Soring is quite possibly one of the most alarming and most unknown forms of animal cruelty. It can be best described as abusing animals for the sake of entertainment and financial gain. This article explains soring and why it still exists today.
What Exactly Is Soring?
Soring is the process of putting acidic products and irritating chemicals on a horse’s legs that cause pain in the horse in order for it to lift its legs higher for more action. It also includes pressure shoeing, which contains methods of causing pain to the bottom of the horse's feet through mechanical means, again to get the horse to lift its legs higher. It is commonly found in the world of the Tennessee Walking Horse, and we see it most prominently with the Performance horses, or “Big Lick” horses.
In order to understand how soring works and why soring exists, we need to take a look at the history of the Tennessee Walking Horse and why soring came to be.
For recent information concerning soring, please visit our blog.
Tennessee Walking Horse Breed History
The Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) was developed in the southeast
The popularity of the smooth ride of the TWH spread quickly and many people wanted to own these smooth-riding horses. So In 1935, the TWH Breeder’s Association of America began to put together a registry and stud books. These stud books were closed in 1947, determining that the TWH was a separate breed on its own. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognized the TWH as a distinct breed of light horse in 1950. In 1974, the registry’s name was expanded to the TWH Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA).
The Natural Gaits of the TWH
The smooth ride of the TWH is characterized by a four-beat lateral gait. This means that the feet on one side of the horse move forward before the feet on the other side. In watching a TWH in its gait, we can clearly see the following footfall pattern: right hind foot, right forefoot, left hind foot, left forefoot. When the horse is in this gait, three legs will be on the ground while one leg will be in the air, alternating in the described footfall pattern. Each individual footfall can actually be heard, so when the horse is in gait, we can count out loud “one and two and three and four and” and be in timing with the gait. The gaits of the TWH have been give the following names.
Flat Walk. (Click for a video) The flat walk is a four-beat, broken lateral gait at a leisurely, comfortable speed with a prominent head nod where the head and neck nod from the withers.
Click here for the flat-foot walk, or “dog walk,” which is the base of the horse's signature gaits and shows off the horse’s natural, swingy movement at a regular walk.
Running Walk. (Click for a video) The flat walk at a faster speed.
Canter. (Click for a video) A four-beat lateral canter that, when ridden, can be likened to riding a rocking horse with the feeling of riding uphill. The canter is similar to that of non-gaited horses in speed.
(These videos are of Papa's Royal Delight, a completely natural TWH stallion who goes barefoot. These are by far the best examples of the gaits available today. Videos are courtesy of Howe They Walk Farms).
The Show Gaits of the TWH
Over the years, the gaits have been developed for the show ring to show off the horse’s flashy movement and stunning conformation. These show gaits are based on the amount of animation, or lift to the horses legs, and the size of the shoes the horse wears. Horses can be entered in two gait classes, where they are only shown in the flat walk and running walk, or three gait classes, where they are shown in the flat walk, running walk and canter.
Lite Shod or Flat Shod (above).
The horse is shown at the regular, natural flat walk and running walk. Though rulebooks differ, usually the shoes can be no more than 3/4-inch wide and 3/8-inch thick. Barefoot is also usually accepted.
The horse is shown at the regular, natural flat walk and running walk. The horse has more animation than the Lite Shod or Flat Shod horse. The front knees of the horse must not lift higher than the horse’s chest. Again, rulebooks can differ, but usually the shoes can be no more than 1 1/2-inches wide and 1/2-inch thick.
Performance or “Big Lick” (above).
The horse is shown wearing “stacks” and chains on its front legs to fully exaggerate the natural gait.
Click here for the TWH Performance gaits. Choose the flat walk, running walk, and canter choices under Performance Horse.
Where Did the Big Lick TWH Come From?
In 1945 and 1946, a stallion named Midnight Sun (pictured below) entered the show ring. His natural flat walk with no special shoeing was extremely animated with high knee action, similar to today’s
The TWH shows were also seeing a recession in attendance after World War II. However, people started coming specifically to see Midnight Sun and his flashy gait. To attract more crowds to the shows, TWH trainers decided to borrow action devices from other horse breed trainers in order to get a more flashy, animated gait out of their horses.
Trainers and spectators pushed for more and more animation, which lead to the “Big Lick” horse.
The Big Lick horse is shown in what are called “stacks.” Wooden (no longer used), plastic or leather pads that are stacked on top of each other are attached to the horse’s regular shoe to create the stacks. A band is put over the top of the horse’s hoof to keep the stacks in place. By show rule definition, stacks can be no taller than half the length of the hoof from the coronet band to the toe. This is usually up to about 2 1/2 inches in height. However, taller stacks, up to 5 inches, with a hoof length of up to 3 inches have been recorded. Industry users will also call stacks "pads," but this term can be misleading since pads are usually used for corrective shoeing or helping with hoof injuries or diseases.
How Did Soring Start?
Training a horse to perform the Big Lick is tedious and time consuming. The horse must be gradually worked up to the taller shoes so they can gradually carry heavier and heavier shoes. This can sometimes take several years, depending on the age, strength and stamina of the horse. To get more horses in the show ring sooner, TWH trainers wanted a faster way to get the horses to perform this gait.
The desire for a more animated horse in less time lead to the development of “soring” in the early 1950s.
What is Involved in Soring?
Soring is the practice of applying acidic products to the horse’s pasterns. The pasterns are wrapped in plastic wrap and then regular vet wrap so the product creates a heating action that absorbs through the skin and into the tissue beneath. The causes painful blistering and burning. Before the class, the wraps are removed and chains are put around the pasterns. The chains scrape against the burned areas, causing more pain and forcing the horse to pick his feet up higher to try to avoid the pain.
Acidic products that are used include the following.
While some of these chemicals have to be special ordered, products that produce similar results can be created by combining products or using too much of a product found in your local grocery store or tack store. These products must be applied with a brush and while wearing gloves because they’re incredibly toxic to the skin, eyes and mucus membranes.
Note also that soring involves the practice of pressure shoeing, where various methods are used to cause pain to the horse's feet without using chemicals. The hoof may be ground down with a sander until drops of blood appear, then a pad and shoe is applied to put pressure on the hoof. A doorstop, golf ball, or other device may be inserted between the pad and the shoe after sanding in order to cause pain. By definition, pressure shoeing causes pain to the horse's limbs to exaggerate its gait and therefore is against the HPA. There are various forms of pressure shoeing--we will have a detailed article soon concerning it. For now, you can read about pressure shoeing here.
Above is a photograph of preparation of a horse for the show ring by applying a possible soring agent. This photograph was used in an article about soring and was also emailed to me by Dr. Todd Behre, DVM, of the USDA as an example of a sored horse.
The green substance could possibly be Kopertox®, which is most likely used as “an irritant.” While some folks claim that the green is a chain grease used to lubricate and protect the horses’ legs, none of the USDA-approved lubricants to be used for protective purposes—mineral oil, glycerine and petrolatum (similar to Vaseline)—are green in color. (“Special Report: Why Soring Persists,” Equus magazine, November 2005)
I was specifically told by one person who uses it that Kopertox® is used to prevent abrasions and hair loss on the horse’s pasterns. However, the manufacturer’s label for this product clearly states the following: “Caution: Do not allow runoff of excess KOPERTOX® onto hair since contact with KOPERTOX® may cause some hair loss.”
How Can I Tell if a Horse Has Been Sored?
While these aren’t tried and true methods to tell if a horse has been sored, they are signs that have been found in horses that have been sored. Some horses will exhibit some of the “symptoms” and not others. These are more often seen in Big Lick horses, but horses that are pressure shod are also not immune.
Horse shifts weight to the hind feet and stands with all four feet together, as if standing “on a quarter.”
Drags front toes.
Scars or granulated bumps along the pasterns or near the cornet band, usually on both front legs.
Abnormal, wavy hair growth and/or dark hairs (darker than what the horse’s color should be) in the pastern area.
Hocks are carried low to the ground and twisted outward when moving.
While the TWH is characterized by three legs on the ground and one in the air, the horse may have two legs in the air to try to compensate for the pain.
The horse will have "hang time" where the front feet hesitate before touching the ground, or the horse will seem to bounce in the front end.
We can see that this horse is not in the correct gait as required by the breed standards because it has two legs in the air rather than only one. I was told by a Big Lick trainer that the Big Lick horse "needs" the "swing of the pace" in order to perform the Big Lick. Once the horse is on the stacks (and usually sored) then they will "square up" and perform the four-beat gait. Therefore, many horses are being bred to perform the pace, which is NOT a true gait to the TWH breed.
Applying chains to the horse's pasterns. USDA regulations require that chains be no heavier than 6 ounces on the show grounds. Two sets of chains is not allowed. Note the streaks of color on the horse's hooves and the areas near the coronet band where hair seems to be missing.
Note the green on the horse's pasterns. This is most likely a chemical agent being used as a soring agent.
This horse has green on his pasterns and two legs in the air. The horse in the background seems to be standing as if "on a quarter."
This horse appears to be standing "on a quarter," possibly to compensate for the pain in its front legs. Note the excessive wraps laying on the ground to the left of the horse, especially the plastic. The discoloration of hair on its pasterns could be a sign that this horse has been sored.
This photo was taken on May 14, 2010 at a horse show in Kentucky. This horse was determined to be sore by the USDA after it had been entered into its class and won. The owner and trainer were ticketed for HPA violations by the USDA.
Here's an excellent video of a horse taken privately during a DQP inspection at a show on June 26, 2010. This horse is obviously in pain in his front legs, so much that he is trying to rock back on his hind end and doesn't want to even walk. This horse is most likely pressure shod as it it not a Big Lick horse and does not have chains on its pasterns. This video was sent to me by an anonymous source.
What is Being Done About Soring?
In 1976, the Horse Protection Act (HPA) was passed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to protect the show horse by not allowing chemical aids to be used. The law outlawed soring practices and imposed limits on the weight of chains that are used. The HPA is administered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) division of the USDA. A team of Veterinary Medical Officers (VMOs) trained to recognize soring was developed to on spot inspections onsite at horse shows.
The goal of passing the HPA was to end soring. Citations are issued each year to trainers and owners for soring their horses, and the penalties include both fines and time in jail, depending on the amount of violations and/or the severity of the case involved.
“The battle that we seem to be fighting is a battle that no longer exists: the pre-1976 Walking Horse....There seems to be a group of people in southern California that don’t like this look and so, in an effort to remove the look, they seem to want to make a case about abuse, and the abuse has not existed since 1976, when the law went into effect.”~ Mr. Bill Harlan, National Horse Show Commission, Inc. (NHSC) representative, Inside Edition, circa 2000
USDA statistics show us that soring is still the major form of “training” Big Lick horses.
In 2000 and previous years, the NHSC had the highest amount of violations when APHIS officials were present at their shows—more than double the next highest amount of violations (USDA Horse Protection Enforcement, Calendar Year 2000, page 9). At all events that the APHIS attended in 2000, “Padded horses are found in violation at a rate almost five times that of flat-shod horses” (USDA Horse Protection Enforcement, Calendar Year 2000, page 20).
New statistics have been gathered using the chemical “sniffers,” officially known as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) devices. From the USDA website: “GC/MS is a testing technique used to identify the composition of chemical mixtures, which are sometimes applied to horses’ legs. APHIS collects the samples at shows and sends them to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) in
The USDA took 92 samples at the 2005 Celebration and 25 samples at the 2005 Kentucky Celebration. Of the 92 samples taken at the 2005 Celebration, 54 percent indicated a chemical was present, primarily numbing agents, UV radiation blockers, DMSO, and diesel or other fuels. At the Kentucky Celebration, 100 percent of the horses tested positive for diesel fuel, and almost half were found to have numbing agents. Camphor and sulfur were also detected. (“USDA to Industry: ‘Step Up or We Will,’” The Voice magazine, March 2006.)
In contrast, the sniffer was used in 2004 and 2005 at a Friends of the Sound Horses (FOSH) show and a National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) show, and none of the samples tested positive for any adverse chemicals or banned substances. (“USDA to Industry: ‘Step Up or We Will,’” The Voice magazine, March 2006.)
The USDA is so pleased with these results that they will be using the sniffers at all of the shows that they attend. Click here for the USDA’s April 14, 2006 official announcement of the use of chemical “sniffers.”
In August of 2006, history was made. The USDA came unannounced to the annual TWH Celebration to perform inspections. The TWH Celebration is the largest TWH show in America and is also the last show of the season, used to crown the celebrated World Grand Champion (WGC). The USDA found large numbers of violations at the Celebration. The classes for Friday evening, August 25 and Saturday morning, August 26, were canceled due to what the show management deemed as "inconsistencies" in the inspection processes. Then the last class of the show, the one that crowns the World Grand Champion, was also canceled. Five of the nine inspected entries received HPA violations, and the tenth entry did not present his horse for inspection, automatically scratching his horse from the class. No WGC was crowned in 2006, the only time this has happened in the history of the Celebration.
In 2009, the USDA came for inspections again. This time they reported over 400 violations, a record at any horse show and for any given year the HPA has been enacted. Click here for the HSUS article detailing the 2009 Celebration.
Why Isn’t the HPA Working?
In short, trainers have found ways to get around the USDA. Organizations that represented the breeder and trainers asked the USDA if they could self-regulate their practices. The Horse Industry Organization (HIO) was developed to work with the USDA in assigning Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs)—people who would be trained to recognize soring, like the VMOs. The NHSC and TWHBEA are both members of the HIO and provide the most funds to it.
In 2008, the NHSC was disbanded and was replaced by SHOW (Sound Horses Honest Judging Objective Inspections Winning Fairly) with the "pledge" to "take personal responsibility to refrain from any act that might be construed as animal abuse and state publicly that we will encourage our friends to do likewise." (SHOW website, Our Campaign/homepage.) SHOW's Board of Directors, Officers, licensed judges, and DQPs are many of the same people who held positions with the NHSC. SHOW continues to have numerous violations at their venues, and it is important to note that the 2009 Celebration where over 400 violations were found was affiliated with SHOW's rulebook and regulations. This was also SHOW's first affiliation with that show.
Taking over for the NHSC, SHOW provides the rules and regulations for most TWH shows. However, SHOW is mostly run by breeders and trainers that are many times known HPA violators and most likely practice soring. While SHOW rules against soring in their rule book, their DQPs have been elected to the position by the aforementioned breeders and trainers. Therefore, many times a horse that is being sored is looked upon with a “blind eye” and allowed to show.
“The actual DQPs...are [TWH] horse industry people to the core, trainers, assistants, farriers, etc. They view their job as to protect the horse industry, not to write up sore horses. Some have told me that if they cite too many, the no longer get to go to horse shows.”~ Dr. Tom James, former TWH owner/exhibitor and recently retired USDA veterinarian, Horse Illustrated, July 2004
Money is also a major factor why soring continues. The TWHBEA is one of the very few profiting horse registration organizations in the
“As long as the big lick wins at shows, the trainer must produce it to stay in business....The day a trainer stops producing big lick horses is the day all the horses in his or her barn are removed and taken to another trainer. The pressure is enormous.”~ Dr. Tom James, Horse Illustrated, July 2004
“After DQPing for 10 years and watching HIOs get payoffs to allow sored horses [to] go through, I cannot find a clean HIO and no longer DQP.”~ Ms. Jan Saltzman, TWH Breeder and Trainer in
Pennsylvania, quoted from email, June 18, 2004
Why Doesn’t Someone Stop Them?
Confronting the offenders is dangerous and not productive. Offenders have been known to assure anyone who asks about soring that it doesn’t hurt the horses. In fact, Bob Cherry of the TWHBEA Board of Directors once was quoted to have said “Horses don’t feel pain.”
Furthermore, offenders that think a venue is being strict on their rules will use less obvious methods of soring to pass inspections. Topical anesthetics are used to hide the pain during inspection, which wears off before the horse enters the show ring. Salicylic acid is used to burn the offending scars off so the hair grows back. Horses are also “stewarded,” which means they are taught by being severely whipped or beaten not to react to the pain during inspection.
Offenders also will leave a show if VMOs directly from the USDA arrive to do spot inspections. For example, USDA VMOs came for a spot inspection to a NHSC show in
Offenders also have been known to threaten a person who stands up against them. Dr. Pamela Reband, Board Member for the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) and a former TWHBEA Board Member, has received death threats against herself, her family and her horses for standing up to the NHSC and TWHBEA for this offense. She moved to a different state and “went into hiding” in order to protect herself and her family. Some USDA VMOs who write a high number of violations have also received death threats, and at a TWH auction in 2000, some USDA inspectors had their tires slashed.
“Unfortunately, efforts to enforce the HPA effectively have not been embraced by some individuals. In 2000, APHIS had to request that
U.S. Marshals and law enforcement agents from USDA’s Office of the Inspector General accompany APHIS VMOs to numerous shows due to threats of violence against APHIS personnel.”
~ USDA, Horse Protection Enforcement, Calendar Year 2000
However, the Internet has become the one tool that has been instrumental in exposing soring and the fact that it's continuing. The USDA has their HPA violation information, protection program activities, and sentencing information online (click here), and Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) has compiled that data into a complex database called hpadata.us. The proof that soring still exists is everywhere, and it is clear that the majority of the HIOs are not interested in ending it.
For more information on the fight against soring, please visit our blog, which was the inspiration for this website. We work hard to update everyone on the latest events relating to soring and the work being done to stop it. All our information is based in fact, and opinions are clearly pointed out. Sometimes we have action items, which include letter and email writing campaigns, petitions, and various other methods. We the people can end soring by being proactive and continue to fight for the horse, and no one else.
Please help us save this wonderful breed from the continued abuse! Click here to visit our blog for more information.