The US government has taken steps to ensure the illegal, abhorrent practice of ‘soring’ is eradicated for good.
Controversial equipment used in Tennessee Walking Horse competitions could also disappear. These include the bizarre stacks strapped to the bottom of horses’ feet, and chains worn round their fetlocks.
Soring was made illegal in the 1970 Horse Protection Act. This is where chemicals or irritants are applied to the horse’s skin in order to produce the artificial high-stepping gait known as the ‘big lick’. However, the use of such techniques in competitions is still a major problem.
In 2013, leading Walking Horse trainer Jackie McConnell and two members of his staff pleaded guilty to 22 counts of animal cruelty after being caught on camera beating and ‘soring’ horses.
In one of the Obama administration’s final moves, soring could be more tightly regulated in a bid to stamp it out completely.
Until now the Tennessee Walking Horse industry ‘policed itself’ through a system of inspectors, many of whom were trainers or exhibitors, leading to a conflict of interest. But now the US Department of Agriculture will employ a team of independent inspectors to monitor the sport.
In around 30 days’ time, use of chains and other action devices will be banned at any Walking or Racking Horse show, exhibition, sale or auction.
Exhibitors have until 1 January 2018 to stop using stacked shoes, pads and wedges, to allow for a gradual reduction in use to avoid causing horses further physiological stress.
The new inspectorate system will also come into force at the start of next year.
Many of those within the horse world will welcome these important welfare changes, with the United States Equestrian Federation announcing their support of the new rules.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, was unequivocal on the topic of soring: “Hurting horses so severely for mere entertainment is disgraceful, and I put this abuse in the same category as dogfighting or cockfighting.”
Some within the Walking Horse industry remain opposed to the new rules. Mike Inman, CEO of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, hopes president elect Donald Trump will overturn the new rulings. This follows Trump’s promise to overturn every “unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order” issued by president Barack Obama.
If the rule change goes through, Inman plans to sue the USDA.
Republican senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee thinks the new rules could have a massive impact on the walking horse industry. While he supported the end of soring, he warned that the rules could see the end of the “century-old tradition of showing Tennessee walking horses”.