Soring, show horses and the future of the Tennessee Walking Horse


Tennessee Walking Horse
For those outside the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, the exaggerated high, reaching step and stacked pads on the shoes of a performance Walker appear unnatural at best and abusive at worst. But for a core group of fans of the breed, that gait is seen as a mark of a royally bred and trained equine athlete. This disconnect between the die-hards of the Walking Horse show industry and most of the rest of the world has been the heart of an ongoing controversy for decades.

In the mid-20th century, unscrupulous trainers began to employ cruel techniques now known as soring in order to achieve an even higher, more exaggerated gait that drew throngs of spectators and won blue ribbons. By 1970, the problem had become so widespread that a federal law was enacted to try to put an end to it. The Horse Protection Act has been in place ever since, but according to the agencies charged with policing the Walking Horse show circuit, the abuse still occurs.

Earlier this year, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and 102 cosponsors introduced H.R. 1518, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act. This bill amends the Horse Protection Act to prohibit action chains, padded shoes, hoof bands and other devices for non-therapeutic purposes. While pads are used to a lesser extent in shoeing some non-gaited saddle seat breeds, the PAST Act only limits their use in three breeds with a history of soring: Tennessee Walking Horses, Spotted Saddle Horses and Racking Horses.

Padded shoes and chains alone aren’t necessarily indicators of soring, and a flat-shod horse can still be sored, so the rule change alone would not eradicate the problem. The system of inspecting show horses for soundness before they enter the show ring would continue, and violators would face increased penalties.

The American Association of Equine Practitioners and American Veterinary Medical Association, longtime opponents of soring, came out in support of the bill immediately. But a surprise endorsement of the bill came late last month when Tracy Boyd, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association (TWHBEA) released a statement supporting the Act.

“TWHBEA has lost members in droves, and the brutal emails I have received tell me why,” said Boyd. “It is our reputation. It is soring. It is our image. I believe our modern-day padded show horses are cleaner than they’ve ever been. The problem is that nobody outside our industry believes it. And when you’ve lost the public you have lost it all…and we have clearly lost the public.”

Most Tennessee Walking Horses are used for trail and pleasure riding, and of those used for show, the padded performance horses are a small percentage. Nevertheless, the horse named “World Grand Champion” of the breed each year is always a padded horse, and the breed’s magazines are filled with glossy ads for high-stepping performance horses. The reality of the breed may be the sound and personable trail mount and family companion, but its public face is still the padded show-ring horse that the general public has come to associate with cruel training methods. Boyd acknowledged that this perception would have to change if fans of the Walking Horse want their breed to continue.

“No matter what happens with [the PAST Act], proposed legislation or future versions… the pads and chains do not define this breed,” he said. “The Tennessee Walking Horse is the greatest breed in the world. We all agree on that. Just imagine the possibilities that exist for us if we could rid ourselves of this black cloud, this stigma once and for all. Forty-three years is long enough.”


  1. I am a Quarter Horse person, but I was able to go to the Tennessee Walker Celebration last year in August. I was able to see these horses close up and ask questions. I saw the examiners checking horses going in to each event. I have seen the padded horses and the “chains” they wear. It is more like a bracelet, and is not the regular chain links you imagine. The horses usually have a stocking on their leg under the chain so they don’t rub. They are allowed less than 6 ounces for these chains. The bad reputation is very undeserved as anyone that rides knows a sore horse will now work, or show well. A few bad people caused this industry to get bad reputation, and those people have been censured appropriately. Do not form an opinion based on media hype, please. The trainers care for these horses, and want them to win, they do not hurt them, because a horse that is hurting cannot win. You can see how happy they are when showing, their entire carriage and demeanor indicates they love what they are doing.

  2. Kathy, I’m very sorry to hear that you think the chain is like a bracelet. I ask you: when you wear a bracelet, does your hand flop around like crazy each time it touches your wrist? There are not just a few bad apples. These animals are being tortured on a daily basis. We just had four arrests in TN of a trainer, two grooms, and a farrier who were caught soring horses. And we continue to see many, many violations of the HPA recorded by the USDA. The media is correct: soring is normal and continuing, and it has to stop.

  3. Oh my goodness, Kathy from Texas! What planet are you from?! To claim that the TWH performance horse enjoys its work and is lovingly cared for is like saying that Quarter Horse “pleasure” horses never have their tails nerve blocked, their heads tied higher than their withers for hours on end, are never subjected to spur stops, are never semi-starved or bled or lunged to the point of exhaustion, or worked in tight draw reins in order to make sure they are “quiet” enough to win blue ribbons. One: while the chains worn in competition may be only 6 ounces, those worn in training are MUCH heavier. Go look at pictures – they’re easy to find. Two: the only purpose of the chains is to rub against the horses’ pasterns, to which have been applied various caustic, blistering substances (mustard oil, diesel fuel, croton oil, and worse), causing the horses the pain that makes them snatch their hooves off the ground in “the Big Lick”. Three: the “stockings” on the horses’ legs are DEFINITELY NOT to protect them; they are plastic wrap applied after the caustic substances in order to “cook” them deep into the tissues so that the action of the chains will for sure cause terrible pain. Four: it is not a matter of a “few bad people” spoiling the TWH trainers’ reputations. A convicted Big Lick trainer is on record as admitting that the ONLY way to get that exaggerated gait is to sore the horse, and almost all Big Lick trainers do it. The record of violations shows this with appalling clarity. Five: for most Big Lick trainers, the horses are merely a means to make big money. They are quite able to beat horses in the face, apply cattle prods to their rectums, wrap zip ties around their gums, ignore the groans of horses lying in their stalls unable to stand because of the pain in their feet, then whip the horses to make them get up, make them run completely blindfolded – all to get the grotesque Big Lick gait and to train the horse not to flinch when inspected at a show. Just watch the video revealing the “training methods” of the infamous Jackie McConnell. These trainers do not love their horses, and the horses perform not for love of it, but because they have been tortured and terrorized into it since they were skinny little yearlings. One more thing – that you refer to the TWH “industry” makes me suspect that you are perhaps not “quarter horse Kathy from TX” but a Big Lick apologist pretending to be otherwise.

  4. Exactly the reason I dropped my membership in TWHBEA! The padded horse is UGULY moving, the training is UGULY and DISPICABLE and nobody in that group cares enough to get it changed. it’s all about the money and I certainly won’t give them mine. The padded horse needs to be a thing of the past!

  5. First, most horses are not trained under saddle until they are developed enough to handle it. Second, chains used in training are not meant to injure or hurt the animal, in fact most trainers use petroleum, or vaseline, to soften the pasterns as to not hurt the horse in any way. Third, if all big lick trainers sored their animals there would be no padded horses at any shows. Fourth, the USDA does a fabulous job extensively inspecting horses before entering the show ring, including eye tests, hoof tests, etc. for usually an amount of time exceeding 20 minutes. Any horse that is not sound is not let through, and the trainer is suspended. If you have not grown up in the industry, been to several training barns for hours a day, or owned a tennessee walking horse then there is no way that your thoughts are in any way valid. Ignorant people with prejudiced opinions are those who give the industry a horrendous name. Long live the Tennessee Walking Horse and all supporters.

  6. To sore a horse is wrong! The TENNESSEE WALKING HORSE is a great horse! Their natural ability is amazing….. My Pride’s Generator horse has the best moves and natural ability. He was born that way. Was in training as a youngster… Came home rearing up… Can u guess why, I can… He’s a gook kind human loving horse… Doesn’t bite, kick can do anything with him. Not a mean bone in his body….
    The big lick has gotten out of hand!!!

  7. There was talk and trouble from the authorities on this matter many years ago.
    Just learned that it continues.
    I am disgusted.
    G F Yourselves


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