By The Tennessean

When legislation to toughen federal protections against horse soring gained momentum last year, opponents said the proposed rule changes would decimate their walking horse show industry.

But a Murfreesboro, Tenn.-based walking horse group says it has found a way to thrive regardless of what becomes of those stiffer rules.

Dee Dee Miller, president of the Walking Horse Owners Association, says entries for its sanctioned shows across the country nearly doubled from 2012 to 2014. The number of shows were up, too.

“The popularity is just growing by leaps and bounds,” Miller says. “We just create a good time and a good place where everybody feels welcome and equally and fairly treated.”

But spectators at WHOA shows won’t see horses wearing the special shoes and metal chains that are a common sight in padded performance show rings. They’re not allowed.

Only flat-shod horses — those without materials between the hoof and shoe — are welcome to compete, Miller says. The proposed Prevent All Soring Tactics Act included a universal show ban of the pads and action devices that are used to artificially enhance the gait of a horse.

“We saw that we couldn’t be profitable with performance padded shows, but we had a great niche in the flat-shod industry,” Miller says. “If the PAST Act passes and the pads and chains were gone, the industry and the Tennessee walking horse breed will certainly survive.”

Animal rights groups and some leading veterinary organizations have said the pads and chains are synonymous with soring, the intentional abuse of a horse’s front limbs to produce a higher gait. And some continue to make that a rallying point.

But the official breed registry and the industry’s premier show, the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, have opposed those tougher rules. Instead, they advocate for objective, science-based inspections, which are governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to combat soring.

Mike Inman, the Celebration’s chief executive officer, says eliminating the weighted pads and action devices — what the PAST Act calls for — would impact 85 percent of the show’s entries and classes. He cites an Auburn study that proves the equipment used by those who compete at the show do not harm the horses.

While inspectors find violations at the Celebration, Inman says the show’s compliance rate is in the high 90 percent range.

“If you went with science-based inspection, the blood is what the blood is. Either you’re in or you’re out,” Inman says. “Somebody’s opinion is one thing, but a fact from a digital X-ray or from a blood test, that’s science. That’s objective and that’s what we’d like to see.”

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