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).
However, some trainers use prohibited versions of these two items, using pads and chains that were not within the allowable height and weight.
The next three techniques are illegal, but many insiders argue that they are still common.  I warn you now: much of this post from this point on will be very upsetting for many readers.
  • 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.

Symbolic interactionism, one of the most common theoretical perspectives adopted by sociologists, explains human behavior through the meanings we place on objects or symbols in our environment. These symbols can be material objects, but they can also be words, gestures, actions, events, as well as people and groups. The symbols’ meanings are not innate. They are created and applied through human relations and interactions. In other words, they are socially constructed. Consequently, our behaviors and relationships change as meanings are altered. Some social conflict is the result of different groups defining objects differently.

This extends to human cognition, as a previous post on cultural differences in susceptibility to optical illusions demonstrated.  Another example involves how we hear animal sounds, illustrated in this clip from the television show “Family Guy.” In this segment, we see Stewie playing with a European see and say, a toy designed to teach animal noises. He is frustrated because the animals are said to make sounds that do not ring true to his ear.

For a list of the various sounds animals make in different parts of the world, see this compilation by Derek Abbott at The University of Adelaide.


Deeb Kitchen is an assistant visiting professor at Drake University specializing social movements, the sociology of knowledge and poplar culture. He has done research on higher education, graduate labor unions, and the culture industry.

Cross-posted in Portuguese at Conhecimento Prudente.

Philippa brought our attention to a recent ad campaign by the Egg Farmers of Ontario, an organization that promotes Ontario’s egg industry. The campaign, titled Who Made Your Eggs Today?, draws the consumer’s attention to the families engaged in producing Canada’s eggs. The images and videos focus on an idealized image of family farms, emphasizing tradition, family togetherness, and a connection to the land:


But as Philippa pointed out, there’s something noticeably absent here: the chickens themselves. There’s quite a bit of talk about chickens — how much the farmers enjoy working with them, how amazing it is that they produce an egg nearly every day, what they eat, and so on — but I didn’t see a single chicken in any of the videos listed on the Farm Families page. (Though videos on later years include brief shots of chickens.)

This ad campaign seems to provide transparency into how food is produced; we get to see into the lives of actual egg producers in Ontario, and hear them speak about their lives and the process that brings eggs to the consumer. And for those of us concerned about how the conditions under which our food is produced, this is an important step, as most consumers have little or no direct experience with farming or the lives of people who raise food. The appeal of farmers’ markets , community-based agriculture, and other alternative food distribution outlets is not just the idea of getting environmentally sustainable produce, but also making a connection to a specific producer, and often a desire to support small-scale family farmers.

But the insight into the egg supply chain offered here is selective.  What is carefully avoided in the videos is any discussion of how the hens are treated. We never quite see into the barns to see how the chickens are housed; we don’t hear whether artificial lighting and other techniques are used to boost egg production in ways that cause physical stress to the hens; we don’t know anything at all, in fact, about the chickens.

We enter the story when the eggs have been separated from layers’ housing; we see clean, pretty eggs moving along on mechanized belts or being carefully placed into cartons by hand; our attention as consumers is directed to the people running the farms and away from discussions of the animals or larger concerns about sustainability. As Philippa says, “in giving the egg farmers a public face, the campaign is actually distancing the public from the product they are promoting.”

Also check out our post about Nathan Meltz’s artwork highlighting modern food production, including his Chicken Coup video.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Dr. Bethany Pope sent in a segment from a National Geographic show about animals’ sexual behavior. The clip is an amazingly gendered discussion, describing animals’ motivations and behaviors through the lens of what is considered normative masculine and feminine sexual behavior, the correct place of males and females in the social hierarchy, and the assumption that males and females are locked in a zero-sum game. The anthropomorphizing of other species begins at the outset, when we learn female hyenas want “more than equal rights, they want to beat males at their own game.”  In fact, “Africa’s plains are among the most macho places on earth…they’re testosterone-fueled battlefields,” filled with “swaggering” males. Bethany sums up the tone regarding hyenas, saying, “The documentary presents them as an abomination, usurping male gender roles.” Indeed, at about a minute in we learn that hyenas “seem mixed up.” A hyena “swaggers,” “confident” and “cocksure,” its penis swinging “low and proud.” But what’s this? The swaggering, cocksure hunter “has a secret”! That’s not a penis, it’s an enlarged clitoris; our hero is a she! Not only that, there’s not a penis anywhere to be found, as this is an all-female pack; “these female are some of the most masculine in the world — and they like to sniff each other an awful lot, too. Compounding the “confusion,” they have a “bulging” sac, like a scrotum. And not only are female hyenas masculinized, but the poor males are emasculated, reduced to being “subservient, servile, and scared.” It is rather stunning example of anthropomorphizing the natural world and applying gendered norms of sexuality to other species, and worth sitting through the full six minutes to get the full effect (the video might not be safe for some workplaces; there are a lot of lingering shots of penises and clitorises. A lot.):

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) sponsored two new billboards in Albany, NY, warning residents that cheese makes you fat in what is possibly most irresponsible way ever. The first features an obese man’s disembodied torso and the words, “Your abs on cheese.” The second features an obese woman’s butt and thighs and the words, “Your thighs on cheese.” The images make a very clear statement: fat people are disgusting.
The PCRM advocates for a vegan diet. The aim of this campaign is to get Albany residents to reduce their cheese intake, as cheese is a common source of saturated fat and, according to the PRCM, a major contributor to obesity in the United States. In Albany, home to several dairy farms, 63 percent of adults are obese. This is higher than the statewide obesity level of 59 percent. Obesity prevention is a valid cause, to be sure, but at what cost to other health issues?

According to their website, the PCRM is “a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.” For an organization so concerned with ethical standards, the PCRM has sunk pretty low with this offensive and damaging campaign. In the jargon of health communication ethics, the PCRM have committed a common and classic misstep: the failure to consider the unintended consequences of their message.

Just like a single food item (in this case, cheese) is not responsible for the entire obesity epidemic, obesity is not the only serious health problem facing Americans. We are also struggling with our body image and self-esteem as we cope with the barrage of photoshopped and unrealistic “ideal bodies” in the media. The National Eating Disorders Association states that “in the United States, as many as 10 million women and 1 million men are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder.”

In the medical hegemony, physical health tends to outrank mental health in “importance.” But the line between physical and mental health issues is not always clear, especially with the confluence of obesity, body image disturbance, eating disorders, and self-esteem. The PRCM is wearing blinders to these interrelated health issues in their dogmatic pursuit of a singular, isolated objective.

Physicians are taught to “do no harm.” The PRCM needs to understand that insensitive words and pictures are absolutely harmful to our health. There are better ways to educate and motivate people to make healthier food choices; ethical health campaigns do not sacrifice one health issue to promote another.


Leah Berkenwald is a graduate student of Health Communication at Emerson College, in collaboration with the Tufts University School of Medicine, and holds a MA in American Studies from the University of Nottingham. She is currently designing a social marketing campaign on body image for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also works as the Online Communications Specialist at the Jewish Women’s Archive, and blogs at

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Dolores R. sent us the newest message from associated with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).  Sponsored by both PETA and the Ministry of Waxing (a pubic-hair removal site), the ad features a fur-covered “wallet” (via Ms.):

I guess it’s just an ad for waxing your pubes, but the logic is so convoluted that I’m having a hard time getting my head around it.  The fur of slaughtered animals is gross/unethical, so you should shave off your public hair?  Pubic hair is gross and that’s how you know wearing animal fur is gross?  Shave your public hair as a token of your objection to wearing fur?  Skin yourself, not animals?

Or perhaps my problem is looking for a logic in the first place.

UPDATE 1: A reader sent in a clarification regarding the relationship between PETA and the Ministry of Waxing, one with its own sociological lessons about social movement organizations.  It appears that the Ministry has donated money to PETA for the privilege of using the “PETA Business Friend logo.”  While PETA has apparently made a deal with the Ministry of Waxing, they legally disclaim any responsibility for how their logo is used and it’s possible that they did not approve this ad.  Details on the program here.

UPDATE 2: Another reader, though, argues that the logo on the ad isn’t the “Business Friend” logo (see below), but the “real” PETA logo.  He links to a page on the PETA website where they endorse the program.  This reader writes:

…PETA isn’t somehow being used against their knowledge; they’re co-promoting it.  There’s no disclaimer, no weaseling out, no “we didn’t know about it”; this is 100% PETA-approved.

Also in PETA: women packaged like meat and imagined as meat, and in cageswomen who love animals get naked (men wear clothes), the banned superbowl ad, and a collection of various PETA advertising using (mostly women’s) nudity.

See also our post on leftist balkanization, or the way that leftist social movements tend to undermine each other.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Eve P. and Will LeS. suggested that we write about the window decals that have popped up on the back windows of cars in the last couple years.  The decals supposedly list the members of the car owner’s immediate family, sometimes including pets.  They also, though, tend to reproduce some interesting ideas about families.  Here’s what Eve had to say:

  • The figures are almost always placed on the left side of the car, so that the figures (usually placed from tallest to shortest) strongly give the impression of a visual hierarchy or ranking.
  • A “dad” figure is first in line, before a “mom” figure, and the adult figures come before the child figures (boy children before girl children, unless the boy is younger child), and the child figures come before any animal figures…
  • This ranking seems to suggest that men take precedence over women, adults take precedence over children, and all humans take precedence over animals.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a two woman or two man setup (or any other set of adults besides one man and one woman)…
  • The “dad” figure is taller than the “mom” figure…

So the stickers tend to reproduce the normalness of (1) being paired up with (2) someone of the other sex, (3) having children, (4) a gender hierarchy, and (5) the imperative that men be taller than women.


Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Carni K sent in an interesting story about Kellogg’s, the cereal company. Kellogg’s is suing the Maya Archaeology Institute (MAI), a non-profit Guatemalan organization aimed at protecting the local history, culture, and natural environment. Why? It uses a toucan in its logo.

For those of you who did not spend your youth eating highly sugared empty carbohydrates for breakfast, the toucan (specifically, Toucan Sam) is the mascot of Kellogg’s Froot Loops. The toucan is also a large-billed colorful bird indigenous to Central and South America, the Caribbean, and southern Florida.

While this sort of cultural cannibalism is certainly common in American culture, it is a bold move nonetheless for Kellogg’s to not only appropriate the toucan, but to claim that no one else has a right to represent the toucan.  Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli puts it this way: “This is a bit like the Washington Redskins claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians.”

And therein lies the problem: who is allowed to claim the symbolic use of this bird—an indigenous Guatemalan organization or a company that makes cereal and other convenience foods marketed to children and families?

To me, this brings up another question: what gives any of us the right to use the toucan at all? While cultural representations of animals may not directly harm animals, and have been central in human cultures for tens of thousands of years, they can contribute to a particular perception of those same animals. And animal advocates know that perception then shapes treatment. If we perceive an animal to be dumb or trivial, for example, then that animal may not seem worthy of our concern.

Many types of toucans, for example, are endangered. Of the more than 40 species making up their family, 35 are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, meaning that they are either endangered, threatened, or otherwise subject to concern.  Their troubled status comes not from people hunting or eating them, but from the increasing levels of habitat destruction in the tropical regions in which they live… which brings us back to the Maya Archaeology Institute.

The organization’s mission includes protecting Guatemala’s rainforests, including the animals and plants that live there. Kellogg’s, on the other hand, has made the toucan into a funny bird whose large nose lets him sniff out Froot Loops wherever they are hiding.

Who should have the right to represent the toucan?  Anyone?


Margo DeMello has a PhD in cultural anthropology and teaches anthropology, cultural studies, and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College. Her research areas include body modification and adornment and human-animal studies.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.