The tortures visited on too many (not all, but too many) Tennessee walking horses make one's skin crawl. The reason "eye examinations" are now permitted by the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, according to the Humane Society, is that some owners use eye drops to temporarily blind their horses. This makes them lift their hooves higher to try to feel their way around, since they cannot see. The most widely used technique, according to the Humane Society, is "soring," in which caustic chemicals, such as diesel fuel, kerosene, or mustard oil, are painted on the horse's pasterns (ankles). The pain is so intense the horse lifts its hoof to try to alleviate or get away from it.
Then there is so-called pressure shoeing, which can hide a foreign object (such as a screw or bolt) under a leather pad against the horse's front soles. Pressure shoeing can also mean 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 is extremely painful.
After a scandal in 2006, celebration organizers adopted rules to protect the horses. But the Humane Society's Keith Dane told me that at last year's celebration, many of the self-imposed regulations were not enforced. Dane said, for example, "We watched [inspectors] test only one front hoof [instead of both] when they got a backlog. What good does it do to test one hoof?"
Dane said the celebration promoters last year promised the Humane Society it could bring federal inspectors to perform random inspections in the show barns. All Humane Society and federal representatives were allowed to do was to ride with a celebration security officer on a golf cart in between the barns. They had no chance to look inside or inspect the condition of the horses.
Dane did say one change was made last year that, perhaps, lessened abuse of the horses. He said the celebration improved security in the inspection area. Horses are brought into the inspection area prior to warming up and then go right into the show ring. Before security was put in place, horses could be inspected, then taken out of the inspection area and replaced with look-alikes who went straight into the warm-up area. That did not happen in 2007.
I have talked to witnesses who say some of these horses are so deadened by pain that their eyes seem to glaze over. There must be some divine retribution in store for the humans who impose such horrible existences on these defenseless creatures.
The good news is the Humane Society and other animal protection organizations are shining a light on shady practices. One day soon, we can all hope sunlight will launch the cruelties into oblivion.