While PETA horrified the world with video from the shedrow at Steve Asmussen’s racing barn, the abuse that Big Lick Walking Horses (the high stepping subset of Tennessee Walkers) suffer has mostly gone under the radar, even though, by most accounts, it’s far more pervasive and far more severe. Many of the top show horses olive lives wracked by pain so severe that they don’t want to stand up and are beaten in their stalls.
The Humane Society released a report that shows that soring techniques are rampant among the trainers of Big Lick Walkers to encourage the highly exaggerated gait known as the “Big Lick” even though the practice was banned in 1970 when the Horse Protection Act (HPA) was passed to protect the horse from intentional soring.
The soring of TWH started in the late 1940s and early 1950s when a few horses with more animation to their gaits started winning championships. While breeding and training created horses with more extravagant gaits, more nefarious methods were soon introduced. Soring involves the application of caustic liquids to the horses’ legs — commonly used are mustard oil, diesel fuel or kerosene — often with dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to increase the chemicals’ absorption. Then the legs are wrapped in plastic wrap and left to “cook” until the legs are tender.
In addition to the soring, performance TWHs wear ankle chains and weighted shoes. The combination results in an animated gait where the horses lift their front legs higher and flick them out in front of their bodies, while at the same time the horse crouches on its hind legs to avoid the pain in front. To my eyes, the gait looks both artificial and painful, not beautiful.
The video below is a longer program that talks more about the history of the Tennessee Walking Horse and how the industry could be channeled back toward the breed’s natural gaits. It’s hard to watch at times. One of the saddest statements is when a nationally recognized trainer, who now opposes soring, says that his father taught him how to sore a horse when he was 13 and that for many years he just accepted the practice without understanding that a pain-based gait was wrong. Maybe this time the attention give to the Tennessee Walking Horse will finally help break the cycle of pain for this lovely breed.
Update: On July 25, 2019, by a vote of 333 to 96, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the U.S. Senator Joseph D. Tydings Memorial Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act. The measure seeks to strengthen the nearly forty-year-old Horse Protection Act and end the torturous, painful practice of soring Tennessee Walking, Racking, and Spotted Saddle Horses.