PRICEVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - This week, the 47th Annual National Walking Horse Trainer Show gets underway at the Morgan County Celebration Arena. It goes from Thursday, April 2nd, to Saturday, April 4th.
Horses from around the country will be judged on their gait, or how they walk. But there are concerns over a practice of causing a horse terrible pain in order to achieve a winning gait.
WHNT NEWS 19 caught up with Rise to Fame, a world grand champion, prancing around the arena on Wednesday.
Billy Morgan is the show manager. "We'll probably have over 500 horses showing here," he said.
The horses are judged on their gait. "Pick up their feet, raise their head up," said Morgan, describing how the horses are encouraged to walk.
But it's a trait some animal advocates believe some horses don't do without soring, a practice of inflicting pain on the front legs to get the horse to pick them up.
"At one time, there was an issue, yes ma'am, but there's not anymore," said Morgan to WHNT NEWS 19's Beth Jett about soring. "We're regulated by the USDA. They check our horses every horse show."
Not everyone agrees the practice is over, though.
"I don't think it's stopped at all," said Carl Bledsoe, a former horse trainer. He drove 200 miles from Georgia to do the interview with WHNT NEWS 19.
He said he trained and showed horses at the arena in Priceville for years. He admitted he sored horses, was suspended for it and left the industry over guilt from doing it.
He insists soring happens in training weeks before the show and the horses remember the pain.
"After you've sored a horse several times and they have the chain and it hurts, they do quite a bit of what they do out of memory," said Bledsoe. "After a while it's a conditioned response."
Morgan showed WHNT NEWS 19 the chain allowed on the horse's front legs. Newer regulations require it not weigh more than six ounces.
Morgan said the horse tries to kick it off, lifting its hooves. But Bledsoe believes for some horses, the chains hit areas that have been sored.
"They cannot achieve, that horse to tuck his back end the way it does and step up off the ground and step through that chain without the horse being sored at some point in time," Bledsoe claimed.
Billy Morgan, the show manager, maintains that practice is behind them now.
"These horses are really clean and everything and that's in the past," said Morgan.
Morgan said there will be an inspector at the shows to make sure the horses are clear of any injuries.
You can see the horses at the Celebration Arena on Highway 67 in Priceville. The shows start at 6:00 pm each night. Admission is $5 at the door.
Upon learning of our report, The Humane Society of the United States sent the following statement:
The Walking Horse Trainers’ Association has condoned the abuse of Tennessee walking horses in the performance segment of the industry for decades. It rewards trainers and elects leadership with a history of using the cruel training practice of soring to force horses to perform a high-stepping “big lick” gait, which is highly prized in the show ring. The organization’s culture of cruelty extends to show management and all four judges for this weekend’s Trainer's Show – who have all received citations for violations of the federal Horse Protection Act, which prohibits soring.
- Keith Dane, vice president of Equine Protection at The Humane Society of the United States