pasterns, wrapping the leg in plastic wrap and then adding a leg wrap to hide the results. These chemicals end up being “baked” into the flesh.
Harmful chemicals and drugs can also be injected into the pastern area with hypodermic syringes. While soring is usually done only on the front feet, some practitioners also sore the rear feet.
The application of chemicals can cause burning pain, internal tissue damage and pastern scarring. Some owners and trainers attempt to cover up these scars by applying salicylic acid to the scarred area to “burn off” the scarred skin — a procedure that is thought to be more painful than the actual chemical soring. While the “new” skin is normally free of the grotesque granular calluses caused by soring, it is still thickened with sparsely haired scar tissue.
After this treatment, many horses have easily identified “scurfing” on the pasterns. Even so, they end up being passed by some industry-run HIO group inspectors when USDA officials are not present.
|Standing a gaited horse for any period of time on objects such as these is definitely a form of illegal pressure shoeing.|
Benefield says pressure shoeing is becoming more common due to the difficulty in spotting it through palpation of the hoof. Pressure shoeing often involves placing a foreign object against the soles, then covering it with a pad and shoe. Each time the horse takes a step or places weight on the hoof, the foreign object causes compression of the hoof, a change in the hoof’s blood circulation and extensive pain.
With mechanical soring, stacks of pads up to 5 inches tall can be filled with a variety of substances for added weight that causes the horse to stand in an elevated, unnatural and painful position.
Even some flat-shod pleasure show horses are abused, with heavy plantation shoes weighing up to 5 pounds — along with an occasional chemical fix and chains to produce the much sought-after, artificial gait.
“Acrylics can be mixed with stones, steel, rubber and so forth to get a similar action,” says Stephen O’Grady, an equine veterinarian with Northern Virginia Equine in The Plains, Va. “While the foreign object can be removed several days before a show, laminae pain will linger, lead to more circulation pressure higher in the hoof and affect the gait.
“We’ve even seen instances where a piece of wood or even a golf ball is placed in a thinned sole area.”
Pressure shoeing can also involve slicing the hoof wall before nailing a shoe over that surface. This results in a very tender hoof that becomes sore when weight is placed on the hoof. It normally means decreasing sole depth by thinning and/or applying excessive pressure to the sole.
Mechanical soring can cause damage to the tendons and joints of young horses who are subjected to this abuse at about 14 months of age, before their joints have matured and closed.
“Pressure shoeing is done to enhance the gait,” adds Blackwell. who also serves as the DQP coordinator for FOSH. “I think the only reason that a few farriers do this is for the money. They’ve got kids to feed and mortgages to pay.”
Blackwell says a common method of mechanical soring is leaving a thick sole that extends below the hoof wall and then nailing a shoe-and-pad package over it that is higher in the center.
“Another trick is to take a device called a heel spreader and wrap a big wad of duct tape around the center of the spring that keeps it open,” he says. “A trainer can unclip the spring and take out the ball of duct tape prior to inspection, so there’s no evidence of soring. The only way an inspector is going to be sure of a soreness that he suspects is to pull the shoes and use hoof testers.”
Benefield believes that requiring the pulling of shoes would make it much easier to examine the feet for violations.
“When you have large shoes or pads and stacks on the hoof, it’s almost impossible to do an adequate exam to determine compliance,” she says.
She believes little is being done to identify pressure shoeing. She would like to see:
|Without taking the time to carefully lift the hair on the pastern, these multiple granulomas scars that are indicative of a soring violation would not be visible.|
- Hoof testers used to test for sole sensitivity.
- Locomotion test used to observe the way a horse is moving and to detect any gait abnormality.
- Fluoroscopes used to identify foreign objects between the sole and pad or the sole and shoe.
She says other indicators that inspectors concerned about mechanical soring should look for include any irregularity in balance; a horse that’s drawing his hind legs up to take weight off the front limbs; a horse having difficulty placing weight squarely on four limbs or favoring one limb or another. She says an inspector should also look for a contraction of the abdominal muscles or lifting of the head.
Soring Concerns Growing
More and more organizations are joining the fight against soring. The American Association of Equine Practitioners is expected to release a white paper this summer calling for the banning of soring.
O’Grady maintains that it takes a knowledgeable person to spot pressure shoeing concerns. “Finding an elevated digital pulse is likely if you have inflammation in the hoof,” he says.
“But you need to know how to properly measure this. Digital radiographs are also going to play a role since they let us look at new areas of the hoof. Yet random testing may be the only way to deal with the soring situation.
“O’Grady says most TWH farriers are highly skilled with well-deserved reputations. He believes one solution to the soring problem is to require that trainers certify who shod the horse and when — with penalties for guilty shoers.
What Qualifies As Pressure Shoeing Violations
The Horse Industry Organization (HIO) operating plan contract for the 14 certified groups states, “A pressure shoeing violation shall be defined as soring, trimming or engaging in any practice the result of which causes the inducement of pain in the sole of the foot.”
“This makes it impossible to do an accurate measurement to determine compliance with the regulation that states that the toe length must exceed the height of the heel by 1 inch or more.
If the angle of the coffin bone is horizontal, the heel and toe should be measured.
“If a horse has had a great deal of acrylic applied to the toes, it’s impossible to measure for compliance.”
Nice work writing and publishing this article AFJ! Its good work to point out wrong-doers. Thank you.