AVMA, AAEP call for ban on soring devices, methods

Veterinary organizations hope USDA takes action
Published on July 18, 2012
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The AVMA and American Association of Equine Practitioners are pushing for further reforms in the gaited- horse community in an effort to eliminate the practice of soring.

On June 14, the two organizations called for a ban on the use of action devices and performance packages on Tennessee Walking Horses; action devices and performance packages are commonly used to accentuate the breed’s distinctive gait but can also be used to facilitate soring. In a related statement, the Tennessee VMA has indicated that it encourages further investigation into the use of these devices and related training methods.

A USDA inspector palpates a Tennessee Walking Horse before a competition to check for signs of soring
A USDA inspector palpates a Tennessee Walking Horse before a competition to check for signs of soring. (Courtesy of USDA)

“This behavior (soring) has gone on for over half a century, and unlike the unfortunate but accidental and sometimes catastrophic events in other horse sports, this is a cruel action performed intentionally, so we are particularly concerned about it,” said Dr. Harry W. Werner, chair of the AAEP Equine Welfare Committee. “It’s not only unethical, but it’s also illegal.”

Action devices can include chains, ankle rings, collars, rollers, and bracelets of wood or aluminum beads. According to a joint statement from the AVMA and AAEP, when used in conjunction with chemical irritants on the pastern of the horse’s foot, the motion of the action device creates a painful response, resulting in the desired “big lick,” or exaggerated gait, in the show ring.

Foreign substances are being detected in the pastern region during pre-show inspections at an alarmingly high rate, according to Department of Agriculture statistics.

At the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, Tenn., for instance, all 52 horses randomly chosen by the USDA tested positive for prohibited foreign substances applied to their pasterns. Foreign substance violation rates at all USDA-inspected shows were 86 percent in 2010 and 97.6 percent in 2011.

Performance packages—otherwise known as stacks or pads—also are used in soring horses and are something the AAEP and AVMA would like to see eliminated. Made of plastic, leather, wood, rubber, or combinations of these materials, they are attached below the sole of the horse’s natural hoof and are maintained in place by a metal band that runs around the hoof wall.

Performance packages add weight to the horse’s foot, causing it to strike with more force and at an abnormal angle to the ground. They also facilitate the concealment of items that apply pressure to the sole of the horse’s hoof. Pressure from these hidden items causes pain in the hoof so that the horse lifts its feet faster and higher in an exaggerated gait, according to the joint statement.

“America’s veterinarians are asking (the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to prohibit the use of action devices and performance packages in the training and showing of Walking Horses, because they appear to be facilitating soring,” said Dr. René A. Carlson, 2011-2012 AVMA president, in the joint statement.

Martin Irby, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, responded on the organization’s website, saying no scientific evidence has been reported that proves pads and action devices harm the horses.

“In fact, the only study known, which is the Auburn Study, proves the 6-ounce action devices and current pads do not harm the horse. Unscrupulous people sore horses, not pads and action devices. To say they should be banned because it motivates people to sore horses is like saying we should ban automobiles because people speed or run stop signs,” Irby wrote.

USDA spokesman David Sacks said pads and action devices are legal, but the department is looking at possibly proposing changes in the near future. This would involve a full regulatory procedure, which could take months.

He added, “There are many variables to consider, and many possible ways that things may go. For example, if we do put forth a regulation change, will it stipulate that no pads can be used, or perhaps a maximum height of pad, or perhaps allowing pads in training but not in the show ring? Obviously, we are at the initial stages of determining the proper course of action.”

The USDA has already taken steps recently to tighten its enforcement of the Horse Protection Act (see story, this page).

The AAEP spoke out against the practice of soring in 2008 in its white paper “Veterinary Recommendations for Ending the Soring of Tennessee Walking Horses,” which suggested several changes to the current structure of the industry. This paper can be found at www.aaep.org.

Dr. Werner pointed out that the AAEP created its white paper after meeting with stakeholders in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry who wanted the practice stopped. The AAEP shared the paper once it was published with the dozen horse industry organizations that help the USDA in conducting inspections at shows. “I would say very little has progressed since that time,” Dr. Werner said.

A working group with extensive knowledge of soring developed the recent joint statement, which was approved by the AVMA Executive Board and the AAEP board of directors. Coincidentally, as the AAEP and AVMA were working on the statement, ABC’s Nightline aired its investigation May 16 on trainer Jackie McConnell, who was videotaped soring horses (see JAVMA, July 1, 2012, page 28). The story garnered national attention on the subject of soring, but Dr. Werner anticipates a long battle remains to stop the practice. “This is not the last chapter, I’m sure of that,” he said.

Dr. Werner added that he’s disappointed Congress has not increased funding for enforcement of the Horse Protection Act in next year’s appropriation.