Soring inspections at walking horse shows should be sole domain of veterinarians – report

Thermographic image showing excessive warmth (seen as red and orange colors), which may be caused by inflammation from soring. The pattern seen is consistent with soring using a chemical agent. © USDA
A thermographic image showing excessive warmth (seen as red and orange colors), which may be caused by inflammation from soring. The pattern seen is consistent with soring using a chemical agent. © USDA

Only veterinarians should administer inspections at Tennessee walking horse shows to detect evidence of the illegal practice of soring, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends.

The report, which reviewed methods for detecting evidence of soring in walking horses, recommended that the use of designated qualified persons (DQPs) to undertake inspections under the current self-policing regime be discontinued.

The report says differences in training and experience account for the discrepancies between inspections done by veterinarians engaged by the US Department of Agriculture and DQPs, who are mostly non-veterinarians licensed by the horse industry organizations that host shows.

The report recommends that inspections be administered only by veterinarians. If budget constraints necessitate the use of third-party inspectors, they should be trained by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the agriculture department. These individuals should be evaluated for the role, and screened for conflicts of interest.

The report also recommends specific information and methods that inspectors should learn in their training.

The report, which is the culmination of a thorough study lasting over a year conducted by veterinarians and other experts in animal health and behavior brought together by the National Academies, said all inspections should follow proper technique and employ sufficient observation of horse movement, palpation of limbs to detect local pain and inflammation, thermography, and swabbing to detect inflammation or prohibited substances.

Physical exams should take into account the current understanding of how horses experience and present pain.

The Tennessee walking horse is a breed that originated in Tennessee more than 100 years ago.

An exaggerated gait called the big lick is unique to this breed, and is rewarded in some Tennessee walking horse shows.

While some people train horses to produce “the big lick,” others resort to soring — applying chemical irritants such as kerosene or friction devices that make the horse’s forelegs sore — to encourage the high-stepping gait movements.

The 1970 Horse Protection Act made soring illegal, and authorized the inspection of horses by the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) at shows.

The decision to disqualify a horse from a show should also be driven by an experienced veterinarian, the report says.

This decision should be made based on a diagnosis of local pain where a horse is touched, but it should also include a thorough assessment of the horse’s gait, and other signs such as excessive restlessness, weight shifting, or pointing a front limb.

The report also recommends that the “scar rule” — language included in the Horse Protection Regulations that requires horses to show no evidence of soring scars during inspections — should be revised and be based on what can be accurately assessed by a gross examination during an inspection, and proposes new language.

The report recommends that thermography be used during the inspection to help detect inflammation, and that swabbing to detect prohibited substances — such as topical pain relievers — be administered both randomly and to suspect horses.

It also says serious consideration be given to blood testing, which is used in other types of horse competitions to detect medications that could alter the horse’s response to pain.

The physical examination is critical in detecting soring, and protocols for the exam should draw on current knowledge of how horses experience and present pain. Inspections should no longer require that the horse be repeatedly sore in a specific area to be disqualified, because of the physiological changes that occur after repeated stimulation of a painful area.

Conducting the inspection in an area with as few distractions as possible will reduce the impact of environmental effects — such as noise, lights, or other animals and people — on the horse’s behavior, and make pain response clearer.

The Humane Society of the United States welcomed the report’s findings, saying they underscore the urgent need to eliminate the current system of self-policing in the Tennessee walking horse industry.

The society’s president and chief executive, Kitty Block, and the president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Sara Amundson, described industry self-policing as a failed system that has enabled soring for decades.

“Though some in the Tennessee walking horse industry hoped that the study would enable them to continue their abuse, the National Academies have delivered a thorough report that recognizes palpation as the gold standard for detection of soreness, embraces an enhanced rule on scarring and offers other constructive proposals designed to achieve more robust enforcement of the Horse Protection Act,” the pair said in a statement.

“Last year, we fought off attempts to enact an eleventh-hour proposal floated by the sorers and a group they teamed up with, which would have blocked these recommendations and other vital reforms provided for in the US Department of Agriculture’s 2017 anti-soring rule that we’re urging the Biden administration to swiftly reinstate.”

They said the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which an overwhelming bipartisan majority of members of the House of Representatives approved in the last Congress, goes even further to protect horses. “We’ll be championing its passage in the 117th Congress.”

The review noted that increased public awareness of soring and the resulting backlash prompted the state of Tennessee to enact anti-soring legislation as far back as 1950. However, it was mostly disregarded by the industry and ultimately not enforced.

In 1970, the US Congress passed the Horse Protection Act which makes it illegal to exhibit, transport, sell, or auction horses that are known to be sore. The act also authorized the inspection of horses by US Department of Agriculture personnel.

Given limited funding to carry out inspections, the program was expanded in 1976 to permit trained third-party individuals (DQPs) to conduct horse inspections, but its authors now recommend an end to this system.

Although veterinarians and DQPs use similar methods to inspect horses for soreness, disparities in inspection outcomes have raised concerns.

There had also been concern within the walking horse industry that the determination of soreness is inconsistent between inspectors because the methods themselves may not be reliable.

The study was undertaken by the Committee to Review Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses, and sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Highlights of the report can be found here.

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