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Horse business and sharp practice have not traditionally been divorced. But far uglier than mere chicanery is the widespread and longstanding practice of purposeful injury to that pleasant riding animal, the Tennessee Walking Horse (SI, Aug. 29, 1955). The torture, known and until recently condoned by inaction, is rarely punished legally. Reprimand from the horse world itself amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist. Only hostile public opinion to add force to the overdue wave of indignation against abuses will limit, if not stop, them during many of the major shows still ahead.
The Walking Horse's trademark, the unique running walk with its gliding hind motion, high front action and busily nodding head, is its most famous gait. Some breeders and trainers, aiming to add speed and showiness to this smooth gait, do so by carefully selected bloodlines and conscientious training; others try short cuts by torture, for if the horse's front feet are sore he will lift them quickly from the ground, shift his weight to his sound hind quarters and take the desired easy, gliding step.
The methods are simple and sometimes hard to detect, particularly since the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' Association, intending to protect the horse from possible cuts or bruises from the overreach (the average Walker's hind foot will overstride the front foot 14 to 22 inches), allows boots to be worn. But the protective device is also being used to hide damage or inflict pain. Crudest methods are to 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 the coronary band or a "blister" inside the hoof—but these can often be detected the morning after by a tour of the barns. The horses which are too sore to get up are those which have been treated with a dose of this "walking compound."
So it is often no pleasure for the "world's greatest pleasure horse" to enter the show ring. The desired effect—that of making him walk gingerly—is so generally obtained by hurting the horse's feet that it is possible to read a proud advertisement like this for a mare touted as walking "with the sore lick without being sore. Examine those dainty, fast-flying feet and not a hair is out of place, no nails are driven to quick her, no gadgets and no tricks. Just pure, natural walking ability...."
As one ribbon-greedy exhibitor said to the Humane Society's Donald Coleman in New Orleans, "I'll do anything I want to make my horse look good, and you'll not stop me."
But this year some steps are being taken to control the con men of the horse game. The American Horse Shows Association now states in its rule book that "horses must be serviceably sound and judges shall disqualify horses equipped with artificial 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 of boots, 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 of the horse's body, legs or feet."
This spring in Athens, Alabama, Judge H. O. Davis applied the rule for the first time, demonstrating that although these abuses had been ruled against, they had obviously not been ruled out. Some 75 walking horses were examined, and others were taken rapidly to the gate when owners realized they would be caught if they did not retreat. Enough remained so that Ringmaster Sam Gibbons vows he lost several inches off his waist from bending to unstrap the boots, but their removal revealed that about 10% were being tortured and many more showed scars from past afflictions.
Davis immediately became unpopular with this lot of horse owners, some of whom accused him of grandstanding, while others demanded indignantly by what right he inspected. Most, however, have applauded the action, including the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' Association, which has instructed all its licensed judges to be on the alert. The Association is also talking of forming a committee to work with the Humane Society, which was instrumental in bringing about official recognition of the wrongs, to police its own big show in September as well as other events.
The difficulties in properly supervising a show are often compounded by the absence of a reliable veterinarian. Too often it is the veterinarian, with unswerving dedication to the collection of the fast buck, who mixes and sells the blister formula. Furthermore patrol problems, even with qualified help, are difficult, for some forms of abuse are hard to detect. One horse show official who has worked closely with the Humane Society for years commented ruefully that "next to arson, cruelty is the most difficult act to catch and make stand up 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 at the same time he asks the saddle removed for conformation inspection.