A horse industry’s change of heart

Former walking horse industry leaders calling for others to join their opposition to soring
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Even decades later, Dr. John C. Haffner can vividly recall standing in a training barn when a person walked by carrying a can that contained a mixture of mustard oil and kerosene. The stench made him recoil. The mixture was being used on a Tennessee Walking Horse to make its skin sensitive, so that when chains or other action devices were subsequently placed around the tender skin, the horse would develop a high step, or “big lick,” in response to the pain.

That particular day was not uncommon during his time with the walking horse industry.

Horse and rider in the show ring
This gait, known as the “big lick,” has been sought in the performance horse show ring for decades. Some owners and trainers take shortcuts to achieve it.

Since age 15, Dr. Haffner (TEN ’82) had worked with these horses in a number of roles. After receiving his DVM degree, Dr. Haffner worked for a year with his mentor, the renowned Dr. DeWitt Owen, a former American Association of Equine Practitioners president, before starting his own practice in Spring Hill, Tenn.

“I saw what went on at the shows on the weekend and what happened in the barns during the week. I was one of them, so there was no need to hide anything from me. I saw the soring. I saw the treatments to remove calluses. I saw the efforts to get horses ‘fixed’ just right to get them past inspection and into the show ring. I saw the pain. I did not only see these things, I helped do them. Gradually I became aware of the inherent wrongness of the training required to achieve the big lick. I say gradually became aware, but that is not accurate. I think I always knew it was wrong, but because of many factors, I lied to myself. Factors such as: horse shows are fun, the big lick is exciting, I was making a lot of money working with the horses, I liked the people, it couldn’t be all that bad because so many people that loved their horses were doing it kept me willingly blinded to the harm that was being done in the name of showing horses,” according to a letter Dr. Haffner wrote this past November to Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. The Tennessee veterinarian has since left the industry.

Competing legislation

Dr. Haffner wrote his letter in support of the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (H.R. 1518/S. 1406). The bill, introduced by Reps. Whitfield and Steve Cohen of Tennessee, strengthens the Horse Protection Act and bans the use of action devices such as chains and pads, improves enforcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and strengthens penalties on trainers and owners who violate the law. Current enforcement of the HPA is by horse industry organizations, with limited oversight and enforcement by the USDA.

As of mid-March, the legislation had 47 senators and 267 representatives as co-sponsors. Further, every state VMA, 52 horse organizations, and 77 veterinary and animal health organizations have endorsed it. And the AVMA and AAEP have been strongly lobbying for it to pass. The bill would appear to be a slam-dunk, but soring is still quite entrenched in the walking horse community and, by extension, the state of Tennessee.

Evidence of that fact was made apparent Feb. 26 when Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee introduced the Horse Protection Amendments Act (H.R. 4098). It would do the following:

  • Preserve the action devices and performance packages that mark the Tennessee Walking Horse’s performance division.
  • Create a single horse industry organization to enforce the Horse Protection Act across the Tennessee Walking Horse, Racking Horse, and Spotted Saddle Horse industries. Appointments to the group would fall to the agriculture commissioners in Tennessee and Kentucky, with input from the horse industry.
  • Call for an end to physical inspections and, instead, rely on methods such as blood tests, swabbing for chemicals used to sore horses, and radiography to detect soring. The governing board of the horse industry organization charged with overseeing the shows would develop the testing protocol.

Blackburn’s bill had nine co-sponsors on its first day; six were from Tennessee.

The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association supports Blackburn’s bill. So do the Walking Horse Trainers Association, Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, and Performance Show Horse Association, which has also endorsed SHOW, a horse industry organization, to enforce the Horse Protection Act. The USDA recently filed a complaint to terminate the certification of SHOW to enforce the act because of its failure to institute mandatory penalties under HPA regulations.

Those four organizations argue that the rival PAST Act eliminates over 85 percent of all show classes but does not eliminate the underlying problem of soring. According to a summary of the opposition posted on the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration website, these organizations claim that the legislation eliminates any deterrent impact on people who sore by turning over enforcement to the USDA Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice, which, they say, have historically prosecuted only a fraction of violations and taken an average three to five years to investigate and prosecute.

The Performance Show Horse Association also declares that the PAST Act will impact more than 20,000 jobs, given the population of Shelbyville Tenn., which hosts the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration; have a $3.2 billion impact on the region’s economy, based on its calculations of combined revenue from horse shows in the Southeast for a year; and affect $1.3 billion worth of horses (a source was not cited for this figure).

Further, Shelbyville’s mayor and city council have written to members of Congress expressing concerns about the PAST Act’s potential impact on the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, according to a Feb. 14 article in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.

The industry will only change with a change of heart by the people who know what it takes to produce the big lick or an overpowering external enforcement that will forbid the big lick.

-Dr. John C. Haffner, professor, Middle Tennessee State University Horse Science Center

The council wrote in its letter that it finds the actions of “the few who resort to the practice of soring or other abusive practices reprehensible. However, it is not necessary to enact complex new federal legislation.” They say consistent enforcement of the HPA should continue and a study should be created on the potential economic impact on locations where shows are held.

Growing dissent

At the same time, it appears that more prominent names in the industry have been changing their positions. They’re now saying those who support the big lick are not keeping the breed alive but killing it, and that it’s not just a few bad actors who sore.

These individuals include walking horse trainer Carl Bledsoe and, perhaps the most notable of all, Bill Harlin of the famed Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin, Tenn. He told Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean, in a Jan. 29 article that soring is wrong and efforts to stop the abuse aren’t working.

“Tennessee is getting a reputation as being a horse abuse state. Pads and chains are killing the industry. And I don’t know how long we can wait for proper enforcement before the industry dies,” he told the paper.

Harlin cited figures showing that the number of registered Tennessee Walking Horse foals has dropped from a high of 15,526 in 2000 to just 3,358 in 2010. During that period, the number of individual breeders fell from 9,306 to only 1,870.

In addition, The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the biggest show for this community, has seen declining attendance numbers, from 162,176 in 2004 to 95,400 in 2013. It lost Pepsi, one of its major sponsors, in 2012 after an ABC News investigation revealed evidence of widespread animal soring tied to the event.

William T. “Marty” Irby is another industry leader turned advocate for change. Four years ago, at age 31, he was the youngest person to be elected president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association. Irby said the industry’s inability to self-regulate over the past 43 years has brought the breed to this crossroad. Over the past 10 years, membership in the association has declined from more than 20,000 to fewer than 8,300.

His aha moment was seeing the ABC broadcast and the public’s response to it. Irby has since become a congressional aide to Rep. Whitfield to help with passage of the PAST Act.

There’s also Eric Gray, a certified farrier at Blackthorn Farms & Farrier Service in Cumming, Ga. Like the others, he became disenchanted with the walking horse industry and its denial of problems, and in 2006, he relocated his business from Tennessee to Georgia. His family has raised walking horses for his entire life, but with all the bad publicity, Gray says he can sell a walking horse without papers as a pleasure horse for almost as much as a horse with a pedigree.

He says getting rid of pads, chains, and weighted shoes is the only way to get rid of soring but that doing so will require a greater level of horsemanship with the breed.

“There’s no thought of developing the horse, period. It’s about seeing how high we can get them to step,” he said. “Trainers would have to give up their program and the whole training regimen and start over.”

Gray says the industry is plagued with a “more is more mentality” that relies on shortcuts and artificial aids to accomplish the desired big lick.

Gray said books on walking horse training from the ‘40s and ‘50s refer to riding the horses on muddy river banks, akin to strength training for horses used for fox hunting, or riding around the farm on soft and hard ground. Also back then, the typical trainer was responsible for only a few horses. Gray recalls most of the training barns he worked in had a ratio of 25 to 35 horses per trainer.

“Trying to get that many horses ridden even a few days a week—even with a groom—means you’re limited to 15 to 20 minutes of riding four days a week. I don’t care whether you’re working a horse to be a trail horse or an elite show animal, you can’t accomplish what you want in that amount of time without taking shortcuts,” he said.

No more denial

Dr. Haffner practiced the same medicine most equine veterinarians do, from prepurchase examinations to minor field surgery to deworming and vaccinations. He also went to the shows and served as horse show veterinarian for local events. As with most equine veterinarians, the trainers, grooms, owners, and folks who hung around the barns became his friends.

“The people I was around cared for the horses and wanted to be sure they were well taken care of. It was somewhat of a dissonant situation to see horses being provided the best of care on the one hand and standing with their sore feet drawn up under them on the other hand,” Dr. Haffner wrote in his letter to Rep. Whitfield. “The pain was not evident on a constant basis. A large percent of the time, the horses appeared comfortable and in no distress. But for too much of the time they showed obvious signs of pain and physical evidence of trauma to the feet. We overlooked the pain and dwelt on the time when these stoic horses appeared normal.”

Dr. Haffner left the industry in the early ’90s after his testimony in a trial acquitted a trainer accused of soring.

Horse and rider in a field
Dr. John C. Haffner says once flat-shod walking horses become the norm, the breed will have a broader appeal for people who want a good-natured horse that provides a smooth, pleasurable ride and individuals who have rejected the breed because of soring will once again embrace it.

“I saw more open blatant soring in the months following the trial than I had ever seen in my life,” Dr. Haffner wrote. “After that season, my blinders were removed and I could no longer be a part of helping to promote and benefit from a practice that I knew was wrong.”

He sold his practice, not knowing where he would end up. Dr. Haffner is now a professor at the Middle Tennessee State University Horse Science Center.

He says he has no axe to grind with any of these people; they were raised in this environment, and change is difficult, but necessary.

“The industry will only change with a change of heart by the people who know what it takes to produce the big lick or an overpowering external enforcement that will forbid the big lick,” Dr. Haffner wrote.

The AVMA and AAEP support the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (H.R. 1518/S. 1406) and oppose the Horse Protection Amendments Act (H.R. 4098). For more information, click here and here.

Related JAVMA content:

Soring criminal case garners national attention (July 1, 2012)

AVMA gives testimony at hearing on soring (Dec. 15, 2013)

Change hard to come by (Feb. 15, 2013)