Trainers and owners in the “Big Lick” segment of the Tennessee Walking horse show world are addicted to injuring horses and breaking federal and state laws against animal cruelty in order to win ribbons at major horse shows. For evidence of that, look no further than the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest test results from sampling conducted at the Celebration — the Tennessee walking horse industry’s marquee competition and the very sort of high-profile event that should prompt the competitors to be on their best behavior.
Of the 200 random samples taken by the USDA at the 2015 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, 175 tested positive for illegal foreign substances used to “sore” horses or temporarily numb them to mask their pain during inspection. Soring is the deliberate infliction of pain to the hooves and legs of these show horses by mechanical or chemical means in order to create an exaggerated, high-stepping gait known as the “Big Lick.”
These damning results released days ago by the USDA shatter claims from the Big Lick faction of the Tennessee walking horse industry that it has cleaned up its act and that soring hardly ever occurs. The USDA data demonstrate that owners and trainers who abused horses to achieve this gait not only participated in the Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee, but that many were rewarded with top honors. Play Something Country – a horse who was documented by a 2015 HSUS investigation moaning in pain on his stall floor after having harsh chemicals slathered on his legs – placed second twice, including a World Grand Championship. He’s Vida Blue made it into the final class of the Celebration and was awarded Reserve Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion, but died not long after due to colic, a condition sometimes induced by stress and common among Big Lick walking horses.
An HSUS undercover investigation into ThorSport Farm, a well-known walking horse training barn, documented that eight horses who competed in the 2015 Celebration were sored at the training barn in the months leading up to the show. Wrapping samples taken directly from these horses during the investigation tested positive for substances banned from the show ring under the federal Horse Protection Act. Vitamin E acetate, isopropyl palmitate, sulfur, and cholesterol were among the substances identified in both the HSUS investigation and the USDA’s testing of horses at the Celebration – all are used in the soring process.
The purpose of the USDA testing is to prevent recidivist owners and trainers from tormenting and harming horses to win ribbons at horse shows. This year, 87.5 percent of the samples tested positive for prohibited substances – a significant jump from 52 percent in 2014 — once again underscoring the fact that soring is the norm among a class of these horsemen. It also begs the question: how can anyone credibly believe this industry is capable of self-reform? With this level of lawbreaking, the whole enterprise is something akin to an organized criminal association.
The “foreign substance results” come just months after the USDA released a report revealing its inspectors disqualified 181 out of 525 (over 34 percent) of the horses they inspected at the 2015 Celebration—a figure in line with the results at nine other shows that agency representatives attended last year. That’s not a few bad apples, but a rotten barrel.
The USDA’s findings clinch the case for federal reform to strengthen enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. The Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 3268/S. 1121, will protect horses from horrific abuse and create a level playing field for responsible walking horse owners and trainers. This anti-cruelty legislation will prohibit soring, eliminate the corrupt system of industry self-policing, provide stronger penalties for violators, and ban the use of chains, stacked shoes, and other devices used in soring walking horses and related breeds.
The PAST Act already has the overwhelming bipartisan support of more than 300 Senate and House cosponsors and is backed by the American Horse Council, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, all 50 state veterinary medical associations, the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, among hundreds of endorsements. We call on Congress to take note of these latest USDA findings and pass the PAST Act without further delay. These cruel lawbreakers should not be coddled or tolerated, and their legislative maneuverings should not be allowed to prevail. The rule of law matters, and it is time to put that principle into practice.