Courtesy of Michael Vick, most Americans have now been exposed to the sordid underground world of dogfighting. Coverage of cockfighting and state or county bans against the horrendous practice in most venues have made us aware of the sadistic treatment some sorry humans inflict on those poor birds. The deaths of Eight Belles and Barbaro highlighted dangers humans impose on thoroughbred racehorses, which, one can hope, will lead to a more humanely regulated sport. But few of us are aware of the incredible cruelty visited on Tennessee Walking Horses by a small but powerful group of owners and trainers located predominantly in a few southern states.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported this week that the vast majority of exhibitors who convened at an Owingsville horse show grounds scattered like buckshot when officials arrived to inspect the animals for signs of cruelty and cite the trainers and owners for federal violations.
One of the largest walking horse shows in Kentucky virtually ground to a halt last week when U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors arrived, escorted by Kentucky State Police. "They're here to inspect horses and the folks that were here to show decided not to show. That's their prerogative," said Earl Rogers Jr., manager of the Owingsville Lions Club Horse Show and the president of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association.
Rogers said that USDA inspectors arrived Thursday for the last two days of the four-day show, in which 500 to 550 horses are typically shown. After the inspectors arrived, only 40 were shown. Hundreds of entrants turned their horse vans around and left.
Why did they scatter rather than face inspection? Because the training practices used to force the horses to raise their front legs up high and assume a completely unnatural and painful posture are so barbarous that they violate federal law and carry serious penalties for perpetrators. Yet such practices are widely used by a small but powerful cadre of sick humans.
The most widely used technique, according to the Humane Society of the United States, is "soring" in which, according to an explanation provided to me by the group, "a variety of cruel methods are used to inflict pain on horses. They include painting caustic chemicals on the horses' pasterns (ankles), such as diesel fuel, kerosene, or mustard oil and then riding the horse with chains around its ankles. Mechanical means like pressure shoeing involve either hiding a foreign object (such as a screw or bolt) under a leather pad against the horse's front soles, or cutting a horse's hoof wall and sole so short that it starts to bleed. In either case, each time the horse steps or puts weight on that hoof, it causes pain." (The pain, in turn, forces the horse to lift up its front legs unnaturally high.)
Keith Dane, the Humane Society's director of equine protection, described several other techniques to me. Some owners pile layers of pads under the horses' hooves, held on by a metal strap that goes over the hoof and is attached with nails pounded into the hoof wall. This technique is tantamount to a young woman wearing dangerously high heels 24/7, with a metal strap across her foot to hold the contraption in place. Horses have been known to collapse in the show ring from the combination of ridiculous imbalance and intense pain.
Why, you might ask, is this allowed to go on? It is, as noted above, against federal law to show a horse thusly trained. But Congress allots only a half-million dollars each year to the Agriculture Department to enforce the law. Federal agents possess only enough resources to "bust" a small number of shows each year. The discipline is so thoroughly reviled by the rest of the horse world, it was bounced out of the United States Equestrian Federation decades ago. The practice has been publicized for decades, forcing Walking Horse devotees to operate in a shadow world of their own.
Let me restate clearly that not all Walking Horse trainers or owners engage in these cruel techniques. Keith Dane judges exhibitors on a circuit of Walking Horse shows that engage in none of these outlandish practices. But it's time for conscientious Americans to let Congress know we want it to spend the comparatively small amount of money it would take to drive these cruel operators into oblivion.
To stand idly by is to hand victory to the cruel and inhumane.