God's Creatures Ministry
By Theo Emery
The New York Times, September 4, 2006
But this year, a long-simmering dispute between federal regulators and the horses’ trainers and owners climaxed late Saturday with the cancellation of the celebration’s final showing to crown the world grand champion, for the first time in the event’s 68-year history.
The decision by the organizers came after inspectors who check for signs of abuse disqualified most of the horses, leaving just three eligible for the championship, the organizers said. The organizers said the cancellation was due to safety concerns after a crowd of 150 people demanded that all of the horses be allowed to show in the final event.
“It’s a heck of a mess,” said Link Webb, a trainer who had been given the green light to show his horse.
Performing walking horses are trained to raise their front hooves high while taking long “overstrides” with their back legs, giving them the appearance of half-sitting as they walk and run. Devices, including boots and ankle chains, are used to enhance the horses’ high-stepping gait.
The United States Department of Agriculture tightly regulates the breed to prevent “soring,” the act of intentionally injuring the horses’ ankles to force them to maintain this unusual gait.
Soring became illegal in 1970, when Congress passed the Horse Protection Act. It outlawed all soring, which can include burns, cuts, injected chemicals and applications of caustic or blistering agents. The department also forbids substances that mask soring, like anesthetics and ointments that soften scar tissue or cool the irritated flesh.
The cancellation of the championship was a body-blow to the tight-knit community of walking horse enthusiasts, putting a spotlight on a deep rift over treatment of the horses that has riled a longtime Tennessee tradition.
“It’s heartbreaking to have to make that announcement, but I have no doubt that all sides of this industry will work extremely hard this off-season to rectify the issues that affect it,” the event’s chairman, John T. Bobo, said in a statement.
It was not the first time this year’s show was halted. On Aug. 25, trainers angered by the inspection process refused to bring their horses to be checked, resulting in an angry standoff, the summoning of the police, and the postponement of several events.
At the dispute’s center is disagreement over the standards that determine whether a horse is injured and should be disqualified from events. Many owners and trainers see the inspections as a subjective process that finds soring where there is none and is suffocating a longstanding tradition and the industry around it.
An example they often cite is that the marks left by ankle chains, which are legal, are interpreted as scars from soring.
In Shelbyville this weekend, there was a palpable animosity toward the Department of Agriculture. After the first shutdown, some attendees wore T-shirts declaring Aug. 25 as “The Day the Celebration Stopped.” The billboard at the Huddle House diner on North Main Street read, “We need less government.”
Donna Benefield, who owns walking horses and started her own independent oversight organization, thinks the problem lies with lax standards in the walking horse industry. The shutdown will have a devastating effect, she said, “because the industry has been saying that soring is basically a thing of the past.”
“I think it’s going to become crystal clear what’s going on in this industry,” she said, “and I think it discourages the general public from wanting to participate in an industry that is this fundamentally corrupt.”
Tennessee walking horses are a distinct breed of light horse originally bred by large landowners who wanted a steady and stately steed for their properties. They are a mixture of several other breeds, including Narragansett and Canadian pacers, thoroughbreds and Morgans.
Almost everyone associated with walking horses — including Agriculture Department critics — agrees that soring has not gone away, although there is disagreement about how widespread it is.
Keith Johnson, 48, a walking horse owner, said he grew up in Shelbyville seeing walking horses that had obviously been abused. He said the Horse Protection Act was still needed, but felt that the inspections and their findings had become arbitrary. “We don’t understand how they think they have a scar one night, and then you show the next night, and there’s nothing there,” Mr. Johnson said.
Dr. Todd Behre, a veterinarian who coordinates the department’s horse protection program, said the government was not out to get the walking horse industry and did not want to shut down Shelbyville’s yearly celebration. “The only thing the U.S.D.A. is out to do is enforce the Horse Protection Act,” he said.
While the department has ultimate authority, it is industry inspectors who do the majority of checking for injuries at horse shows nationwide. According to Ms. Benefield, those inspectors are not consistent and are far more lenient when U.S.D.A. inspectors are not present.
“The industry really needs to raise the bar. They are the architects of their own demise,” she said.
Kathy Jamison, an amateur owner and trainer from South Carolina, found little reason to celebrate this year. On the event’s next-to-last day, the stables across from hers were mostly empty. Longtime friends had loaded their horses and left early, and there was little of the festive spirit of years past.
Then came the cancellation. On Sunday, she returned,
dejected, to South Carolina with her horses. “I think it’s terrible,”
she said by phone. “That show’s been going on for 68 years. That’s the
first time they’ve never had a world grand champion. When you
continually turn horses down, you can’t have a horse show.”
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