Soring is an abusive and prohibited practice illegal under the U.S. Horse Protection Act of 1970 that is associated in part with the production of "big lick" movement in Tennessee Walking Horses. Other breeds that have a past history of soring abuses include the Racking horse and the Spotted Saddle horse. It involves use of chemicals or pressure to cause pain to a horse's feet when they touch the ground, resulting in the horse picking its feet up quickly, and when combined with horseshoes that have added pads and weight, creates dramatic, flashy action of the horse's front legs, desired in the horse show ring. Both criminal and civil penalties can be assessed against individuals who engage in soring.
Methods and clinical signs
Soring involves using chemical agents such as mustard oil, diesel fuel, kerosene, salicylic acid, and other caustic substances on the pasterns, bulbs of the heel, or coronary bands of the horses, causing burning or blistering of the horses' legs in order to accentuate their gaits. These chemicals are harmful, usually quite toxic and sometimes carcinogenic, such that trainers must use a brush and wear gloves when applying them. The treated area is then often wrapped in plastic while the chemicals are absorbed. The chemical agents cause extreme pain, and usually lead to scarring. A distinctive scarring pattern is a tell-tale sign of soring, and therefore attempts may be made to cover the scarring with a dye, or the horse's legs may be treated with salicylic acid before the animal is stalled (as many cannot stand up after the treatment) while the skin of the scars sloughs off.
Other methods of soring include pressure shoes, where the hoof is trimmed to the quick so that the sole is in direct contact with the pad or shoe. The horse may then be "road foundered," ridden up and down hard surfaces on the over-trimmed hooves, until they are very sore. Trainers sometimes place objects, such as metal beads, nails, or screws, under the pad causing intense pressure, although this practice has begun to decrease with the use of fluoroscopy to detect such methods. Abusive use of chains (such as using them with chemical soring agents) is also a common practice by sorers.
Clinical signs of a sored horse include the following:
- The horse stands with its feet close together, shifting its weight to its hind legs.
- Granulation tissue or scars are visible on the pasterns or coronet band.
- Wavy hair growth or hair loss is visible in the pastern area.
- The horse's pasterns have darker hair than the rest of the horse's coat.
- The horse carries its hocks low and may twist them outward when moving.
- The horse lies down for extended periods of time, and is resistant to standing up.
- The horse resists handling of its hooves.
- The horse has difficulty walking, and may fall.
Other action devices
Two common action devices are permitted on the show grounds; they are also used for training and show to enhance the horse's gait, but new legislation to update the HPA may lead to restrictions on these devices as well
- Chains: bracelet-like chains are attached around the front pasterns of the horse, and may be no more than 6 ounces (170 g) in weight. They are intended to be used with a lubricant to allow them to slide easily along the pastern.
- "Pads": Added under a horse's natural hoof, pads (sometimes called "stacks" or "packages") can vary in height. They are usually made of plastic, although they were originally made of leather. Pads have a metal band that runs across the hoof wall to help keep them on the horse's foot. Pads may be up to 4 inches (10 cm) thick in the heel and no more than 2 inches (5 cm) thick in the toe. Thickness and the use of the band determine what class a horse can be shown in. Pads are an extension of a base shoe, and are easily taken off or changed without having to completely reshoe the horse.
Users of chains do not believe they cause the horse pain, stating that it creates a similar feeling as a loose bracelet would around the wrist of a person. However, some trainers and veterinarians believe that they may be harmful above a certain weight. An Auburn University study from 1978 to 1982 examined the health effects of action devices on gaited horses through the use of thermography. The study led researchers to conclude that chains "altered thermal patterns as early as day 2 of exercise with chains. These altered thermal patterns persisted as long as chains were used," with normal thermal patterns seen after 20 days of recovery. A stallion in the study developed lesions from 8-ounce (230 g) chains, after wearing them in nine 15-minute exercise periods (from September 22 to October 3). The Auburn study showed that 2-, 4-, and 6-ounce chains (55, 115, and 170 g) produced no adverse effects in the horses being studied.  A 6-ounce (170 g) chain is the legal weight of chain allowed in NHSC horse shows.
Pads are also controversial. Some criticize the band that holds the pad on, which they believe cuts into the hoof and may wear a slot into it. However, trainers commonly loosen the band when the horse is not being exercised, which may minimize the problem. Under normal conditions, if a pad is lost, it usually only affects the pad and not the base shoe, which remains intact. Injuries are usually very limited from "throwing" a set of pads. It is dangerous if a horse wearing pads pulls off a shoe, as not only will the pad come off, but the band may tear off part of the hoof wall. Horses wearing pads should not be turned out.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Walking Horses enjoyed a surge of widespread popularity with the general public, exaggerated front leg action, especially at the running walk, drew spectators to horse shows and helped increase the popularity of the breed. This action was also rewarded by judges. This began the rage for "big lick" movement. While "lite shod" horses with naturally good movement could comfortably perform this crowd-pleasing gait at the time, it took both natural ability and considerable time to properly train and condition the horse.
Some individuals, wishing to produce similar movement in less-talented horses or in less time, borrowed practices used by other breeds to enhance movement. This included action devices such as weighted shoes, "stacks" (stacked pads), and the use of weighted chains around the pasterns, all of which, within certain limits, were allowed.
As these methods produced horses that won in the show ring, and as ever-higher and more dramatic action was rewarded by the judges, some trainers turned to less savory methods to produce high action in a hurry. These methods included excessively heavy weighted chains, use of tacks deliberately placed under the shoe into the "white line," or quick, of the hoof, trimming the sole of the hoof to the point that it bleeds or is bruised, increasing the weight of the stacked pads by driving in a large number of concealed nails and the controversial practice of "soring", which is the application of a caustic chemical agent to the pastern of the front legs to cause pain when the chains bang against the pastern with every step. The outcome of these practices is so much pain in the horse's front hooves that the horse snatches its feet off the ground as fast as possible in an attempt to alleviate the pain. Correspondingly, the horse steps under itself as far as possible with its hind legs to relieve the forelegs of weight. This results in the "squatting" body outline (hindquarters extremely lowered, forelegs flung very high) typical of the "big lick" horse. Such abuses are illegal under the Horse Protection Act of 1970, but are still practiced.
Measures have been taken to stop the practice, and many supporters of the Tennessee Walking Horse have banded together for years to oppose cruelty. The Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA), created specifically to stop such practices and to monitor the TWH in particular, prohibits the use of soring agents. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is working with the industry to enforce the law. Tennessee Walking Horse organizations send DQPs (Designated Qualified Persons) to shows to inspect the horses, and, as funding permits, APHIS sends federally employed Veterinary Medical Officers to work with DQPs at some shows.
Trainers who oppose soring have formed and joined alternative breed organizations, including the National Walking Horse Association (NWHA) and Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH). All of these organizations promote the sound Tennessee Walking Horse. In addition, in 2005, the national directors of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association (TWHBEA) voted to remove themselves from the National Horse Show Commission (NHSC) the sanctioning body closest to the soring issues. The TWHBEA formed its own sanctioning body, developed a new rule book and strict guidelines for affiliated horse shows and Horse Industry Organizations [HIO] that applied and were examined by the APHIS. The issue remains very controversial, particularly in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Soring has been prohibited at sales and shows for decades, but is still practiced. It can be detected by observing the horse for lameness, assessing its stance and palpating the lower legs. Some trainers can bypass inspectors by training horses not to react to the pain that palpation may cause, often by severely punishing the horse for flinching after the sored area is palpated. The practice is sometimes called "stewarding," in reference to the horse show steward who is often the first line of rule enforcement at any horse show. Trainers may also time the use of the agents so that chemicals will not be detected when the horse is examined, but will be in effect when the rider goes into the ring. Others use topical anesthetics, which are timed to wear off before the horse goes into the show ring. Pressure shoeing is also used, eliminating use of chemicals altogether. Trainers who sore their horses will leave the show grounds when they find that the more stringent federal inspectors are present.
In 2006, due to new techniques in both soring and detection, the USDA began a larger crackdown on soring within the industry. A new device known as a "sniffer" (also used to detect the chemical presence of bombs in airport security) can now be employed, where swabbed samples are taken from the horse and then "sniffed." At the 2006 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the longstanding dispute between trainers and USDA inspectors came to a head. The inspectors disqualified 6 of 10 horses from showing on the night of Friday, August 25, 2006. The trainers denied soring and challenged the monitoring methods. The result was that a number of celebration championship classes were canceled, and there is still considerable controversy over the situation. After a yearlong discussion between the industry and the USDA over the issues raised at the 2006 show, the 2007 championship went off without significant controversy.
An investigation by ABC News into the training methods of Tennessee Walking Horses revealed that many horses had been tortured and beaten to make them produce their signature high-stepping gait. In a video shot by the Humane Society of the United States, high-profile trainer Jackie McConnell is seen beating horses, using electric cattle prods and soring their hooves with caustic chemicals. Additionally, a random inspection by the Department of Agriculture at the 2011 annual championship found that all of the 52 horses inspected had a foreign substance applied to their front hooves, either to cause pain or hide it. In June 2012, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Veterinary Medical Association jointly issued a call to ban both action devices (chains, rollers, etc.) and "performance packages," e.g. stacks or pads.
At the 2013 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, USDA testing showed that 67% of the horses tested positive for substances that could be used to hide soring.
Jackie McConnell, a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer, owns Whittier Stables in Collierville, Tennessee. Once a prominent figure in the industry and hall of fame trainer, in 2012 McConnell pled guilty to 12 counts of animal cruelty and of violating the federal Horse Protection Act. Formal sanctions were imposed on Jackie McConnell by the US Department of Agriculture pursuant to the Horse Protection Act numerous times between 1979 and 2012. According to Roy Exum of The Chattanoogan, “McConnell has a known record that includes over 30 unbroken years of persistent violations of the federal Horse Protection Act but, because laws have been so lax, he has done little more than wink and continue on his way.”
In 1986, McConnell was named Trainer of the Year by the Walking Horse Trainers Association. However, he had a long history of violations: In September 1998, McConnell entered a sored horse, “Regal By Generator” in the 1998 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration and received a civil fine of $2,200 and a 5-year disqualification from October 31, 2006 through October 30, 2011. In September 1989, McConnell was charged for exhibiting “Executive Order” (owned by Floyd Sherman) in the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville while sore. For that offense he received a $2,000 civil fine and a 2-year disqualification from March 19, 1995 through March 18, 1997. In May of 1979, he entered the sored horse “Threat’s Black Power” in the Ninth Annual Fun Show in Shelbyville, Tennessee. A USDA veterinarian classified this horse as the “sorest horse at the show,” having an “exhausted, steaming, defeated appearance” and testified that the horse’s front legs were covered with raised scars that when touched were found to be “very sore” causing “extreme pain.” McConnell received a $750 civil penalty and a 6-month disqualification from September 9, 1985 through March 8, 1986. McConnell was also disqualified for a violation of a unilateral sore (September 12, 2006 to September 25, 2006). McConnell was disqualified for a violation of the scar rule (September 6, 2005 to September 19, 2005). He was disqualified for a NHSC 5 Pt. Exam Score (August 8, 2004 to August 21, 2004). He was disqualified for a bilateral sore from August 31, 2003 to April 30, 2004. He was disqualified for a unilateral sore from October 6, 2002 to October 19, 2002.McConnell was disqualified for violation of terms of a 5-year USDA disqualification and suspended from November 19, 2009 to May 18, 2010.
In April and May 2011, an undercover investigator shot footage at McConnell’s stable. The footage revealed two workers, Jeff Dockery and John Mays, applying caustic substances that cause soring to horses’ legs and hooves and beating the animals with a wooden beam and an electric cattle prod to make them stand still during leg palpation. Soon after the undercover footage was released, state authorities raided McConnell’s barn. After ABC News aired the footage, McConnell was banned for life from the Tennessee Walking Horse organization’s biggest event and stricken from its hall of fame.
In September 2012, McConnell was found in violation of the federal Horse Protection Act; he was granted three years probation and fined $75,000. McConnell faced 52 counts of transporting and showing abused horses. He pled guilty to a single charge of animal cruelty in an agreement with prosecutors. US District Judge Harry Sandlin Mattice Jr. accepted McConnell’s plea. McConnell faced up to five years in prison if the agreement had not been accepted. He was required by the court to write a letter about the soring of horses, the pain it causes, the long term effects, and its widespread use.
McConnell also pled guilty in state court to 12 of 22 counts of animal cruelty in 2012. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and a $25,000 fine. The Circuit Judge Weber McGraw sentenced Jackie McConnell and two co-defendants in July 2013. Jeff Dockery pled guilty to three counts of animal cruelty and John K. Mays to fourteen. Dockery was sentenced to three years of probation and Mays to four years of probation. Under the state plea agreement, McConnell is not allowed to either own or train horses for 20 years. The judge gave McConnell 120 days to sell his two remaining horses. According to The Commercial Appeal, “This is the second time all three men have pleaded guilty rather than face trial.”
The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, held each August in Shelbyville, Tennessee, banned McConnell from entering its grounds “for any and all events, regardless of the event’s affiliation or ownership,” according to a statement from the board. “This action is the strongest we can take and it clearly reflects our disgust with the actions of Mr. McConnell,” said Doyle Meadows, CEO of Celebration.
- Purohit, Ram C. "Thermography in diagnosis of inflammatory processes in horses in response to various chemical and physical factors", at the website of the American Horse Defense Fund.
- Horse Protection Act
- "EQUUS Special Report: Why Soring Persists". Equisearch.com. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- "Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration". Twhnc.com. 2012-06-15. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- "Video Reveals Torture of Horses Trained to Win Championships". 16 May 2012.
- "AVMA, AAEP Call for Ban on Action Devices for Tenn. Walkers". The Horse. 2012-06-14. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- Barton, Paul C. (17 August 2014). "Banned substances on horses undercut compliance claims". The Tennessean. Retrieved 22 August 2014.
- Exum, Roy. “Jackie McConnell Back In Court.” March 28, 2013.
- “Trainers of the Year.” Walking Horse Trainers Association, Inc.
- In re Jackie McConnell, et al, 44 Agric. Dec. 712, 723 (1985) vacated in part, Nos. 85‐3259, 85‐3267, 85‐3276 (6th Cir. Dec. 5, 1985)(consent order substituted for original order), printed in 51 Agric.Dec. 313 (1992).
- Garlington, Lela. “Commercial Appeal.” July 9, 2013.
- “Horse trainer Jackie McConnell fined for caustic chemical cruelty” September 9, 2012.
- “Tennessee Walking Horse Trainer.” Press Release from The HSUS. April 1, 2013.