Roy Exum: Veterinarians Decry Horse Abuse

Friday, June 15, 2012 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Two of the country’s most prolific groups of large-animal veterinarians have joined in the nation-wide call for the Tennessee Walking Horse industry to once and forever cease the despicable act of soring horses and, in a joint announcement Thursday, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners even took it one “big step” further – cut out the gimmicks.

The two groups are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ban the use of so-called “action devices” that cause the beautiful horses to take what is called the “Big Lick” in the show rings – an exaggerated high step due to chains, ankle rings, collars, rollers and bracelets of wood or aluminum beads.

They also want to ban the stacks, or pads, that have been used in the industry for years, saying it makes soring and other cruelty too easy for unscrupulous trainers and owners to hide. “It is a great day for the horse!” enthused one long-time advocate against soring and cruelty. “I never thought I would see the day when America would finally wake up to the dirty secrets in the walking horse industry!”

According to a news release issued by the two medical groups, “Performance packages (also called stacks or pads), made of plastic, leather, wood, rubber and combinations of these materials, are attached below the sole of the horse's natural hoof and have a metal band that runs around the hoof wall to maintain them in place,” the statement explained. “Performance packages add weight to the horse's foot, causing it to strike with more force and at an abnormal angle to the ground. They also facilitate the concealment of items that apply pressure to the sole of the horse's hoof (including caustic substances). Pressure from these hidden items produces pain in the hoof so that the horse lifts its feet faster and higher in an exaggerated gait.”

Obviously, the federal Horse Protection Act – written in 1970 and now glaringly inadequate – will soon be reviewed and the veterinarian groups are joining the USDA and many thousands of horse owners in an effort to finally end the horrible abuse that has apparently thrived in the once-hallowed walking horse industry for more than 40 years. Earlier this year federal investigators in Chattanooga became the first to successfully prosecute blatant violators and one who pleaded guilty, trainer Jackie McConnell of Collierville, Tn., infamously starred in an undercover video in May where he is shown beating a show animal with an electric cattle prod. Four other men have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on Sept. 10.

While officials in the walkers’ Celebration organization are adamant these are isolated cases, a closer inspection reveals the top 20 trainers in the Riders Cup standings have 161 violations of the Horse Protection Act on record in just the last two years, and that many who sit on governing bodies in the walking horse industry are known violators of the federal act as well.The abuse is so prevalent that the American Veterinarian Medical Association now believes it must make a stand. "Soring has been an illegal act for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, increasingly shrewd and more difficult to detect -  yet equally painful - methods of soring continue to plague the Walking Horse Industry," said Dr. Rene A. Carlson, president of the AVMA. "America's veterinarians are asking USDA-APHIS to prohibit the use of action devices and performance packages in the training and showing of Walking Horses, because they appear to be facilitating soring," Dr. Carlson added.

Dr. John Mitchell, the president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, said the same thing. His group, based out of Lexington, Ky., oversees about 10 million horses with its 10,000 members and they suggested radical changes in the walking horse industry in 2008. "The soring of Tennessee Walking Horses is an extremely abusive practice and it must end," said Mitchell. "We urge a modification to the Horse Protection Act so that all action devices and performance packages are banned."

The news release didn’t say whether members from either group would report violations that they see during their routine practice. Currently USDA veterinarians inspect some show horses but, woefully underfunded, they have relied on outside groups in recent years with disappointing results. The USDA just announced that all judges and inspectors will now adhere to the same standards.In announcing the call for banning action devices and stacks, the joint news release said, “Because the inhumane practice of soring Tennessee Walking Horses has continued 40 years after passage of the Horse Protection Act, and because the industry has been unable to make substantial progress in eliminating this abusive practice, the AVMA and the AAEP believe a ban on action devices and performance packages is necessary to protect the health and welfare of the horse.”

Initial response to the veterinarians action was tremendous. Officials of the Humane Society are ecstatic and it is believed the USDA will move as quickly as possible to add pressure to the mounting concerns there are far too many violations by an amazingly low number of walking horse owners.

David Sacks, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, told the Nashville Tennessean, “Right now, pads and action devices are legal, but we are looking at proposing changes in the near future. That would, of course, require a full regulatory procedure, so it’s not going to be an overnight process and we’ve not yet determined all the specifics involved.”

“We will continue to do all we can … to get closer to our ultimate goal, which is to completely eliminate the inhumane practice of soring horses,” Sacks said and, obviously, the top veterinarians in the country agree.

In the meanwhile, groups of walking horse activists are asking both state and federal elected officials to take a more active role in legislating better and stiffer laws to prohibit animal abuse.

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