This isn't research or information I've found that's new concerning the fight against soring. I just want to relate a story to all of you.
I went to visit a friend a few weeks ago, and we, both being against soring, decided to attend a horse show that was held by the Tennessee Walking Horse Association of California, which is known to still support the padded show circuit. It was free to get in, so we knew we weren't going to be putting our money into the system. No one knows who I am in that area, so I wasn't in any danger. She formerly sored her horses but has seen the error of her ways and now supports sound horses and sound horse groups, and they do know who she is, but no one really cares what she does anymore.
I saw this as a great opportunity. I was going to go to a show that was specifically a padded TWH show and that was attended and presided over by known HPA violators. I was going with someone who used to sore their horses. The show was also held in an extremely remote location that is not advertised on the TWHAC website, so no big chance of running into anyone I know there. Therefore, this was a chance to get to go with a former insider to see the workings of a show where the show management most likely believed no one knew what they were doing. Now, I have seen horses sored right in front of me before at shows here in AZ, but at the time I had no idea what I was looking at. Now I would be witnessing soring armed with the research and knowledge I have now, and I would be able to see how it all works.
What I saw was by far more shocking than the moment I first saw a horse on stacks. Knowledge is power, but it can also make things far more frightening then they were when we knew nothing.
There was a variety of classes, all with varied names. Park Performance, Park Pleasure, Lite-Shod, Lite-Shod Pleasure, Lite-Shod Specialty, Show Horse, Show Pleasure, and various trail and open classes. My friend explained to me that the tpe of class was based on the kinds of shoes the horses were wearing. Show horses are the big padded horses, while park horses have a heavy shoe with just one or two pads, and the lite-shod horses have just a "lite" shoe, which is ultimately large as well, larger than a normal shoe that most breeds wear in other horse events.
It became painfully--both for the horse physically and for me emotionally--obvious that in order to win the class, it didn't matter how even your horse's timing was, how fluid was his movement, if he had a head nod or not. No, the horses that were rewarded were those horses that were "doing the most," as in had the most action and movement. Once this was explained to me, I was able to mentally tie the classes pretty quickly. In one class that had two horses, one horse was very herky-jerky and laboring with difficulty, his back end crouching low, his hocks twisting violently, his knees lifting higher than his chest, each foot flinging out in front of him when he threw that leg out as if he were trying to shake his very hoof off. The other horse was fluid in it's movement with a head nod and wasn't laboring as much. But the herky-jerky horse won because he was "doing more." The more crouch and the higher the horses fling their legs, the more ribbons they got.
The way this arena was set up was to simulate what the USDA requires for the inspections. About 1/4 of the arena was sectioned off so there was a holding area. The horses were brought for inspection when entering the arena and then once inspected stayed in the holding area. This is so the DQP can keep an eye on them so no one does anything to them. It's also a nice spot to let the horses get used to being inside the indoor arena and to ride a little bit in there so they know what's going on and for the rider to see how they're going.
The DQP did his palpation work by the book, but that's all. He paid no mind to what was going on in the holding area, nor did he penalize anyone for standing around the DQP area and just hanging out. He allowed more than one person to handle the horse while he inspected. He didn't take much time in inspecting them--just grabbed a foot, palpated and dropped it, probably not holding the foot more than two seconds. I watched as the horses were inspected then brought over to stand and be resaddled and ridden. I watched several horses get "fixed" right in front of my very eyes. One horse got lead weights added to the bottom of his stacks to make him pick up his legs more. It was fascinating when they did it. First, they rode the horse and determined him not doing enough. They stopped and added the weights, and damn if that horse didn't start picking those legs up higher and crouching behind. Other horses were similarly messed with around their front feet, all right in front of the DQP, when nothing is supposed to be done with the horses once they've been inspected.
The crouching was horrible to watch. The back legs had to be kept in a spider-like position in order for them to hold the weight of the horse as he shifted his weight to keep it off his horribly pained front feet. The hocks would twist outward. It even sometimes looked as if at each step the horse took, he was actually landing on his cannons and fetlocks rather than his hoof. Sometimes the cannon bones were practically parallel to the ground.
The arena itself was in on the game as well. I'm not talking about those who run the arena, but how the arena was prepared for the show by request of the those who ran the show. There was hardly any arena footing on the concrete floor of the building. Some dirt had been sprinkled around, but they needed that floor to be hard so when the horse's hooves slapped against it, it would hurt and cause them to lift up their feet higher. The loud thudding and slapping of their hooves made it clear they were pretty much walking on the concrete and not soft, yielding arena dirt. Who knows how many of the horses were pressure shod in some way to make this even more effective. In fact, most of them were "tightrope walking" in the front. In order to more easily bear the weight in their front end, each foot would set down in the middle of the track the horse was on, effectively placing the leg directly underneath the horse's chest. The next foot would land directly in front of the track of the other foot. This gave the visual as if the horse were walking on a tightrope, having to place one foot in front of the other for balance.
In speaking about movement, very rarely did I see a true head nod on any of these horses. Because the pace is the desired gait for stacked horses because when you stack and sore them it squares them up, most of these horses were performing a stepping pace. Their head would nod, but it wasn't pronounced and you could see the side to side motion of the head as it nodded, a clear sign the horse was in a stepping pace. I also watched the footfalls, and none of them were an even four-beat gait: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Instead, they were the footsteps of a broken pace: 1-2, 3-4, 1-2, 3-4. This movement is against the rulebooks, which clearly state the horse must have a head nod and evenly timed gait.
The worst I saw was a 3 year old that was going in the stallions and geldings 3 yo class. A few classes before, I watched his rider and the trainer ride him, the trainer being a very fat man--probably close to 300 lbs--that should never have been sitting on such a small horse, let alone a 3 yo. The horse was obviously laboring and flinging his feet out in front of him. But for them, he just wasn't right. They brought him back to the side of the arena, and the groom walked up to the horse with a little bottle in his hand. He knelt down in front of the horse and put something on his pasterns. The horse rocked backwards onto his back legs in response. He even picked up one foot and put it back down when the stuff was applied. They left him standing for a moment, and then the groom "greased" him, which is standard language for putting a lubricant on the horse's pasterns so the chains don't rub the skin raw. While the grease is supposed to be one of three substances by HPA standards--glycerine, petroletum, or mineral oil--and is supposed to be provided by the DQP, this groom never went to the DQP for his grease that I saw. I was told by my friend that who's to say if his grease doesn't have a little kerosene or "croton oil" in it to add some pain to the horse. After they did this and put on the chains, the grotesque movement of this majestic animal got even more herky jerky. A couple of times I thought he was literally going to fall backwards onto his rump, he was trying so hard to get away from the pain.
As the horses rounded the arena, their wild eyes and laboring breaths told you they were in pain. These were not athletes as the stacked horse world will have you believe. These animals were obviously in pain and were scared. Even though the class would only last five minutes, each horse was bathed in sweat and breathing hard as he stood in the lineup. But their calm temperaments and fear kept them going. I don't really know what else could have.
While all this was bad, what got me the most and made my blood boil and tears sting my eyes was watching that 3 yo's owner rub on his face and kiss him as the groom attended to his feet. Yeah, you keep doing that, honey. Keep abusing that horse and keep smiling while he suffers so you can be in a one-horse class and win a $1.95 ribbon. Because that's what being successful in the sore horse industry is all about.
There is some good news in all of this. As far as I could tell, this show was only attended by two trainers and theirs and their clients' horses. Half the classes were canceled, and very rarely did a class have more than one horse. Only one class had two horses, and only one other had three. I got the impression that of the 10 or so people smattered throughout the stands, there were no outside spectators other than me and my friend. Spectators were families and friends of those showing, and there were few of those to say the least. We drove around back behind the arena to take a look at the show barns. There were only five trailers there and one promonent trainer's big rig. Only a small fraction of the stalls were taken. Compared to the 80+ RV spots taken and 100+ trailers brought to the 2009 NWHA Nationals, it was a very sorry sight indeed.
This tells me the industry is dying. First, they hold the show in a remote location, and most likely it's because they don't want the USDA to show up. They even lied about the location on their website and held the show in an area about a half hour away from the implied location. Second, with very few horses and spectators there, I can't imagine the trainers having a lot of horses in their barns. I believe that the increased pressure by the public and the increased information that is being brought to light were factors in the attendance of this show. The more people are educated about what's going on, the more they are going to think about whether or not this is the right thing to do. Even if they don't have a moral change of heart, they can at least understand that long toes and stacks are no longer desirable in the horse show world in general, and it can stop the more minds we change.
Of course, this does not mean we can let up. I am still going to write an email to the USDA detailing what I saw. While they cannot be punished after the fact, I want to let the USDA know that soring was rampant at this show. While I understand that going to a small show in the West is a waste of their time when there are hardly any horses there, it would have been nice to see this small show pack up and go home because the USDA arrived. So, as long as we keep the pressure on, then things are going to change. Keep your emails and letters flowing, and keep up the good fight. We can and will win this--it will just take dilligence and patience on our part!
"Today, Tennessee Walking Horses are known throughout the industry
as the breed that shows abused and tortured horses."
~ Jim Heird, Ph.D., Do Right By The Horse, February 2010
"If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity,
you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."
~ St. Francis of Assisi
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