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American Humane President and CEO Blog

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. - During the recently completed 71st Annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration(r) a group of horse industry leaders met to discuss various areas within the walking horse industry.  One of those in attendance at these meetings was Ms. Marie Belew Wheatley, President and CEO of the American Humane Association.  After her return to her office in Colorado, she comprised and posted the following blog to the American Humane Association's website.  We appreciate her allowing us to share this with walking horse enthusiasts in the area.Marie Belew Wheatley's Blog.

Posting on American Humane's Website - September 17, 2009

Business or Pleasure? Tennessee Walking Horse Show Qualifies for Both

I spent Labor Day weekend in my home state of Tennessee -- Shelbyville, to be exact, home of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which is the most prestigious horse show of its kind. The amazing -- and
controversial -- horses it celebrates were the reason for my attendance, both in my official capacity representing American Humane, and as an appreciative spectator.

For those of you unfamiliar with this unique and magnificent breed, Tennessee Walking Horses are born with a fluid, easy gait that is beautiful to behold. Over the years, they have been bred and trained to exaggerate that gait into the distinctive high-stepping performance that thrills Walking Horse aficionados, as evidenced by the more than 195,000 tickets sold during the 10-night event.

The controversy lies in the fact that some of the methods used to train these horses to lift their hooves high are indisputably inhumane. These methods -- collectively known as "soring" -- were outlawed by the Horse Protection Act in 1970 after a public outcry. The objectionable techniques include applying caustic chemicals to the horse's feet, pressure shoeing (nailing the shoe so that it applies pressure to the sole of the foot) and inserting an object between the hoof and the shoe -- all of which make the horse lift its feet higher and faster because of the deliberate pain inflicted with each step.

Although soring is illegal, some trainers and owners unfortunately still employ these techniques in order to win at any cost. However, after the Shelbyville Celebration was not able to award a World  Grand Champion in 2006 because eight of the 11 finalists failed inspection due to evidence of soring, something had to be done.

Since then, the Walking Horse industry has been making a concerted effort to improve training techniques and standards, and it has included American Humane in this ongoing process. I was invited to be part of a working committee comprised of equine veterinarians, veterinary academics and horse industry leaders to develop a plan to end soring, and I spent an entire day during my recent visit meeting with this committee to find solutions.

This year, a new inspection structure, more consistent inspections and more serious penalties were implemented at the Celebration -- and quite a few competitors were disqualified as a result. In addition, three people recently received lifetime suspensions from the sport as a result of violations at a July horse show -- the strongest penalties ever given in the Walking Horse industry and a bold move that demonstrates the industry's commitment to ending the practice of soring.

I applaud the industry's efforts to continually improve, and I hope that in the not-too-distant future, these inhumane techniques will be a thing of the past. As I attended the last three nights of the Celebration, that hope was reinforced by something very special that I witnessed. About 15 young horses were being led around the ring during the Weanlings Class competition. As I watched these adorable, frisky young horses displaying their natural, unspoiled gait, I thought, "If these little guys are trained with good, humane techniques and can grow up without pain or scars and compete with others just like them, that will be a great thing." It occurred to me that, thanks to all of those interested in the welfare of these wonderful animals, I was seeing the bright, new future of Tennessee Walking Horses.

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