State Fair officials have assured people that they’ll be safe at this year’s fair, but some animal advocates believe that some show horses are still in harm’s way.
For 30 years, people have crowded the stands at the fair to see the proud yet dainty march of the Tennessee Walking Horse, a breed of gaited show horse known for its high, quick steps.
In the ring, the horses are split into two main categories, “flatshod” and “performance.” The latter group uses heavy “stacked” shoes in the ring that exaggerate their front steps.
Advocates claim that these horses suffer during the events, nicknamed “The Big Lick,” in part due to an illegal practice called “soring.”
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They say some trainers use chemicals such as diesel fuel and mustard oil to cause blisters on a horse’s ankles and that chains attached to the shoes rub against the sores to scare the horse into more dramatic prancing. To produce an even higher gait, they say, trainers might stick nails or tacks between the horses’ hooves to increase the pain.
National and local horse advocates, including the All-American Walking Horse Alliance and the Humane Society of the United States, are calling for cancellation of the performances, and in some cases, even a boycott of the State Fair during show days.
Michelle Disney of Raleigh started a Change.org petition addressed to state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and fair manager Wesley Wyatt that has received more than 5,700 signatures.
“A good alternative would be to replace the performance class with a show where humanely trained Tennessee Walking Horses display their natural gait,” Disney said.
Competing horses are checked for soring by hired inspectors, and those found with any marks are disqualified.
The State Fair hired the Heart of America Walking Horse Association to do the inspections, but according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the association is currently being decertified as a qualified inspector.
Sheri Bridges, who is managing the Walking Horse show this year, said she was unaware of the decertification process. She said she checked with the USDA website and with the association to ensure compliance.
The performance class makes up about a third of the Walking Horse events, which will take place Friday and Saturday evenings in the Hunt Horse Complex starting at 6 p.m.
The State Fair says that the 66 horses entered this year will be thoroughly inspected before the competition. Often, the USDA makes unannounced inspections of its own during the fair. Class winners are inspected again.
Wyatt, the fair manager, responded to Disney’s petition with an email that affirmed the fair’s compliance with USDA guidelines.
Sue Gray, executive director for the N.C. Horse Council, says the council “abhors soring” but supports the fair’s decision to keep the event, since it is following guidelines and monitoring the show well.
Six other states have banned “Big Lick” Tennessee Walking Horses at their fairs. State Agriculture Chief Deputy Commissioner N. David Smith told an advocacy group Monday that North Carolina “will review the matter of Performance Tennessee Walking Horses appearing at the 2015 State Fair.”