As the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration culminates this weekend, there is controversy and cover-up again marring the biggest event in the walking horse show world.
For decades now the walking horse show industry has tried to hide the intentional injuring of horses’ feet and lower legs – a practice known as “soring," which produces an exaggerated, high-stepping gait called the “big lick.” This horse abuse is not confined to small venue shows, but it is widespread, conducted even at its grand championship show where the spotlight is brightest. There’s no way that horses will step as high as they do without foot injuries; it’s a pain-induced behavior.
This year’s ruse to hide the cruelty comes in the form of the Celebration’s “Veterinary Advisory Committee,” created supposedly to improve inspections of horses. The fact is, it’s a cover-up, and a poor one at that, and its practical effect is to offer the appearance of oversight when there are medically accepted and scientific procedures already in place and undertaken by personnel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA has spent years developing the most reliable methods to identify evidence of soring, and its veterinary medical officers will be implementing these techniques and overseeing inspections at the 2014 Celebration to try to keep cheaters from bringing sore horses into the show ring.
The “big lick” segment of the walking horse industry doesn’t like the results of the agency’s accurate, comprehensive, science-based testing methods, so it has hired “independent” contractors to give it outcomes it likes. The Veterinary Advisory Committee’s mouthpiece is Tom Blankenship, who has supported and defended the big lick faction for years. Blankenship worked as an attorney for the Walking Horse Trainers Association, and in this role he condemned enforcement of the USDA’s scar rule that excludes from competition horses that exhibit evidence of injury to the forelegs indicative of soring. He further encouraged former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s attempt to eliminate the rule.
But as the Celebration begins, the Veterinary Advisory Committee and its credibility have completely fallen apart, and it’s been exposed in the press. It’s now come to light that not only are these three veterinarians not required to attend the Celebration, but that one of the vets named, Dr. Dallas O. Goble, has stated that he has nothing to do with the committee. “I am not involved,” Dr. Goble told The Tennessean unequivocally. “I haven’t been involved from the start.”
This is just another sad, embarrassing installment in a 40-year effort by the walking horse industry to trot out false assurances or to set up dummy scientific groups while the illegal conduct continues. In 2012 the industry touted a “swabbing initiative” at the Celebration to purportedly test every horse for the presence of illegal foreign substances. It was later learned that only relatively few horses were tested: the actual numbers were never made public, and the handful of violators identified by the initiative received only a slap on the wrist. In contrast the USDA’s testing that year found that a remarkable 76 percent of horses it tested had been treated with caustic, numbing or masking chemicals. There can be no other conclusion but that there is widespread corruption and flagrant disregard for the law in the industry.
The walking horse industry will continue its cat-and-mouse game with the USDA, but in the end, there must be consequences for these lawbreakers. Congress must pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 1518/S. 1406 to eliminate stacks and chains (implements integral to the soring process), abolish the industry’s failed system of self-regulation and strengthen penalties for soring. The PAST Act is supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Horse Council and a multitude of horse industry and breed organizations. It also has the backing of everyone who wants to end the abuse of walking horses, including 363 members of Congress.
When Congress returns from recess on September 8th, lawmakers would do well to express their disgust with the conduct within the industry and to pass this common-sense, bipartisan legislation to crack down on reprehensible animal cruelty.