Monday, June 04, 2001

Group sues to prevent abuse of walking horses

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

        SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — Nodding its head in synch with its steps, the Tennessee walking horse seems to glide around the ring as it strides with a graceful, high-stepping gait.

        “To me it's just poetry in motion,” said Bob Cherry, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association based near this town 50 miles south of Nashville.

        Few question the beauty, but many question the price some horses pay for that prize-winning gait.

        The American Horse Protection Association is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture for ceding too much authority to the industry to regulate itself against abuses, specifically a practice called soring.

        Soring involves irritating a horse's forelegs, typically with chemicals such as mustard oil or diesel fuel, to enhance their natural gait. The horse raises its front legs high to take pressure off painful areas and shifts its weight to its back legs.

        “I would say it's a similar outlook to cockfighting,” said Robin Lohnes, executive director of the watchdog group.

        Kenny Smith, a board member of the Kentucky Walking Horse Association, said the comparison shows the group's cultural bias against walking horse competitions, which are primarily in the South.

        He said most trainers use legal methods, such as padded shoes and light leg chains.

        The walking horse was bred in Tennessee more than a century ago for smooth rides on farms or streets.

        Public outcry over widespread soring prompted Congress in 1970 to enact the Horse Protection Act, which made it illegal for trainers to show injured walking horses and similar breeds. It also gave USDA authority over the industry.

        Some trainers didn't adjust well to the change. Some still call motels to see whether USDA inspectors are in town and bypass competitions if they are there, said Ron DeHaven, deputy administrator for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

        That tension was apparent last month when USDA inspectors showed up at a competition in Harrodsburg, Ky.

        “We've got company,” show participants whispered to each other.

        But Mr. DeHaven said there's a lack of funding to provide widespread government inspections, and that's why the agency allows the industry to largely regulate itself.

        The USDA signed a three-year agreement this year with several horse industry organizations that clarifies the definition of a sore horse violation and gives the organizations virtually all responsibility to punish abusers.

        The equine protection group contends the industry doesn't have the authority — or the motivation — to enforce the law and thinks the government should do it, attorney Russell Gaspar said.


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