Horse businessand sharp practice have not traditionally been divorced. But far uglier thanmere chicanery is the widespread and longstanding practice of purposeful injuryto that pleasant riding animal, the Tennessee Walking Horse (SI, Aug. 29,1955). The torture, known and until recently condoned by inaction, is rarelypunished legally. Reprimand from the horse world itself amounts to little morethan a slap on the wrist. Only hostile public opinion to add force to theoverdue wave of indignation against abuses will limit, if not stop, them duringmany of the major shows still ahead.
The WalkingHorse's trademark, the unique running walk with its gliding hind motion, highfront action and busily nodding head, is its most famous gait. Some breedersand trainers, aiming to add speed and showiness to this smooth gait, do so bycarefully selected bloodlines and conscientious training; others try short cutsby torture, for if the horse's front feet are sore he will lift them quicklyfrom the ground, shift his weight to his sound hind quarters and take thedesired easy, gliding step.
The methods aresimple and sometimes hard to detect, particularly since the Tennessee WalkingHorse Breeders' Association, intending to protect the horse from possible cutsor bruises from the overreach (the average Walker's hind foot will overstridethe front foot 14 to 22 inches), allows boots to be worn. But the protectivedevice is also being used to hide damage or inflict pain. Crudest methods areto put tacks or chains inside the boots, or hog rings in the frog of the foot.The most widespread techniques of cruelty are the use of lye around thecoronary band or a "blister" inside the hoof—but these can often bedetected the morning after by a tour of the barns. The horses which are toosore to get up are those which have been treated with a dose of this"walking compound."
So it is often nopleasure for the "world's greatest pleasure horse" to enter the showring. The desired effect—that of making him walk gingerly—is so generallyobtained by hurting the horse's feet that it is possible to read a proudadvertisement like this for a mare touted as walking "with the sore lickwithout being sore. Examine those dainty, fast-flying feet and not a hair isout of place, no nails are driven to quick her, no gadgets and no tricks. Justpure, natural walking ability...."
July 22, 1956
As oneribbon-greedy exhibitor said to the Humane Society's Donald Coleman in NewOrleans, "I'll do anything I want to make my horse look good, and you'llnot stop me."
But this yearsome steps are being taken to control the con men of the horse game. TheAmerican Horse Shows Association now states in its rule book that "horsesmust be serviceably sound and judges shall disqualify horses equipped withartificial appliances such as wired ears, leg chains, wires or tacks,blistering or any other cruel and inhumane devices.... White boots may be used,but they shall be subject to examination by show officials. In the use ofboots, the inside must be smooth, and free from loose objects of any nature,nor may they have any sharp edges or points which will touch or rub any part ofthe horse's body, legs or feet."
This spring inAthens, Alabama, Judge H. O. Davis applied the rule for the first time,demonstrating that although these abuses had been ruled against, they hadobviously not been ruled out. Some 75 walking horses were examined, and otherswere taken rapidly to the gate when owners realized they would be caught ifthey did not retreat. Enough remained so that Ringmaster Sam Gibbons vows helost several inches off his waist from bending to unstrap the boots, but theirremoval revealed that about 10% were being tortured and many more showed scarsfrom past afflictions.
Davis immediatelybecame unpopular with this lot of horse owners, some of whom accused him ofgrandstanding, while others demanded indignantly by what right he inspected.Most, however, have applauded the action, including the Tennessee Walking HorseBreeders' Association, which has instructed all its licensed judges to be onthe alert. The Association is also talking of forming a committee to work withthe Humane Society, which was instrumental in bringing about officialrecognition of the wrongs, to police its own big show in September as well asother events.
The difficultiesin properly supervising a show are often compounded by the absence of areliable veterinarian. Too often it is the veterinarian, with unswervingdedication to the collection of the fast buck, who mixes and sells the blisterformula. Furthermore patrol problems, even with qualified help, are difficult,for some forms of abuse are hard to detect. One horse show official who hasworked closely with the Humane Society for years commented ruefully that"next to arson, cruelty is the most difficult act to catch and make standup in court."
S. H. (Wacky)Arnolt, sports car dealer and horse enthusiast, reports that many breeders,himself included, believe that a judge should order the quarter boots pulled atthe same time he asks the saddle removed for conformation inspection.
Others, such asthe National Celebration Group at Shelbyville, whose show will be held at theend of next month, plan to stand by their old rule—if an exhibitor feelsstrongly enough that a rival horse is unsound he can post $25 and protest. Ifthe horse is declared sound after examination by veterinarians, the Celebrationkeeps the money; if not, it is returned to the protestee and the questionedhorse disqualified. Thus exhibitors become each others' watchdogs. Clyde Tune,Chairman of the National Celebration Group, suspecting that there have been"gimmicked" horses shown at Shelbyville, feels that it puts the judgeon the spot to have him responsible for the removal of the boots. However, hewill admit that the judge is boss, and if he asks that the boots be removedthen there is nothing to do but remove them.
But the sad factof the matter is that most judges are afraid to do what Davis did. They mustnot make too many exhibitors mad, for many depend on their fees for a largepart of their livelihood. Mr. Davis, an automobile dealer with a horse hobby,does not. And his action frightened the pain inflicters enough so that notricks were tried for several weeks.
"But thefuture of the Walking Horse," asserts John Askew, former president of theBreeders' Association, "has never depended on the abuse of horses. A reallygood show horse would cost $10,000 to $15,000, and people who invest that kindof money aren't going to take chances of crippling the animal or giving himblood poisoning." But for every big-time investor there are many, many,small ones—and they too want to win ribbons. By some moral chemistry they oftendecide that if they don't have the money to buy or breed a top horse, then theyhave the shrewdness to make a medium one look better and so will try with tacksand acid to force a cheap horse to walk like a champion. They feel only triumphif they succeed—for a night.
The State ofKentucky passed a law in May stating that a handler attempting to show a soreWalker will be fined and, on second offense, jailed. Ringmasters permittingtampered horses to compete also face fines.
That, at least,is a step forward. For this is disgraceful cruelty and it must be fought.