What Exactly Is Soring?
Soring is quite possibly one of the most alarming and most unknown forms of animal cruelty. Soring is the process of putting acidic products and irritating chemicals on a horse’s legs that cause pain in the horse in order for it to lift its legs higher for more action. It also includes pressure shoeing, which contains methods of causing pain to the bottom of the horse's feet through mechanical means, again to get the horse to lift its legs higher. It is commonly found in the world of the Tennessee Walking Horse, and we see it most prominently with the Performance horses, or “Big Lick” horses.
Soring, by definition from the Horse Protection Act (HPA) passed by Congress in 1976, is:
“(A) an irritating or blistering agent has been applied, internally or externally, by a person to any limb of a horse,
“(B) any burn, cut, or laceration has been inflicted by a person on any limb of a horse,
“(C) any tack, nail, screw, or chemical agent has been injected by a person into or used by a person on any limb of a horse, or
“(D) any other substance or device has been used by a person on any limb of a horse or a person has engaged in a practice involving a horse, and, as a result of such application, infliction, injection, use, or practice, such horse suffers, or can reasonably be expected to suffer, physical pain or distress, inflammation, or lameness when walking, trotting, or otherwise moving, except that such term does not include such an application, infliction, injection, use, or practice in connection with the therapeutic treatment of a horse by or under the supervision of a person licensed to practice veterinary medicine in the State in which such treatment was given.”
In order to understand how soring works and why soring exists, we need to take a look at the history of the Tennessee Walking Horse and why soring came to be.
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Tennessee Walking Horse Breed History
The Tennessee Walking Horse (TWH) was developed in the southeast
The popularity of the smooth ride of the TWH spread quickly and many people wanted to own these smooth-riding horses. So In 1935, the TWH Breeder’s Association of America began to put together a registry and stud books. These stud books were closed in 1947, determining that the TWH was a separate breed on its own. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognized the TWH as a distinct breed of light horse in 1950. In 1974, the registry’s name was expanded to the TWH Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association (TWHBEA).
The Natural Gaits of the TWH
The smooth ride of the TWH is characterized by a four-beat lateral gait. This means that the feet on one side of the horse move forward before the feet on the other side. In watching a TWH in its gait, we can clearly see the following footfall pattern: right hind foot, right forefoot, left hind foot, left forefoot. When the horse is in this gait, three legs will be on the ground while one leg will be in the air, alternating in the described footfall pattern. Each individual footfall can actually be heard, so when the horse is in gait, we can count out loud “one and two and three and four and” and be in timing with the gait. The gaits of the TWH have been give the following names.
Flat Walk. (Click for a video) The flat walk is a four-beat, broken lateral gait at a leisurely, comfortable speed with a prominent head nod where the head and neck nod from the withers.
Click here for the flat-foot walk, or “dog walk,” which shows off the horse’s natural, swingy movement at a regular walk.
Running Walk. (Click for a video) The flat walk at a faster speed.
Canter. (Click for a video) A four-beat lateral canter that, when ridden, can be likened to riding a rocking horse with the feeling of riding uphill. The canter is similar to that of non-gaited horses in speed.
(These videos are of Papa's Royal Delight, a completely natural TWH stallion who goes barefoot. These are by far the best examples of the gaits available today. Videos are courtesy of Howe They Walk Farms).
The Show Gaits of the TWH
Over the years, the gaits have been developed for the show ring to show off the horse’s flashy movement and stunning conformation. These show gaits are based on the amount of animation, or lift to the horses legs, and the size of the shoes the horse wears. Horses can be entered in two gait classes, where they are only shown in the flat walk and running walk, or three gait classes, where they are shown in the flat walk, running walk and canter.
Lite Shod or Flat Shod (above). The horse is shown at the regular, natural flat walk and running walk. The shoes can be no more than 3/4-inch wide and 3/8-inch thick.
Performance or “Big Lick” (above). The horse is shown wearing “stacks” and chains on its front legs to fully exaggerate the natural gait.
Click here for the TWH Performance gaits. Choose the flat walk, running walk, and canter choices under Performance Horse.
Where Did the Big Lick TWH Come From?
In 1945 and 1946, a stallion named Midnight Sun (pictured below) entered the show ring. His natural flat walk with no special shoeing was extremely animated with high knee action, similar to today’s
The TWH shows were also seeing a recession in attendance after World War II. However, people started coming specifically to see Midnight Sun and his flashy gait. To attract more crowds to the shows, TWH trainers decided to borrow action devices from other horse breed trainers in order to get a more flashy, animated gait out of their horses.
Trainers and spectators pushed for more and more animation, which lead to the “Big Lick” horse.
The Big Lick horse is shown in what are called “stacks.” Wooden (no longer used), plastic or leather pads that are stacked on top of each other are attached to the horse’s regular shoe to create the stacks. A band is put over the top of the horse’s hoof to keep the stacks in place. By show rule definition, stacks can be no taller than half the length of the hoof from the coronet band to the toe. This is usually up to about 2 1/2 inches in height. However, taller stacks, up to 5 inches, with a hoof length of up to 3 inches have been recorded. Industry users will also call stacks "pads," but this term can be misleading since pads are usually used for corrective shoeing or helping with hoof injuries or diseases.
How Did Soring Start?
Training a horse to perform the Big Lick is tedious and time consuming. The horse must be gradually worked up to the taller shoes so they can gradually carry heavier and heavier shoes. This can sometimes take several years, depending on the age, strength and stamina of the horse. To get more horses in the show ring sooner, TWH trainers wanted a faster way to get the horses to perform this gait.
The desire for a more animated horse in less time lead to the development of “soring” in the early 1950s.
What is Involved in Soring?
Soring is the practice of applying acidic products to the horse’s pasterns. The pasterns are wrapped in plastic wrap and then regular vet wrap so the product creates a heating action that absorbs through the skin and into the tissue beneath. The causes painful blistering and burning. Before the class, the wraps are removed and chains are put around the pasterns. The chains scrape against the burned areas, causing more pain and forcing the horse to pick his feet up higher to try to avoid the pain.
Acidic products that are used include the following.
Mustard oil (used to make tear gas in WWII)
Diesel oil (before it is broken down to make diesel fuel)
Crotonal or croton oil (crotonaldehyde)
Salicylic acid (2-hydroxybenzoic acid)
Proxlyin Solution, Notrocellulose Solution, or Notrocotton Solution (mixture of Proxylin 5-10%, Ethanol 20-30% and Diethyl Ether 60-70%)
While some of these chemicals have to be special ordered, products that produce similar results can be created by combining products or using too much of a product found in your local grocery store or tack store. These products must be applied with a brush and while wearing gloves because they’re incredibly toxic to the skin, eyes and mucus membranes.
Note also that soring involves the practice of pressure shoeing, where various methods are used to cause pain to the horse's feet without using chemicals. The hoof may be ground down with a sander until drops of blood appear, then a pad and shoe is applied to put pressure on the hoof. A doorstop, golf ball, or other device may be inserted between the pad and the shoe after sanding in order to cause pain. By definition, pressure shoeing causes pain to the horse's limbs to exaggerate its gait and therefore is against the HPA. There are various forms of pressure shoeing--we will have a detailed article soon concerning it. For now, you can read about pressure shoeing here.
Above is a photograph of preparation of a horse for the show ring by applying a possible soring agent. This photograph was used in an article about soring and was also emailed to me by Dr. Todd Behre, DVM, of the USDA as an example of a sored horse.
The green substance could possibly be Kopertox®, which is most likely used as “an irritant.” While some folks claim that the green is a chain grease used to lubricate and protect the horses’ legs, none of the USDA-approved lubricants to be used for protective purposes—mineral oil, glycerine and petrolatum (similar to Vaseline)—are green in color. (“Special Report: Why Soring Persists,” Equus magazine, November 2005)
I was specifically told by one person that Kopertox® is used to prevent abrasions and hair loss on the horse’s pasterns. However, the manufacturer’s label for this product clearly states the following: “Caution: Do not allow runoff of excess KOPERTOX® onto hair since contact with KOPERTOX® may cause some hair loss.”
How Can I Tell if a Horse Has Been Sored?
While these aren’t tried and true methods to tell if a horse has been sored, they are signs that have been found in horses that have been sored. Some horses will exhibit some of the “symptoms” and not others. These are more often seen in Big Lick horses, but horses that are pressure shod are also not immune.
Horse shifts weight to the hind feet and stands with all four feet together, as if standing “on a quarter.”
Drags front toes.
Scars or granulated bumps along the pasterns or near the cornet band, usually on both front legs.
Abnormal, wavy hair growth and/or dark hairs (darker than what the horse’s color should be) in the pastern area.
Hocks are carried low to the ground and twisted outward when moving.
While the TWH is characterized by three legs on the ground and one in the air, the horse may have two legs in the air to try to compensate for the pain.
We can see that this horse is not in the correct gait as required by the breed standards because it has two legs in the air rather than only one. I was told by a Big Lick trainer that the Big Lick horse "needs" the "swing of the pace" in order to perform the Big Lick. Once the horse is on the stacks (and usually sored) then they will "square up" and perform the four-beat gait. Therefore, many horses are being bred to perform the pace, which is NOT a true gait to the TWH breed.
Applying chains to the horse's pasterns. USDA regulations require that chains be no heavier than 6 ounces on the show grounds. Two sets of chains is not allowed. Note the streaks of color on the horse's hooves and the areas near the coronet band where hair seems to be missing.
Note the green on the horse's pasterns. This is most likely a chemical agent being used as a soring agent.
This horse has green on his pasterns and two legs in the air. The horse in the background seems to be standing as if "on a quarter."
This horse appears to be standing "on a quarter," possibly to compensate for the pain in its front legs. Note the excessive wraps laying on the ground to the left of the horse, especially the plastic. The discoloration of hair on its pasterns could be a sign that this horse has been sored.
Here's an excellent video of a horse taken privately during a DQP inspection at a show on June 26, 2010. This horse is obviously in pain in his front legs, so much that he is trying to rock back on his hind end and doesn't want to even walk. This horse is most likely pressure shod as it it not a Big Lick horse and does not have chains on its pasterns. This video was sent to me by an anonymous source.
What is Being Done About Soring?
In 1976, the Horse Protection Act (HPA) was passed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to protect the show horse by not allowing chemical aids to be used. The law outlawed soring practices and imposed limits on the weight of chains that are used. The HPA is administered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) division of the USDA. A team of Veterinary Medical Officers (VMOs) trained to recognize soring was developed to on spot inspections onsite at horse shows.
The goal of passing the HPA was to end soring. Citations are issued each year to trainers and owners for soring their horses, and the penalties include both fines and time in jail, depending on the amount of violations and/or the severity of the case involved.
“The battle that we seem to be fighting is a battle that no longer exists: the pre-1976 Walking Horse....There seems to be a group of people in southern California that don’t like this look and so, in an effort to remove the look, they seem to want to make a case about abuse, and the abuse has not existed since 1976, when the law went into effect.”
~ Mr. Bill Harlan, National Horse Show Commission, Inc. (NHSC) representative, Inside Edition, circa 2000
USDA statistics show us that soring is still the major form of “training” Big Lick horses.
In 2000 and previous years, the NHSC had the highest amount of violations when APHIS officials were present at their shows—more than double the next highest amount of violations (USDA Horse Protection Enforcement, Calendar Year 2000, page 9). At all events that the APHIS attended in 2000, “Padded horses are found in violation at a rate almost five times that of flat-shod horses” (USDA Horse Protection Enforcement, Calendar Year 2000, page 20).
New statistics have been gathered using the chemical “sniffers,” officially known as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) devices. From the USDA website: “GC/MS is a testing technique used to identify the composition of chemical mixtures, which are sometimes applied to horses’ legs. APHIS collects the samples at shows and sends them to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) in
The USDA took 92 samples at the 2005 Celebration and 25 samples at the 2005 Kentucky Celebration. Of the 92 samples taken at the 2005 Celebration, 54 percent indicated a chemical was present, primarily numbing agents, UV radiation blockers, DMSO, and diesel or other fuels. At the Kentucky Celebration, 100 percent of the horses tested positive for diesel fuel, and almost half were found to have numbing agents. Camphor and sulfur were also detected. (“USDA to Industry: ‘Step Up or We Will,’” The Voice magazine, March 2006.)
In contrast, the sniffer was used in 2004 and 2005 at a Friends of the Sound Horses (FOSH) show and a National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) show, and none of the samples tested positive for any adverse chemicals or banned substances. (“USDA to Industry: ‘Step Up or We Will,’” The Voice magazine, March 2006.)
The USDA is so pleased with these results that they will be using the sniffers at all of the shows that they attend. Click here for the USDA’s April 14, 2006 official announcement of the use of chemical “sniffers.”
In August of 2006, history was made. The USDA came unannounced to the annual TWH Celebration to perform inspections. The TWH Celebration is the largest TWH show in America and is also the last show of the season, used to crown the celebrated World Grand Champion (WGC). The USDA found large numbers of violations at the Celebration. The classes for Friday evening, August 25 and Saturday morning, August 26, were canceled due to what the show management deemed as "inconsistencies" in the inspection processes. Then the last class of the show, the one that crowns the World Grand Champion, was also canceled. Five of the nine inspected entries received HPA violations, and the tenth entry did not present his horse for inspection, automatically scratching his horse from the class. No WGC was crowned in 2006, the only time this has happened in the history of the Celebration.
In 2009, the USDA came for inspections again. This time they reported over 400 violations, a record at any horse show and for any given year the HPA has been enacted. Click here for the HSUS article detailing the 2009 Celebration.
Why Isn’t the HPA Working?
In short, trainers have found ways to get around the USDA. Organizations that represented the breeder and trainers asked the USDA if they could self-regulate their practices. The Horse Industry Organization (HIO) was developed to work with the USDA in assigning Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs)—people who would be trained to recognize soring, like the VMOs. The NHSC and TWHBEA are both members of the HIO and provide the most funds to it.
In 2008, the NHSC was disbanded and was replaced by SHOW (Sound Horses Honest Judging Objective Inspections Winning Fairly) with the "pledge" to "take personal responsibility to refrain from any act that might be construed as animal abuse and state publicly that we will encourage our friends to do likewise." (SHOW website, Our Campaign/homepage.) SHOW's Board of Directors, Officers, licensed judges, and DQPs are many of the same people who held positions with the NHSC. SHOW continues to have numerous violations at their venues, and it is important to note that the 2009 Celebration where over 400 violations were found was affiliated with SHOW's rulebook and regulations. This was also SHOW's first affiliation with that show.
Taking over for the NHSC, SHOW provides the rules and regulations for most TWH shows. However, SHOW is mostly run by breeders and trainers that are many times known HPA violators and most likely practice soring. While SHOW rules against soring in their rule book, their DQPs have been elected to the position by the aforementioned breeders and trainers. Therefore, many times a horse that is being sored is looked upon with a “blind eye” and allowed to show.
“The actual DQPs...are [TWH] horse industry people to the core, trainers, assistants, farriers, etc. They view their job as to protect the horse industry, not to write up sore horses. Some have told me that if they cite too many, the no longer get to go to horse shows.”
~ Dr. Tom James, former TWH owner/exhibitor and recently retired USDA veterinarian, Horse Illustrated, July 2004
Money is also a major factor why soring continues. The TWHBEA is one of the very few profiting horse registration organizations in the
“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.”
~ Dr. Tom James, Horse Illustrated, July 2004
“After DQPing for 10 years and watching HIOs get payoffs to allow sored horses [to] go through, I cannot find a clean HIO and no longer DQP.”
~ Ms. Jan Saltzman, TWH Breeder and Trainer in
Pennsylvania, quoted from email, June 18, 2004
Why Doesn’t Someone Stop Them?
Confronting the offenders is dangerous and not productive. Offenders have been known to assure anyone who asks about soring that it doesn’t hurt the horses. In fact, Bob Cherry of the TWHBEA Board of Directors once was quoted to have said “Horses don’t feel pain.”
Furthermore, offenders that think a venue is being strict on their rules will use less obvious methods of soring to pass inspections. Topical anesthetics are used to hide the pain during inspection, which wears off before the horse enters the show ring. Salicylic acid is used to burn the offending scars off so the hair grows back. Horses are also “stewarded,” which means they are taught by being severely whipped or beaten not to react to the pain during inspection.
Offenders also will leave a show if VMOs directly from the USDA arrive to do spot inspections. For example, USDA VMOs came for a spot inspection to a NHSC show in
Offenders also have been known to threaten a person who stands up against them. Dr. Pamela Reband, Board Member for the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) and a former TWHBEA Board Member, has received death threats against herself, her family and her horses for standing up to the NHSC and TWHBEA for this offense. She moved to a different state and “went into hiding” in order to protect herself and her family. Some USDA VMOs who write a high number of violations have also received death threats, and at a TWH auction in 2000, some USDA inspectors had their tires slashed.
“Unfortunately, efforts to enforce the HPA effectively have not been embraced by some individuals. In 2000, APHIS had to request that
U.S. Marshals and law enforcement agents from USDA’s Office of the Inspector General accompany APHIS VMOs to numerous shows due to threats of violence against APHIS personnel.”
~ USDA, Horse Protection Enforcement, Calendar Year 2000
How Can I Help?
(Please note: the below information is my opinion only and should not be considered legal advice. I am not responsible for the actions of a person regarding my opinion only.)
I always get questions asking what we as horse lovers and TWH enthusiasts can do to help stop the horrific practice of soring. It's very simple: avoidance.
As the above information states, it is dangerous to confront the offenders themselves. People have been threatened and even hurt by offenders who "gang up" and "go after" people who are standing up to them. There is a documented legal case in the book From the Horse's Mouth by Eugene Davis where the names have been changed about a woman who brought in USDA inspectors at a horse show, and a specific TWH owner and trainer later threatened her with his "thugs" because she brought in USDA inspectors. I personally know the woman who was threatened in this case.
Therefore, the best thing we can do as consumers is to avoid all venues, barns, people, etc. that are associated with soring. That way we're not feeding money back into the system.
DON'T buy a TWH from a barn that stacks or pads their horses. Do your research. It's easy to ask around or search on the Internet and find out if the barn the horse is from stacks their horses. Whether they're soring or not, avoid them. The stacked horse is a poor image of the TWH, and in order to achieve the kind of action desired in a stacked horse, the horses are not usually trained humanely, whether they are sored or not. There are plenty of quality TWHs out there that don't come from barns that stack their horses.
I have a lot of folks who have told me they want to save these horses from this abuse. So do I. However, we are paying into the abuse when we buy a horse that is being abused. The money we give to that person is going to go back into buying chemicals, breeding more horses, or buying more horses that they in turn will abuse. It will also go toward show fees in order to show where stacked horses are being showcased. It’s better for the person to get the message that we don’t tolerate the abuse by losing money because the general public won’t buy their horses.
DON'T go to a show that uses an HIO and commissions foir their rules and regulations that have past violations. Paying to get into one of these shows only gives money back to the system that may be encouraging soring.
DON'T be a member of clubs and associations that are listed as offenders. The only USDA-recognized registration for TWHs is the TWHBEA. This means the TWHBEA is recognized by the Federal government as a source for legal information about a horse. If you wish not to be involved with the TWHBEA, you can pay the non-membership fee to transfer the horse’s name and ask them not to include you on their membership roster. You don't have to be a member to own a TWHBEA registered TWH, although you do have to be a member to show in A-listed shows recognized by the TWHBEA.
DO join clubs and associations that do not tolerate soring and are working to stop it. The largest of these are Friends of Sound Horses, Inc. (FOSH) and the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA). They can all use our help and support, even if it's just by becoming a member with them.
To my readers:
Being adamantly against the promotion and practice of animal abuse for personal financial gain, I will do the best I possibly can to keep everyone informed through real evidence that soring exists. I do my best to research all information I receive and only post information from reliable sources. I truly think that knowledge is power, and that the more I can pass on the information that soring does exist, the better chance we have to finding an end to this horrible practice.
I do know that there are trainers and breeders out there who train and show Big Lick horses without soring them. I have come across them many times and I try not to lump them into the category of those who sore their horses. These are people who are dedicated to conditioning their horses to the pads and chains and are careful to make sure their horses are given the best care they can possibly give them. I actually like to hear from people who don’t sore their Big Lick horses because I like to discuss the future of these horses and why they think soring continues.
The reason I am against the Big Lick as a whole is that it is an inaccurate representation of the Tennessee Walking Horse. The natural gait and capabilities of these horses are a true gift unique to this breed, and there is no reason to make changes to it. We live in a time now where the Big Lick is NOT attractive to the general public. I have had many, many people tell me that they are turned off by the Big Lick horses and have walked out of horse shows because they are so disgusted with how these horses look. The Big Lick paints a poor picture of the breed. Additionally, the only federally recognized organization that will register Tennessee Walkers promotes and rewards the Big Lick by showcasing it prominently at the National Celebration and in their publications. When we talk about a horse being valued for the amount of World Grand Champions in its pedigree, we are talking about Big Lick horses. All of this causes people outside of the breed to think that all Tennessee Walker owners are cruel.
Therefore, in my opinion, the only way to stop this image and to stop soring is to eliminate the Big Lick overall. We must petition the USDA to eliminate pads, bands, and chains from the show ring (pads are frequently used to disguise pressure shoeing), as other sound horse venues have already done. The practice will not cease until we stop seeing the Big Lick and the industry stops showcasing it.
If you ever have any questions or concerns, positive or negative, I welcome discussing them. If I have any information wrong, please feel free to let me know. (For example, I did discover that I had some photos posted that I thought were considered public domain but are or could be considered copyrighted information, and therefore I have removed those photos and apologized to those who contacted me about their photos for any inconveniences it may have caused.) However, I do not tolerate angry emails and letters or childish behavior. We are all adults here, and there is no reason why we can’t approach this subject in a logical and calm manner. I have read the laws and done the research to know that my information is as sound as the horses I represent.
Please note: The above information is not to be considered legal advice but as a guide only to understanding what soring is. We are not responsible for any misunderstandings or other adverse conditions resulting from the above information.
All photos are used with permission as noted on our Photograph References section.