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Heading into Washington … at a ‘running walk’

Eight-year-old Grey Tennessee Walking Horse gelding "Howie" is ridden by Joe London from Brandy Station. Photo by Adam Goings.
Heading into Washington … at a 'running walk'

Archaic Tennessee Walking Horse technique of soring at center of legislative argument

Local riders took their political fight to the Hill last month, riding their purebred Tennessee Walking Horses right up to the Capitol steps to highlight a bill currently in front of Congress.

Proponents of the Prevent All Soring Tactics bill, PAST, rode their horses up and down the Mall at the June 19 event, landing a photo op and political platform for bill sponsor Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. Culpeper trainer Jenny McGuire was among those taking part for the newly-formed All-American Walking Horse Alliance.

“We feel this bill is a way to remove the negative image and stigma from (the breed),” McGuire said.

The signature high-step of performance Walkers, known as “Big Lick,” McGuire said, makes the gait and beauty of the breed into “a caricature on what's natural. It's extreme, and we (believe) the only way to produce that gait is to inflict pain.”

According to McGuire, the Horse Protection Act of 1970 was supposed to protect horses against the practice of soring, application of caustic agents on a horse's lower legs to artificially force an exaggerated stride.

But McGuire's group believes HPA is not being enforced, and that an “old-boys' network” controls regulation of the industry's powerful breeders' and exhibitors' group. More legislation is what's needed, she maintains.

Detractors argue that enforcement is the issue, that more regs could complicate matters.

And not only for Walking Horses.

Simply put, “the bill would outlaw 'weighted shoes', for starters,” explained Bealeton Walking Horse trainer Sharon Rice, wife of a farrier, Steve Rice. “I'd argue that any shoe, for any horse, is a 'weighted' shoe. Where will it end?” Like well-meaning bills a couple years ago aimed at controlling notorious puppy mills that inadvertently limited purebred dog breeders and foxhunt clubs, that involvement of the fed at the competitors' level is the first step on a slippery slope, Rice said.

A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Blackwell and Sen. Lamar Alexander, address the issue, she said, without complicating matters.

Regardless of the political divide, proponents of both factions agree – what's at stake are horse health and humane treatment.

Owner-breeder Pam McKinney of Brandy Station said that HPA compliance has consistently gone up as inspectors apply increasingly stringent scientific method to detect miniscule amounts of irritant, including thermography and minute particulates.

In soring, trainers paint mustard oil on the horse's fetlocks, wrap the cannon bone with DMSO, sprinkle the ankle with diesel fuel, or use a Kopertox “sweat” to make the skin on the lower leg tender.

Widespread use of such painful tactics are a thing of the past, McKinney argues. “When (detractors) point out 'thousands of violations,' what they don't say is the numbers were compiled over 28 years through more than nine million tests. We have more than 98 percent compliance. We definitely wish for 100 percent, but it's not this hotbed of abuse like they want you to think.

Other issues emerge

The PAST bill isn't the first time Rep. Whitfield has delved into the horse industry, having helped introduce the Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2005. Whitfield's interest in the Walking Horse industry raises more than a few eyebrows because of that association, because many believe the slaughter legislation has done more to hurt horses than help them. Horse “rescues” are flooded, and animals are starved and abandoned because legislators removed the “bottom” of the market. Slaughter legislation is still hotly debated within the industry as officials attempt to rectify the problems.

“I am encouraged to see this grassroots effort of PAST Act supporters,” said Rep. Whitfield in a statement. “I am pleased to have (to be) a voice for these great horses. This was a great opportunity for Congress to see the amount of support this bill has from the entire equine, veterinary, animal welfare and Tennessee Walking Horse world. Those who present sound horses without stacks and chains and support this important legislation are to be commended and I applaud their efforts and dedication.”

As an alternative to the PAST bill, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn put forward Res. 4098; Sen. Lamar Alexander put up a twin bill in the Senate. Res. 4098 contains similar language, but it doesn't tightly regulate the weight of shoes, nor does it push enforcement to the USDA.

Both measures remain in committee, as does PAST.

So far 54 senators and 278 representatives endorse PAST.

According to the Performance Show Horse Association, the Tennessee Walking Horse is the most inspected breed in the U.S.

“As the oldest, largest and most influential walking horse association, we applaud (the legislators) for their efforts to eliminate the last remnants of soring through objective, scientific-based, and veterinarian-approved inspections,” wrote Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association director Tracy Boyd in a press release.

More support

Since passage of the Horse Protection Act some 44 years ago, the Walking Horse industry fractured into fractious splinter groups, an alphabet array of organizations from the powerful TWHBEA to Friends of Sound Horses – FOSH, from Walking Horse Owners Association – WHOA, to PAST. “There's nothing different about anyone,” McKinney stressed. “We all believe in fairness, sound horses, humane training methods. No one argues that.

“There's always a bad apple, a bad actor in any industry,” McKinney added. That some trainers “cheat” to shortcut training is no more surprising than cyclists using steroids to pump muscles or swimmers using buoyant swimsuits to improve in sports where fractions of a second matter.

Detractors of the PAST bill question the endorsement of the so-called Humane Society of the U.S., what many call an animal rights terrorist group. HSUS operates no shelters, assists no rehab, protects no habitat, yet through relentless fundraising and a strong lobby, is able to affect policy at grassroots and legislative levels. That HSUS president Wayne Pacelle has said he wants a “pet free, meat free” society draws into question the tricky language of PAST, McKinney warned.

HSUS has come out in strong support of Whitfield's bill.

“The breed's gait stands for itself,” said Whitfield press secretary Marty Irby. “Nothing artificial.”

PAST goes too far, Rice warned, possibly mixing up other horse breeds, for instance, by vague wording that will restrict the weight of horseshoes. “I've seen some awfully heavy shoes (husband/farrier) Steve puts on hunters,” Rice said. “Do they count? Does a horse that's 'spun' on a soundness check at a (three-day event) get 'reported' to HPA? Where does it stop?”

Inviting the government into the stable yard is dangerous, she said.

If PAST passes, McKinney said she fears show horses may have to walk barefoot. “It's not viable.

“These horses have a beautiful, high, natural gait,” she said, one emphasized and developed through progressive training. “Not everybody 'sores' a horse to get it. It's already protected by HPA.”

Betsy Burke Parker is a freelance contributor and editor of our horse briefs section. You may reach her at betsyburkeparker@gmail.com


Tennessee Walking Horses: plantation original

The Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed of gaited horse known for its unique four-beat “running walk,” a comfortable, four-beat step, up to 20 miles per hour. There is no natural two-beat trot in a show Walker – they do a flat walk, running walk and elegant, methodical slow three-beat canter. The paces are so smooth that some shows have classes known as the “Champagne Glass Class” in which competitors carry a stem-glass filled with champagne and perform a full under-saddle class.

The most-filled glass wins; many times there is a multi-way tie for first.

It was originally developed through selective breeding in the southern U.S. for use on farms and plantations. Early blood is said to have come from Canadian and Narragansett Pacers and hardy mustangs.

Black Allen, a 1886 foal from the family of championship Standardbred Hambletonian and a show Morgan mare, is considered foundation sire of the Walking Horse.

In 1935 the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' Association was formed, and the studbook closed in 1947. In 1939, the first Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration was held in Shelbyville, Tenn.

So-called “flat shod” Walkers exhibit high-stepping but less exaggerated movement. Thick, built-up pads, or stacks, produce a longer, higher step, called “Big Lick” in the performance arena.

Walking Horses are also known for calm disposition and sure-footedness. They're used in the show ring as well as for trail and pleasure, both under English “saddle-seat” tack and western.

Famous Walkers include several equine actors that played the Lone Ranger's horse, Silver, as well as Roy Rogers second “Trigger,” a Tennessee Walker named Allen's Gold Zephyr.
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