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August 30, 2007

Reform Needed to Rid Cruelty From Horse Competitions

Social change comes about not just with vision, but with practical action.

Horse industry leaders have joined with The Humane Society of the United States and other humane groups in urging a ban on horse slaughter. Wolfgang Puck and other food industry leaders have joined with us to combat inhumane factory farming practices. Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole and other fashion industry leaders have gone fur-free.

This year, we are seeing hopeful signs in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry.

The industry places horses in show ring competitions, and has been the subject of scrutiny for decades because of the practice of "soring." Some of the trainers sore horses by deliberately injuring their feet and the lower parts of their legs—by chemical and mechanical means—in order to make them step higher and exaggerate their gait. If they step higher, the horses presumably do better in the competition.

Last year the breed’s premier annual show, “The Celebration,” was shut down when more than half of the finalists in the most prestigious World Grand Championship class were cited for violations of the Horse Protection Act, and declared ineligible to compete.

The USDA has in recent years been doing an admirable job of enforcing the Horse Protection Act, which in 1970 banned the cruel practice of soring. The USDA's enforcement efforts have heartened the honest people within the industry and angered the cheaters. And as a result of the 2006 debacle, the issue of soring was brought to light in newspapers and newscasts all around the world. The industry’s credibility plummeted in the eyes of the equine community and the general public.

Now, one year later, several industry groups are demonstrating leadership and a desire to restore their breed’s reputation through positive change. TWHBEA, the Tennessee Walking Horse breed registry, has taken a firm stand against soring, and hired the toughest industry inspectors to eliminate sore horses from its shows. The managers of the Celebration—which runs from August 22 through September 1—have sought our input on ways to improve compliance with the minimal standards of the law.

Others, including many prominent owners and trainers, have tried to sabotage these efforts, hired expensive lobbyists, and boycotted shows, all in the name of giving them an unfair leg up on the competition and continuing to break the law. These people are prepared to torment horses and sacrifice sportsmanship and the law in pursuit of profits and winning.

I applaud the efforts of the breed registry and others to take a step forward in the face of this intense hostility within their ranks. This has taken true leadership and courage. Their reforms are far from perfect. Even in compliance with the law, trainers may still use chains which can inflict pain, and platform shoes that are so unnatural a horse cannot be turned out in a field for exercise. But the reforms are movement in the right direction.

I hope progressive industry leaders will continue to stand tall against those who defy federal law, and that going forward the industry will work to encourage and reward the horse trainers and owners who present this magnificent animal in the most humane and natural manner possible.

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