I understand that most equestrian disciplines contain a certain degree of slippery-slope-ness. When you are dealing with elite athletes, from human gymnasts to cutting horses, the balance between protecting the well-being of the athlete and maximizing the athlete’s performance is delicate to say the least. I get that. I understand complexity; I get how easy it is to nudge the balance a little too far toward performance. But there are some practices in certain performance circles that I just don’t get.

Where is the grey in doing something to a horse that has absolutely no impact on its athletics, but causes the horse pain or damage merely to fulfill an esthetic ‘norm’ that some humans have decided is desirable?

I grew up in Quarter Horse country. I heard about "tail blocks," the practice of injecting causing agents around the base of the tail in western pleasure horses in order to deaden the nerves that permit the horse to swish its tail, long before I entered vet school. And I didn’t get it then. Didn’t horses need to move their tails to get rid of flies? Why couldn’t all judges just agree that some horses are tail-wringers and leave that out of the scoring?

Yes, this view was formed when I was in my teens, and it definitely has the black-and-white mental overtones of a 14 year-old girl. I understand that tail wringing is a sign of equine displeasure, and I get that it would be considered undesirable in a show setting where the overall look is supposed to be one of calm and order. But, having seen the end-results of tail-blocks gone bad, I think the 14 year-old me had it right--some things are just wrong.

scales

Soring involves causing foot or lower leg pain to the horse through painful shoeing techniques, caustic chemicals and/or applied around the pastern and lower legs (see yellow boxes)--all in the interests of getting the exaggerated, high-stepping movement called "the big lick."
Image courtesy of FOSH

Yesterday, I sat in on a table-topic discussion of the Horse Protection Act and the practice that drove its formation – the reprehensible practice of soring in gaited horses. Particularly endemic in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, soring involves causing foot or lower leg pain to the horse through painful shoeing techniques, caustic chemicals and/or applied around the pastern and lower legs--all in the interests of getting the exaggerated, high-stepping movement called “the big lick.”

Soring has been illegal in the United States for more than 40 years, since the Horse Protection Act was signed. Said Dr. Rachel Cezar of the USDA, in 2012, a 9% violation rate was found at the annual Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration. That means that nearly one in every ten horses endured pain and mental torture that has been illegal for almost half a century.

Illegal. That isn’t a grey area folks. That isn’t a slippery slope. As Dr. Rick Lesser said in the session on ethics yesterday, “There is no free will within the law.”

Yesterday’s table topic focused on some of the technologies being used to inspect horses at these shows in order to curb this practice. We learned from moderator Dr. Tracy Turner that thermography can reveal patterns that indicate various forms of damage, including the possible presence of foreign substances on the leg. We also learned that even scarring isn’t as easy to find as you might think with visual examination and digital palpation as some of the trainers apply what Dr. Turner called mortician-level cosmetics to the legs in order to hide the damage.

Thermography and digital X rays can also be used to detect illegal shoes and the presence of foreign material under the pads. Samples can be analyzed to check for chemicals such as kerosene or diesel fuel. There is no legitimate reason for either of these substances to be on the leg of a show horse unless, as Dr. Turner said, “you’ve gone camping with your horse” or “you had an accident at the fuel pump with your horse.” Somehow I can’t see show horses put in either of these positions.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter how much technology or how many trained personnel are thrown at the problem. Until the rewards for a behavior are lowered to the point of making the risk untenable, the behavior is unlikely to change. It’s human nature. Dr. Cezar summed it up on Saturday during the Welfare and Public Policy Forum: “It will take the industry and stakeholders working with USDA to eliminate soring.” Change has to come from within the gaited horse industry. As with abuses in any sport, we have to eliminate the incentive to cheat. That’s the only way back from the dark side.