This is the second of two posts about cruel practices in horse industries. The first was about horse racing.
Yesterday we covered the abuse of horses in horse racing; in this post we discuss a recent video released by the Humane Society. The video highlights an instance of a larger issue, which is how arbitrary human tastes can create incentives for cruelty.
The concern revolves around the Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH), a breed developed in the U.S. in the late 1800s and bred to have smooth gaits, including their distinctive “running walk,” that are unusual in most breeds. Over time, a more exaggerated version became popular among show judges and spectators at TWH shows; called the “big lick,” it requires horses to shift their weight to their back legs and pick their front legs high off the ground. Fans enjoyed the flashy, unusual movements and horses that performed the gait began taking home more prizes. This created a powerful incentive to get horses to exhibit the unnaturally exaggerated gait.
How do you get this gait? It’s possible to get some horses to do so through careful training. But to speed up the process, or for horses that aren’t learning, trainers developed a range of techniques. These first two are still allowed, under varying circumstances, during training and in the show ring:
- Using padding and weighted shoes to change how the horse stands and moves its feet (akin to how high heels shift a person’s weight and stance).
- Placing chains around the tops of their hooves to encourage them to pick their feet up more highly than they would otherwise (presumably they’re irritating).
- Place screws or nails in different parts of their front hooves or soles to cause discomfort. While horses’ hooves are hard, the soles are quite sensitive. The screws or nails make it painful for the horse to put its front legs down, so it shifts its weight back, helping to attain the gait.
- Intentionally cut the horse’s front hooves so short that the sensitive sole hits the ground directly, which is extremely painful (think of what happens if your fingernail gets cut or broken off too short).
- Coating a horse’s hooves and lower legs with caustic substances, then wrapping them in plastic wrap, for as long as several days, until they’re very sore — a process called, aptly, “soring.” This causes the horse to shift weight to its back legs in an effort to reduce the pain from the front feet. This is often used in conjunction with chains, which irritate and rub up against the raw skin.
Many inspectors argue that these practices, once widely accepted in the industry, are still common today. Recently the Humane Society released undercover footage of training practices at Whitter Stables, a facility in Collierville, TN that has been the center of a federal investigation. It is a very distressing video that includes many of the practices listed above, as well as horses being whipped when they have difficulty standing:
In 1970, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act, which outlawed the exhibition of sored horses. So trainers have developed techniques to hide them; they paint horses’ hooves and legs to cover evidence of soring or use boots to cover tacks embedded in their hooves.
They also beat them so that they learn not to show any sign of pain when inspected before a show. They do this by simulating an inspection and then punishing the horse if it shows any signs of distress (e.g., punching or hitting them in the face or administering an electric shock). Eventually horses learn that if they flinch, they get hurt twice; hiding signs of pain prevents the infliction of more suffering.
Trainers may also use a fast-acting but short-term numbing agent to reduce the pain just long enough to pass inspections. Other trainers and owners simply leave a show if word gets out that USDA inspectors were present.
The Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association argues that these practices are not widespread. However, in 2006 the last class in the World Grand Champion competition at the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration (the TWH show equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, in terms of importance) was canceled because of the 10 entered horses, 5 did not pass the inspection and another was removed by the owner without being inspected. In 2009, the USDA issued over 400 violations at the Celebration.
A USDA report states the organization only had the resources to send their own veterinarians to 6% of official TWH shows in 2007; the other 94% were inspected by individuals hired, trained, and licensed by organizations sponsoring shows, a system the USDA found to be plagued by conflicts of interest. The report also noted that hostility toward USDA inspectors is so high that they routinely bring police or armed security with them to shows.
Jackie McConnell, the trainer in the video, has been indicted on federal charges. But without sustained attention and commitment to punishing violators, the problem will continue due to the pressure to produce horses that satisfy the tastes that have become entrenched in the industry. As one industry insider explained to Horse Illustrated magazine in 2004,
As long as the big lick wins at shows, the trainer must produce it to stay in business….The day a trainer stops producing big lick horses is the day all the horses in his or her barn are removed and taken to another trainer. The pressure is enormous.
Gwen Sharp and Lisa Wade are professors of sociology. You can follow Gwen on Twitter and Lisa on Twitter and Facebook.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
WG — May 29, 2012
"...many insiders argue it is still common"
Yeah, that's scientific...
myblackfriendsays — May 29, 2012
I saw this story on Nightline--very distressing. I don't understand getting pleasure out of the suffering of others. Do the spectators really think that the horses are able to display that gait through the use of reasonable means?
guest — May 29, 2012
Can someone please enlihten me as to what sociological issue(s) this addresses. Animal cruelty is bad. Ok. And?
Sarah — May 29, 2012
Performance animals are almost universally abused. If not through horrific means such as those outlined above, through the mere fact of frequent travel and captivity. No tiger wants to live in a tiny cage, being carted from city to city so sticky-fingered toddlers and their drunk parents can gawk and poke at it. No horse wants to be run ragged for the entertainment of drunk gamblers. It is, apparently, human nature to inflict pain on anything and anyone it can. Stories like these just serve as reminders of that fact.
Although, the fact that blog readers care is heartening - not my fellow commenters, apparently, though.
Shark Face — May 29, 2012
Sociological Images: Your number one source for posts about Lego and Horses.
Chicken Derby — May 29, 2012
As a horse person, I just don't get it. Nothing about the overall presentation here is remotely beautiful or desirable to me. All I see is a lame horse flailing its limbs around in pain. All of the horse sports have their "underbelly" but the TWHs have one of the worst IMO.
What makes these people want this?
decius — May 30, 2012
"As long as the big lick wins at shows, the trainer must produce it to stay in business…"
As long as the trainers that produce it stay in business, they will continue to produce it. We already tolerate draconian forfeiture laws in other areas, so why not seize the stables where horses are trained, the arenas at which they are knowingly exhibited, the vehicles which tow the trailers used to transport animals for illegal purposes, and so forth?
abbeysbooks — May 30, 2012
Jerzy Kosinski in one of his novels has a long description of a horse trainer doing this to a TWH. We live in a world of torture: animals; children; women; boys; minorities; endless practices of torture. And yet when you read this post there is a strange curious feeling as you empathize with the animal as well as some sort of Freudian masochistic pleasure. It is similar to reading some fanfiction of porn. The horror and yet fascination of reading this conceals and reveals those of us in our culture who see torture when it is no longer invisible.
In China I went to the Humble Ambassador's Garden in Suzhou. The rocks piled up high around a pond I think were clearly meant for meditation or those high on opium to dream faces into them.
Then I began thinking of the torturous labor to bring these rocks to this place in medieval times: dragging them with harnesses? Did they even use carts to haul them; I don't think so. So then I became lost in the contemplation of the people bringing them from another place in order to have another meal, live another day.
abbeysbooks — May 30, 2012
I have been thinking about this post off and on all day. It brought up memories glued to it. So I wrote on it, linked it to you, and took it in a slightly different direction. Here it is:
http://focusfree.blogspot.com/2012/05/incentives-for-cruelty-abuse-of.html?zx=3c75c50ebb03bd11 Thank you for this post, but I really don't know why I want to thank you for making me hurt.
Bl — May 31, 2012
Man was created to care for animals, not abuse them. Keeping an animal in a state of pain is wrong. If you want to help, support your local humane society.
eeka — June 5, 2012
How about, we just ban the use of animals for entertainment? Absolutely no reason for any of it.
Manda — September 4, 2012
This abuse is not comparable to slaughter! Unless slaughter involves this sort of cruelty! These horses suffer abuse year in year out if they survive it!
Down With Ignorance — August 22, 2013
I'm no fan of the padding up of the front feet (saw one up close and it just looked dumpy and clumsy to me) but it is like a woman wearing heels. if they 'fit' right they don't hurt. It's not the pads people should be complaining about, it's the soreing, the pads don't sore em, it's just extra weight to get them to puck up their feet, saddlebred people do it too, but not to near the same extent and they don't sore their horses. and those roller ball chains, seriously? they don't hurt the horse either, those aren't even heavy, I picked up a pair before and they're lighter then your house keys (or my house keys anyways) those just work with the horses natural instinct. See horses instinctively pick up their feet higher if there's something around their feet (I think it may also have something to do from the horses being used to having to pick up their feet when the farrier comes and picks them up to work on them). I'm no expert about show TWH's, but I do know some of the saddlebred world and they use the chains, stretchers (consists of two 'bands', for lack of better term, that fastens loosely around the ankle that are connected with surgical tubing which is kind of like resistance training at a gym), and thin pads (thickest I've seen was about 1/4 of an inch)
brett clark — May 7, 2016
I was just told that they actually brake the front legs to make them walk like that ,Is this true? I have read quiet a bit on these horses now and have found pretty horrible stuff but not breaking their legs.