Walking the Walk 

Animal advocates push for an end to the walking horse category at a local show.

Cindy Sanders and Jackie Johns of the local animal advocacy group Community Action for Animals are downright sore over soring, the practice of inflicting pain on Tennessee Walking Horses to improve their trademark high step.

The pair launched a petition calling for an end to the Tennessee Walking Horse category at the Germantown Charity Horse show after learning that 27 out of 38 walking horse exhibitors (or their family members) from the show held earlier this month have been previously found to be in violation of the Horse Protection Act.

"Even the judge had seven previous sanctions against him, and the most recent one ended in January of this year," said Sanders, who attended the charity horse show with Johns from June 4th through the 8th.

That violation came when inspectors found bilateral sores on judge Justin Jenne's horse at a previous show. In the practice of soring, pain is inflicted on the horse, either through pouring caustic chemicals such as mustard oil, diesel fuel, or kerosene on their lower limbs or through pressure shoeing, which involves cutting the hoof to the quick and tightly nailing on a shoe. The pain causes the horse to lift its legs higher, exaggerating the walking horse's naturally high gait.

Representatives from the Germantown Charity Horse Show did not return a phone call or e-mail.

Last month, soring made national headlines when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released an undercover video showing Collierville walking horse trainer Jackie McConnell beating horses and overseeing his hands pouring chemicals on horse's feet and wrapping them in plastic so the chemicals would eat into the skin. As a result of the video, McConnell pled guilty to a 52-count federal indictment for conspiring to violate the Horse Protection Act.

While Sanders and Johns have no direct evidence of soring at the Germantown Charity Horse Show, they believe the practice to be widespread due to the fact that so many exhibitors in that show have had previous soring violations.

"Every horse in the show had big pads on their feet and chains around their ankles," Sanders said.

Known as "action devices," pads and chains are typically associated with soring, according to Keith Dane, director of equine protection for HSUS.

"Soring is still quite rampant and widespread," Dane said. "Look at the McConnell situation, where just about every horse in the barn was undergoing some form of abuse. Everybody in the industry is competing with him, trying to produce the same gait."

The HSUS is pushing Congress to enforce stiffer penalties for soring under the Horse Protection Act. Currently, the USDA is only able to send inspectors to select shows.

Just a few weeks ago, the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers Association announced they'd be sending trainers to every show to swab horses' legs for caustic chemicals. Those found in violation will receive a two-week penalty.

"The USDA sanctions are considered soring violations, but we as trainers feel like a lot of the time, the horse is just reacting to the USDA inspector's touch. It's very subjective, and our [swabbing] process is more scientific," said Winky Groover, spokesperson for the Tennessee Walking Horse Trainers' Association.

But Dane said the new trainer's testing is simply a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, since the trainers will be monitoring one another.

As for Sanders and Johns' petition, they had more than 800 signatures at press time with a goal of reaching 1,000. Johns said she hopes the petition helps raise awareness of the issue.

"The good horse people, the ones who treat their horses right and care about them, should come out against this," Johns said. "There were some beautiful horses in the Germantown show. They're lovely to look at until you get to the walking horse category. Then it's just painful to watch."

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