Roy Exum: A Horse Doctor’s Letter

Thursday, December 19, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

John C. Haffner is a highly-respected veterinarian who has loved and worked with horses since he was 15 years old. Now, as there are bills pending in both Congress and the Senate to help eradicate horse abuse centered in Tennessee, he has written a terrible but heart-felt letter to the bill’s sponsor, Kentucky Congressman Ed Whitfield. It is his eyewitness account of sheer madness that pervades the industry today.

The reason he wrote the lengthy letter was to assure Rep. Whitfield and other lawmakers that the sadistic soring of Tennessee Walking horses is still rampant in the industry. It is his staunch belief that pain is the only tool available to achieve the unnatural gait known as the big lick. And the reason for his unabashed certainty is because there was a time in his life that he took part in it.

Dr. Haffner, who today is the vice president of the Middle Tennessee Academy of Equine Practitioners, wrote in his letter, “I saw the pain. I did not only see these things, I helped do them. Gradually I became aware of the inherent wrongness of the training required to achieve the big lick. I say gradually became aware, but that is not accurate.

“I think I always knew it was wrong, but because of many factors, I lied to myself,” he admitted. “Factors such as: horse shows are fun, the big lick is exciting, I was making a lot of money working with the horses, I liked the people, it couldn’t be all that bad because so many people that loved their horses were doing it kept me willingly blinded to the harm that was being done in the name of showing horses.”

But as time went on and the horses’ pain soon blended with his own, Dr. Haffner told Rep. Whitfield, “This came to a head in the early 1990’s at the Columbia, Tennessee horse show. I was asked to examine a horse that had been turned down by the USDA. After I examined the horse and could find no problem with it, I repeated the exam with a videographer recording my examination.

“To make a long story short, about two years later the case was settled in favor of the defendant in Federal Court in Nashville. Part of the judge’s decision stated that he had relied on my testimony to acquit the accused,” Dr. Haffner wrote and, obviously, his conscience took quite a self-imposed beating.

“I was unsettled by the ordeal because I thought someone would ask if soring was a common practice. It is. But the prosecution never asked. So although I told the truth about that horse, that night, a lie was promulgated. That lie is that Walking Horses are not routinely sored, and that only a handful of unscrupulous trainers resort to soring to get an unfair advantage.

“The trial occurred in February, and it was a great victory for the industry. They had been exonerated, and the USDA was put in their place. The trainers became very bold that spring. I saw more open blatant soring in the months following the trial than I had ever seen in my life. 

“I vividly recall a person in a training barn that walked by me carrying a can of their mix of mustard oil and kerosene, and the smell was strong enough to cause me to recoil. After that season, my blinders were removed and I could no longer be a part of helping to promote and benefit from a practice that I knew was wrong.”

He wrote, “I sold my practice, and I have stayed involved in veterinary medicine in different ways since. I have been removed from the daily routine of training for quite some time now, but I have remained in contact enough to know that nothing has changed the essence of the practice. It cannot change any more than a leopard can change its spots.”

Dr. Haffner, now a faculty member at MTSU’s Horse Science Center, was approached by the big lick crowd on several occasions to oversee inspections but when he repeatedly answered inquiries with “only if the soring will stop,” he was coldly rebuffed.

“The fact is the big lick can only be accomplished by soring,” his letter was emphatic. “When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed. The big lick is a learned response to pain and if horses have not been sored, they do not learn it. 

“It takes skill to be able to teach a horse the big lick and then determine the proper amount of soring and the proper timing to have a horse ready on a Friday or Saturday night. The horses must have the memory of the pain, but they must also be able to pass inspection.

“It takes a combination of the built up pads for the weight and the chain to strike against the pastern that has been sored to produce the big lick. Other methods have been developed, but the traditional method is oil of mustard placed on the pastern and a chain put around the pastern to strike against it.

“The hair must be protected and this is generally done by applying grease on the pastern with a stocking over it. Calluses develop as a result of the chain rubbing against the skin. Later, the calluses are removed with a paste made by mixing salicylic acid with alcohol and applying it over the calluses and putting a leg bandage over it for a few days,” he wrote, adding, “This practice is also very painful to the horse. I have seen many horses lying in pain in their stalls on Monday morning from an acid treatment on Saturday.”

Dr. Haffner’s letter was earnest. “I want to stress that the people involved in the walking horse business are no better or worse than people in any other walk of life. We all suffer effects of a depraved nature. The people who have these horses love them and take care of them many times to the extreme in expense and ‘good’ care. They spend small and large fortunes on their horses. They provide the best of care, and they are truly remorseful when the horse is injured or dies.

“They spend money they know they will never recoup when the horse gets sick or needs surgery,” he wrote from experience. “They just don’t see anything wrong with the way the big lick is achieved, or they don’t think their trainer really sores their horse.

“I think they are blind to what they are doing and, until they have a personal epiphany of what lies at the bottom of the big lick, they will be unable to see it. That is what happened to me, and it appears that it happens to others in the business from time to time.

“Finally, I thank you for your bill to try to end soring. But you need to know, as long as a horse is doing the big lick, there will be soring. It will not be the few “bad actors” doing it. It is inherent to the gait and unavoidable in training. Unfortunately even without the big lick, there will still be soring.

He explained, “Flat shod horses develop a higher stepping gait if they have been sored. However, the techniques are different and it seems to be much less acceptable to the people within the industry. It is also more likely to be successfully policed. As long as there are people, there will be people trying to beat the system.

“The difference is that the flat shod horse has a natural gait which is not of necessity dependent on soring. There can be flat shod shows without soring. I think this is where the future lies for the walking horse industry, and the sooner that the big lick dies, the sooner the business can get on the road to recovery.”

John C. Haffner DVM ABVP(Eq)

* * *

To date the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, or PAST Act, has been endorsed by 248 of 435 members of Congress and 34 of 100 United States Senators. Because of what is believed to be intense political pressure, neither Senators Lamar Alexander nor Bob Corker has endorsed the Senate bill (Alexander’s state campaign chairman is Steven B. Smith, the president of the big lick’s Breeders and Exhibitor’s Association).

In Congress, only Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), the co-sponsor of HB 1518, has done so while the other eight of Tennessee’s nine Representatives have refused. Marsha Blackburn (R-Franklin) was given a reception by the big lick in August, where $70,000 was reportedly raised for her campaign. She has openly opposed the PAST Act.

Scott DesJarlais (R-Jasper) is also believed to support the big lick (he was honored at a similar reception in 2012). Other state representatives are Phil Roe (R-Johnson City), Jimmy Duncan (R-Knoxville), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga), Jim Cooper (D-Nashville), Diane Black (R-Gallatin), and Stephen Fincher (R-Frog Jump).

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