A recent undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) at a training barn for Tennessee Walking horses exposed the cruelty these horses endure to achieve an unnatural high stepping gait otherwise known as the “Big Lick.”
According to the HSUS, the investigation led to criminal charges for felony conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act (HPA), in addition to violations of the Tennessee Cruelty to Animals Statute against nationally recognized trainer Jackie McConnell, who has a history of horse abuse, and his associates, Jeff Dockery, John Mays and Joseph R. Abernathy after they were caught “soring” horses.
Soring of all breeds has been banned for decades under the HPA, but the technique is still used by unethical trainers to get that high step. The practice involves methods that include putting caustic substances, such as mustard oil, Croton oil mixed with kerosene or diesel oil, on the sensitive skin around their hooves at their pasterns, bulbs of their heels and coronary bands to cause blistering, burning and irritation and wrapping them in plastic wrap to make sure its absorbed, which makes them quickly lift their legs to avoid pain.
Chains may also be used to add to the pain because chemically burning the crap out of their legs apparently just doesn’t quite do the trick by itself. Some people also use Salicylic Acid to cover the visible damage that’s been done. After all of that, some are trained not to react to having their legs touched, which is what is happening to the horse in the video that is being beaten over the head.
Pads, or stacks, may also be used on the front hooves to raise a horse’s forehand to add even more animation, but this causes unbalanced feet, among other problems. Objects may also be placed between the pad and the hoof to cause even more pain and discomfort.
To help enforce regulations under the HPA, APHIS developed a program that appointed Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs) to inspect horses at shows before every class and disqualify horses who show signs of soring. DQPs may be vets, farriers, trainers or other knowledgeable individuals in the industry. This leads to an incredible conflict of interest since they may be Big Lick supporters with industry friends, which leaves the Tennessee Walking horse world to essentially self-regulate. However, larger shows are usually overseen by veterinary medical officers (VMOs), inspectors or investigators.
Unfortunately, the HPA doesn’t cover what happens at home, it only protects horses during transportation and at shows.
In 2006, the World Grand Champion Class was cancelled at the annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration for the first time in its 68 year history after seven of the 10 horses were disqualified because they couldn’t pass a USDA inspection. A total of 103 violations of the HPA were found at the show that year.
But even the number of violations isn’t always accurate. Some people just leave before getting caught. In 2008, one of the biggest shows in Kentucky practically shut down after USDA inspectors showed up, which left 40 horses who were shown when there were typically between 500 to 550. Talk about clearing a room.
Since the HSUS investigation was aired on CBS, at least one sponsor of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, Pepsi, has withdrawn as a sponsor. McConnell is due in court on Tuesday and will reportedly be pleading guilty to one count with all other charges being dismissed. The Walking Horse Trainers’ Association board has also pulled McConnell’s credentials.
The really sad thing here is how surprised all of the industry organizations are pretending to be about soring. They may claim they don’t support it, but if they really didn’t, standards for the breed would not have developed into what they are now, abused horses wouldn’t place at shows, trainers would be getting fired left and right and Tennessee Walkers would be showing off their natural gaits, instead of being admired for hideous incredibly exaggerated, seizure-like movements that are the result of ongoing torture.
For information on how to help these horses, visit For the Tennessee Walking Horse.
Photo credit: Tennessee Journalist