By Jennifer Klitzke
After bouncing around for 20 years on trotting horses, my aging body was looking for a change—SMOOTH. Little did I know that my search for smooth would lead me to a jolting discovery.
Looking through hundreds of online ads in the comfort of my warm home that cold Midwestern February day of 2007, I came across a black, 14-2 hand, registered Tennessee walking horse filly named Gift of Freedom (Makana). She was just turning three years old and had 30 rides on her. The owners had imprinted her from birth and handled her daily. I was intrigued with her name and partial to her size, her handling, her color, and she was barefoot like my other horses.
My husband and I drove two-and-a-half hours through the ice and snow to see her. Upon meeting Makana I knew instantly that she was the one for me when she wedged her nose between my arm and body and literally made me hug her. I had never met such a friendly horse! Driving away that day, my husband said, “Let’s think about it. You already have three horses.”
A few days passed. Then on Valentine’s Day, my husband said, “Yes, you can get the horse.” Wow, Gift of Freedom was far better than a box of chocolates, and my first gaited horse!
I sent in my registration papers and became a member of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA). A month later the Voice magazine arrived. I looked through this thick, glossy, well-produced magazine and was utterly perplexed. Page after page, I noticed unnatural hoof angles, big shoes, shank bits, and exaggerated poses. Is this how I’m suppose to train my Walking horse?
I decided then and there, dressage is all I knew, and dressage is all Makana will know.
A couple months passed and I attended the Minnesota Horse Expo. I met the late Brenda Imus and watched her naturally gaited presentation, bought her Gaits of Gold DVD set, and went to the coliseum to see the Tennessee walking horse demonstration. None of the gaited horses moved in the manner I saw pictured in the Voice magazine. One of the riders was even dressed in dressage attire and rode her horse at a flat walk, not trot. Inspired, I followed the demo team back to the barn.
The Minnesota Walking Horse Association (MWHA) demo team had a nice presentation table. Looking through the information about local and national TWH associations, their television caught my eye. It brought the Voice magazine photos to life; a TWH wearing the big shoes was moving next to a horse with regular shoes. What a staggering contrast: mechanical and exaggerated movement vs. natural and flowing movement. I later realized that I had been watching Jennie Jackson riding her flat shod stallion Champagne Watchout at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration World Grand Championship class. She was the only flat shod entry riding among performance horses wearing the big shoes. And Jennie and her husband Nate have been on the front lines fighting against TWH abuse for 30 years. Video>
In 2009 I took Makana to her first recognized TWH show, the Minnesota Celebration. Each horse was officially inspected for soundness and palpitated for evidence of soring before entering the show ring. Soring? What is that?
I was mortified to discover that it wasn’t just the big shoes that made the horses move with exaggerated motion. Some people put corrosive agents on the horse’s front feet and add chains around the horse’s fetlocks. When the chains hit the raw skin the horse flicks its sore foot up with each step to produce the extreme motion. All this for a blue ribbon. That’s what soring is.
How jolting! Was I ever thankful to know that soring is illegal according to the Horse Protection Act.
Then in 2012 my husband urgently called me into the living room to watch Nightline. I was shocked to hear reporter Brian Ross uncover an investigation about the ongoing abusive and inhumane training practices predominant in the TWH performance division. “But this is ILLEGAL, how can this be!?” I exclaimed.
The trouble is that soring is hard to enforce; it’s costly to hire the infrastructure needed to enforce; those who sore their horses have devised ways around the system; and those who get caught receive rather light sentences.
In November 2013, House Bill 1518 called the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (PAST Act) was presented to Congress. It proposes to ban all use of pads and chains from the show world.
According to veterinarian Dr. Haffner, “The fact is the big lick can only be accomplished by soring,” he wrote in a letter to Congress urging them to put an end to this abuse. “When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed. The big lick is a learned response to pain and if horses have not been sored, they do not learn it.
“It takes skill to be able to teach a horse the big lick and then determine the proper amount of soring and the proper timing to have a horse ready on a Friday or Saturday night. The horses must have the memory of the pain, but they must also be able to pass inspection.
“It takes a combination of the built up pads for the weight and the chain to strike against the pastern that has been sored to produce the big lick. Other methods have been developed, but the traditional method is oil of mustard placed on the pastern and a chain put around the pastern to strike against it.
“The hair must be protected and this is generally done by applying grease on the pastern with a stocking over it. Calluses develop as a result of the chain rubbing against the skin. Later, the calluses are removed with a paste made by mixing salicylic acid with alcohol and applying it over the calluses and putting a leg bandage over it for a few days,” he wrote, adding, “This practice is also very painful to the horse. I have seen many horses lying in pain in their stalls on Monday morning from an acid treatment on Saturday.”
In regards to the PAST Act, The Chattanoogan reporter Roy Exum writes, ”There are 435 members in Congress and, to date, 248 of them have signed on as co-sponsors of a pending bill that will help eradicate sadistic horse abuse in Tennessee.” This bill is likely to be voted upon later in January 2014. more>
To think that all I wanted was a comfortable, smooth horse to ride would lead me to such a jolting discovery about the exaggerated movements seen on the cover of the Voice. My naturally gaited and barefoot Tennessee walking horse might be boring to watch, but at least she’s happy and sound.
For more information about soring, the PAST Act, and ways you can help put an end to abusive and inhumane training methods, visit the links below.
What is Soring?
What is the PAST Act?
How You Can Help
PAST Act Opinion Poll
Letter from a Former Performance Horse Veterinarian
Letter from a Performance Horse Owner
Letter from a Former Performance Horse Trainer
Caught in the Act of Soring
Voters Who Approve the PAST Act
Friends of Sound Horses
National Walking Horse Association