The N.C. State Fair is the oldest and one of the largest celebrations in North Carolina. It is meant to support best practices in agriculture and animal husbandry. The deliberate torture, or “soring,” of Tennessee walking horses to force the artificial, high-stepping “big lick” gait is the antithesis of best practices and is contrary to everything the N.C. State Fair should stand for.
But at this year’s fair and at fairs past, “big lick” trainers who commit atrocious cruelty have been welcomed and rewarded.
Horse soring needs to be stopped, which is why The Humane Society of the United States wants the N.C. State Fair to ban the horse show divisions that enable the abuse. We are also urging Congress to pass federal legislation that will end soring for good.
Soring has existed in the shadows of the performance Tennessee walking horse industry for decades. It is illegal under the federal Horse Protection Act, but it persists due to a corrupt scheme of self-regulation by the industry and trainers’ dedication to finding new ways to avoid the detection of inspectors. Soring was exposed to a national audience recently, when our undercover video showed a former Hall of Fame trainer and his staff burning the skin of horses’ legs with caustic chemicals, whipping the horses to stand and beating them in the face with a wooden bat.
The country was rightly outraged to learn that horse soring remains widespread. Congress responded by introducing the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, which would amend existing law to end the industry’s failed system of self-policing, ban the use of devices implicated in the practice of soring, strengthen penalties and make other reforms needed to finally end soring and restore the integrity of the walking horse industry.
But the N.C. State Fair shouldn’t wait for Congress to start protecting horses. Despite the public’s rejection of this horrific abuse, the calls of hundreds of North Carolinians and the urging of the HSUS to eliminate the classes from the fair’s horse show, this year’s program once again included big lick walking horse classes. We provided fair management with a list of exhibitors from last year’s fair who have been cited for violating the Horse Protection Act. We provided evidence that the industry organization hired by the fair to enforce the law was in the process of being decertified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We made sure they knew that multiple states, including Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi, refuse to celebrate this intentional abuse of horses. And yet the big lick show at the N.C. fair went on.
This represents a failure to understand the prevalence of soring and why this division should be eliminated. Dr. John Haffner, a veterinarian who worked for decades within the walking horse industry has stated, “[t]he Big Lick can only be accomplished through soring. When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed.”
In 2012, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners called for the prohibition of stacked shoes and action devices (such as chains placed around the sensitized skin on the legs) in the big lick segment of the walking horse industry because these devices are integral to the soring process.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation, the national governing body of equestrian sport, has prohibited the use of chains and weighted shoes on Tennessee walking, racking and spotted saddle horses in competitions licensed by the organization. The N.C. State Fair’s Horse Show is a USEF-affiliated competition, yet fair management circumvented the USEF rule by holding the walking horse performance division on days that did not include classes sanctioned by USEF.
Considering the show entries at last year’s and this year’s shows, it is clear that the flat-shod walking horse classes, which showcase the natural gait of the breed, are more popular and viable. There is room for these classes to grow once the big lick classes are cut, as many gaited horse owners only wish to show on a fair and humane playing field – not one that is commonly associated with abuse.
We hope 2015 will be the year that the N.C. State Fair truly celebrates only the best in agriculture, animal husbandry and wholesome family entertainment and refuses to provide a venue for a small segment of the walking horse industry steeped in corruption and cruelty.
Keith Dane is vice president of equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States.