Let me start from the beginning. In 1940’s and 1950’s, the popularity of the Tennessee Walking Horse to the American public skyrocketed thanks to this special, extended gait. In fact, the more extravagant the gait, the more charming the horse. Furthermore, it was found that horses which were not “adequately gifted” could improve their gait with some intensive training. Exaggerated gaits also began to fascinate show judges too.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, “soring is the unethical and illegal practice of deliberately inflicting pain to exaggerate the leg motion of gaited horses (such as Tennessee Walking Horses, Spotted Saddle Horses and Racking Horses) to gain an unfair advantage in the show ring”. This practice results in an equine which pulls fast its forelimbs off the ground to ease the pain and brings its hindlimbs as forward as possible to decrease weight on the forelimbs.
How is it done? There are many methods of soring and they are categorized into two groups; chemical and physical.
The chemical methods have to do with the application of caustic substances to the lower legs of the equine. Such substances can be kerosene, mustard oil, diesel or other liquids that can bring similar effects. To maximize the result, the area on which they are applied is wrapped with plastic and a leg wrap and the leg remains like this for a number of days, to let the chemicals be thoroughly absorbed. Such process certainly leaves visible scars, which can be burned off with the application of chemical stripping agents. The desired result is a horse being sensitive to action devices, with hoofs that are sensitive to contact with the ground.
On the other hand, physical methods aim at causing ache when the hoof touches the ground. The suffering caused by physical methods of soring makes the horse rise the legs faster and higher, seeking relief from the pain. Physical methods include a wide range of processes, such as
- grinding or trimming the foot and sole to expose their sensitive tissues or remove the natural tissues that support the wall of the hoof;
- inserting tough items into the sensitive spot between the pads and the sole in order to create painful pressure;
- fastening metal hoof bands excessively tight in order to create enormous pressure;
- intentionally shoeing the horse in an inappropriate manner; and
- intentionally causing laminitis.
There is, in fact, a legal framework against soring in the United States. The principal legislation that protects horses from soring is the “Horse Protection Act” (HPA), which was enforced in 1970 and amended in 1976. Under HPA, it is prohibited to sell a sored equine or register it with shows, exhibitions or auctions. Also, under the same act, drivers are forbidden to transport sored equines to such occasions.
The enforcement of HPA part of the authority of the United States Department of Agriculture and, more specifically, an assignment of its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)-Animal Care (USDA-APHIS-Animal Care). The department involves three types of professionals in its efforts to enforce HPA:
- Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs): DQPs were established with the 1976 HPA Amendment. They have knowledge of the equestrian industry and have received training from the USDA to be able to detect soring practices. DQPs are hired by the manager of each individual event. Their job is to inspect horses before they are exposed to the public for sale or for a show/exhibition. Conflicts of interest and varying standards have been noted.
- Veterinary Medical Officers (VMOs): VMOs are APHIS veterinarians who carry out supplementary, unheralded examinations. A low budget allows VMOs to attend less than 10% of shows which take place in the United States every year.
- Horse Industry Organizations (HIOs): HIOs are professional groups, assigned by the USDA to self-police competitions and the equestrian industry. They also license DQPs and have inherent conflicts of interest.
Inspections against soring that take place at events may include;
- Visual observation: watching the horse’s posture and movement
- Physical inspection: examining the horse’s response to pain and looking for physical signs of soring, such as hair loss and scars
- Application of medical checks: carrying out medical tests using instruments, such as radiography, thermography and blood testing.
For more information about the legal framework of soring, you can visit the APHIS page on Horse Protection Act and Regulations.
The legislation is not enough
Unfortunately, the legal framework which has been established in the United States has not been adequate so far. This occurs for a number of reasons.
The first obstacle is the fact that the artificial gait which results from soring still has a big number of fans among the show judges. Those judges will give the prize -and the prize money- to the horse with the most exaggerated gait.
The second obstacle is the conflict of interests between those involved in the inspection process and the show organisers. And, on top of that, there are inherent conflicts of interests among the inspectors too.
Thirdly, it has been observed that punishment of confirmed HPA violations has been slack, hence creating a precedent for more violations.
Last but not least, inspections depend on a very small budget, which can’t cover all shows. Therefore, it is impossible for every and each violation to be detected and prosecuted.
So, that’s all about soring. For more information, you can refer to the official website of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and, more specifically, their page about soring. You will also find a very informative page about soring on Wikipedia.
What do you think of soring? Have you witnessed an act of soring yourself? Have you been involved in inspections?