How much soring contributed to the emergence of what became known as the "big lick" running walk is a matter of debate. To be sure, selective breeding has helped to shape the modern Tennessee Walking Horse's gaits. But most accounts suggest that soring grew out of the desire to find a quick and easy means of achieving the sort of animation that would win in the show ring.
Various techniques have been used over the years, but the most common method is fairly simple. A few drops of mustard oil, kerosene or another irritating substance are brushed on the horse's front pasterns, often along with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to increase the chemicals' absorption. Then the legs are covered with plastic wrap, bandaged and allowed to "cook" for a few days until they are tender to the touch.
Next, chains are placed around the horse's pasterns. Considered legal "action devices" in the industry, chains themselves are not harmful, but they rub against the already irritated skin and increase the horse's pain. In response, his gait becomes flashy: He picks up his sored feet more quickly and lifts them higher than normal, and he shifts some of his weight to his hind end to escape the pain up front.
Soring generally has been done at home rather than at the show grounds. In some circles, the techniques for mixing and applying solutions have been passed down through generations. Don Bell, who began training Tennessee Walkers 45 years ago, has seen this firsthand. For example, he says, if a horse wearing chains didn't lift his feet high enough, the soring mixture might be applied to the front of the pasterns. Or, if his gait broke too high without enough outward reach, the solution would be concentrated in the pocket of the pasterns.
"When a person sold a horse to another trainer, as a courtesy, they would give instructions on how they fixed that horse," Bell says. These techniques were common in Tennessee Walking Horse show barns in the 1960s, says Bell, who admits to soring horses himself for nearly three decades. "Everyone was doing it--it was unbelievable. Oil of mustard and croton oil were popular because they were easy to get. You could buy them in tack shops, sold in eyedropper containers. I could order oil of mustard in a pint bottle through my druggist."
But a sorer's task didn't end there, he says. Steps were also taken to hide the raw, bloody skin that often resulted from the practice. "People would use screwworm smear [called Globe Smear 62], which was tar-colored, to cover up the bleeding," he says. "It was common to see black pasterns, no matter what color the horse was."
Bell boots were also used to hide the results of soring, according to Pam Reband, who showed Walking Horses for 30 years through the late 1990s and has served as vice president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA). "In the showring, you'd have to turn one of the boots upside down to prove there were no tacks hitting the horse on the pastern," she says. "If the judge couldn't see blood [from where he was standing], your horse passed inspection. Even if there was blood, [the groom] would just kick some dirt on it to cover it up."
But just as often, it was impossible to hide a horse's pain, says Morgan Rhoads, a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer who wrote a 2002 exposé on soring called From the Horse's Mouth under the pen name Eugene Davis. "Some horses were in such pain from soring they would spend their time lying down until they were prodded to stand," says Rhoads. Reband adds that when she showed, "horses had to be whipped to rise, and it was not considered a horrible thing."
In the early 1960s outrage over soring helped to mobilize the equine welfare movement. In 1966 the American Horse Protection Association (AHPA) was founded to address two issues: the treatment of feral horses on public lands and the prevalence of soring. Three years later Sen. Joseph Tydings (D-Md.) introduced federal legislation addressing these issues, and in 1970 the Horse Protection Act (HPA) was passed by Congress.
The HPA prohibits the transport, sale or exhibition of sored horses. The law extends protection to all breeds, but the regulations put in place to implement it recognize that Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and other gaited breeds are most frequently subject to soring. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is charged with enforcing the act with a budget that cannot exceed $500,000 a year.