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August 31, 2012

The 'Big Lick' Shows Big Changes Are Needed to Stop Horse Soring

A good number of owners, trainers and others associated with the Tennessee walking horse show industry are engaged in a coordinated effort to cover up illegal “soring”–a practice prohibited by Congress in 1970. Their scheme involves the cruel application of painful irritants and implements and devices to the feet and legs of horses.  It’s done to induce the so-called “Big Lick,” which involves an unnatural, bizarre, and illegally induced high-stepping gait, all for a blue ribbon.

Last night, I went to the Celebration, the world grand championship show for this breed in Shelbyville, Tenn., with The HSUS’s director of equine protection and lifelong horseman, Keith Dane. We saw some flat-shod horses exhibit a normal or natural gait. But seeing those animals only accentuated for us how bizarre it is to see horses with four-inch stacks and heavy chains on their feet, prancing into the show arena, raising their front legs high and unnaturally shifting their weight onto their back legs.

270x240 tn walking horse celebration - chad sisneros
Chad Sisneros/The HSUS
The artificial, high-stepping gait called the "Big Lick."

Attendance seemed way down last night at the Celebration, according to people who have been there for years. In a 25,000-seat arena, there were perhaps only 5,000 people there.

There is one particularly compelling explanation for the low turn-out of horses, riders, and spectators: In May, The HSUS released footage that rocked the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. An HSUS undercover investigator captured one of the most decorated trainers, Jackie McConnell, the former president of the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association and a Hall of Fame inductee, on tape applying chemicals onto the legs of horses and cooking them into their flesh. Our investigator also documented McConnell striking horses in the head with a bat or stick (“stewarding”). Ironically, at the time these crimes were committed, he was already under federal disqualification for previous soring activities, but he was still training horses for the show ring, underscoring how porous and weak the current enforcement program is.

Our investigation has roiled the industry and prompted calls for reform. The American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association have said it’s time to end the use of stacks and chains and to do away with industry self-regulation. And today, Barney Davis, a trainer convicted of soring, participated at a press conference with Keith and me, arguing that the only way to get the Big Lick gait is to sore horses. He grew up in the industry, and says that he did the same things every other trainer did.

Of all of the dozens of breeds exhibited in horse shows under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s jurisdiction, the agency only deploys officials to check up on Tennessee walking horse shows. Why do they warrant such attention from the federal government?  It’s only because the industry’s abuses were so bad that the Congress had to step in and mandate federal oversight by passing the Horse Protection Act. Yet 42 years later, all of the Big Lick horses are exhibiting the same exaggerated, unnatural, absurd gait.  Abuse has become routine and normal in this industry.

The industry is attacking The HSUS and the USDA, which is charged with enforcing the federal law, because Tennessee walking horse trainers and owners have an economic stake in continuing their cover-up. The industry is fighting the new USDA rule to require that industry inspection organizations impose mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act. 

Last year at the Celebration, USDA swabbed 52 horses for illegal substances used to numb, mask, or sore horses, and every one of them was found in violation of the law. With their attendance declining and the American public disgusted by the illegal soring behavior, what more incentive does the industry need to make real, fundamental, and enduring changes? As this year’s low attendance shows, it's losing the battle of public opinion, in addition to finding itself on the wrong side of the law..

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