I've been around horses since I was a kid. But when I was assigned a story about the controversy surrounding soring, I knew I was entering a whole new world.
Of course, I'd heard of soring--the application of irritating chemicals or mechanical devices to the legs of a show horse to increase his animation. But because it is done primarily on Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and other gaited show horses that I had no experience with, I had never witnessed the practice. To prepare, I pored over everything from government reports and legal affidavits to newspaper articles and breed publications. I also began interviewing a broad range of sources inside and outside the show world.
But I quickly realized that before I could write a single word, I had to see for myself whether the accusations about soring were true or simply exaggerations about a horrible practice, once widespread but now rare.
So on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2004, I drove to a two-night Tennessee Walking Horse show in a southern Virginia town just off I-81. At the outset, it seemed like any other horse show. A few hours before the first class began, trailers started to arrive, parking in neat rows behind the stabling area. All around me, horses were unloaded. But here and there, others were left standing in their trailers as their handlers gathered and conferred in low tones. By the time the show began, many horsemen had left without ever unloading their horses. It was not something I was accustomed to seeing.
Later that evening, as I leaned up against the rail of the main arena, I wondered aloud why so many classes had been canceled. "The government's here," said a man standing nearby, nodding toward a white tent beside the showring. As we watched a single horse and rider parade before the judges, he added, "Usually, there'd be eight or 10 showing in this class."
The man moved down the rail to talk to another horseman, but not out of earshot. "I've got 10 here," he said, gesturing over his shoulder to his trailer, "and I guess two can still go."
"Well, we're outta here," the other man replied. "But I'll bring a full load tomorrow. They never come back a second day."
Tradition, Technology and Red Tape
Various versions of this cat-and-mouse game have played out between government inspectors and certain exhibitors for more than 30 years. Soring was banned by federal law in 1970, and inspections have been part of all Tennessee Walking Horse shows ever since. But, ultimately, the law has generated controversy rather than ending it.
A key aspect involves dollars and cents. Government veterinarians, working under a limited budget ($500,000 or less annually), manage to directly supervise inspections at only 30 to 50 of the more than 600 shows under their jurisdiction each year. The rest are overseen by horsemen who have been trained and licensed to detect soring by nine designated Horse Industry Organizations that have themselves been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (see list at end of this article).
Of course, self-regulation is not necessarily a problem--if it works. But a growing body of evidence suggests that significant disparities exist between government and industry inspections of Tennessee Walking Horses. For example, a USDA summary report for the 2000 show season indicates that when government veterinarians were present, inspectors evaluated 17,500 horses and issued 293 violations. By comparison, at shows where government officials were not on site, industry inspectors who examined five times that number of horses--roughly 100,000--gave out only 139 violations.
Nonetheless, many in the Walking Horse show industry say that, if anything, the current system is too intrusive. Many deny that soring extends beyond a few isolated cases, and they question the necessity of continued government oversight.
In contrast, equine welfare groups--and a few industry insiders--say that soring, though less conspicuous than it once was, continues to a substantial and disturbing degree. Enforcement of the law, they say, has been spotty all along, and they see only more trouble ahead if the industry is granted even greater autonomy.
In one form or another, this conflict has been wending its way through the courts and halls of government for more than three decades. However the legal issues are resolved, a moral one remains: In 21st century America is even a low incidence of soring acceptable?
For a Competitive Edge
Soring, also known as "fixing," is found in several gaited breeds, but the practice is most prevalent among Tennessee Walking Horse show horses. As the breed's name implies, the Tennessee Walking Horse has long been known for his distinctive running walk, a smooth and rapid four-beat gait prized by riders for its comfort and practicality. About 50 years ago, the running walk seen in the show ring underwent a striking transformation, from sweeping and ground-covering to high-stepping and showy.