Coming into the end of June, no matter your position on so many issues making news, you have to agree that this month has been an intriguing one. Thus, a round -up of things related to the ongoing drive to stop the chemical and mechanical soring of walking horses brings us to some “really?” moments that continue to surround people on both sides of the walking horse divide, moments where the real world, the world of science, and the show world collide.
In Rome, the Pope published an encyclical entitled Laudato Si (Praised be!). The title was taken from the canticle of praise attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is known to people the world around as the patron of animals. Concrete images of him, usually surrounded by birds, deer, rabbits or any of the other friends of the field, are features in gardens of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He is also the saint from whom the current Pope derives his name.
Although the encyclical is about the moral dimensions of human interaction and effect on the planet, one sentence stood out for supporters of the move to end abusive training in big lick horses. Apologists explaining that what has been done to ready horses for the show ring is acceptable under biblical terms have used the “man has been given dominion over the animals” phrase time and time again. In fact, industry win ads, many of them involving people who are multi-time HPA violators, often use quotes from the Bible to express their joyful sentiments about winning a blue ribbon at some show or another.
Pope Francis put an official end to the idea that the word ‘dominion’ means domination of the animal kingdom, pointing out concisely that dominion means that people must be good stewards of the animals that surround us. Animals, he said, must not be abused or misused by people in order to be used and enjoyed by people. And then he wrote,
From Rome, let’s move to Washington, D.C., where a sound horse advocate contacted a member of the Tennessee delegation in the nation’s capitol to express her support of the PAST Act and to urge her representative to do likewise, even though this particular individual supported alternative legislation the last time around. The staffer was polite and willing to discuss the issue but the advocate was floored when he made the following points:
· The 4-6 ounce action device makes the horse pick up its legs higher because it is something unusual on their legs and since horses are prey animals it makes them want to get away from whatever is touching their ankles.
· He would like to see proof that entry numbers go down when the USDA inspectors are known to be inspecting exhibitors at a show or show up at a show
· Horses not passing inspections are allowed to return to the trailers without a violation being noted and he sees that as being a case of no harm, no foul.
· Statistics on violations are being thrown off by counting each entry violation (i.e. for an owner, trainer and exhibitor) rather than for each horse violation.
Really? Really. First, horses are not, technically, prey animals but are actually flight animals that can be preyed upon by carnivores. When frightened they do try to flee in an instinct as old as time.
But prey or flight, the idea that the chain makes the horse pick up its feet because it wants to get away from something or someone is a fascinating one. Taken to its logical conclusion this statement means that trainers or owners use action devices knowing that a horse is fearful by instinct and that they are willing to use that fear and to keep a horse in fear, in order to compel high-stepping performance.
The argument on its face is bogus, although the reasoning behind it is endlessly astonishing. The fact is that horses that wear a lightweight chain, when no chemicals have been introduced under it, do pick up their feet a bit higher for a brief period of time until they become used to its presence. Then they return to the same normal level of animation that they possessed before the chain was applied, which does not, in any way, resemble the action of the big lick horse.
Additionally, no matter what the congressional staffer may have been told, horses are not trained solely in show legal chains but are trained in heavier chains and/or rollers, frequently applied in combinations.
Recent evidence photos taken from big lick training facilities show horses standing in stalls wearing heavy log chains over stable wraps. For just under $30.00 you can buy a set of 14-ounce aluminum rollers right off the wall of a middle Tennessee tack store. They aren’t being used as bracelets for the ladies of the walking horse fancy.
But, for a moment, let’s give the congressional staffer the benefit of the doubt and that he believes what he has been told. He should be referred to the work of Dr. Molly Nicodemus of Michigan State University, who has done extensive research into gaited horses; she wrote:
Statistics and numbers to answer the staffer’s questions on entries and people leaving the grounds when the USDA arrives can be obtained from official reports as well as from anecdotal exchanges on walking horse show- oriented message boards where folks aren’t shy in talking about how the USDA turned up and ruined a horse show. Seek and ye shall find.
As to “no – harm” being done if a horse is simply sent back to the trailer when it fails inspection and no penalties are adjudged, not only do the statistics from that violation disappear, making the history of actual compliance harder to trace, the owners, trainers, and exhibitors go home and try again the next Friday night. If actions have no consequences, then behavior never changes. If you don’t believe it ask any self-respecting kid who has ever broken a house rule.
At least every month, and June was no exception, someone brings up the Auburn Study to point out that the USDA has said that pads and 6 oz. chains cause no damage to the horse. During a recent message board exchange, when an individual pointed out that the 6 oz. chain section of the Auburn Study was not conducted using the same scientific method as the other chains used in the study because it was never tested in the presence of chemicals, as were the other chains, all of which showed varying degrees of abrasion and inflammation including open lesions, things got quiet. The USDA report did say that the use of the 6 oz. chain did cause some hair loss but that it appeared to cause no other harm and the performance crowd has been hanging its collective hats on that slender peg ever since.
Really? Really. If a study does not test all devices using the same criteria, in this case the application of chemicals under all the chains, the results for the 6 oz. chain cannot be considered valid. And as to the repeated assertions that the pads themselves cause no problems, a letter from Dr. R. S. Sharman, a veterinarian from Auburn University in a cover letter to the USDA should be required reading. He wrote:
The Auburn Study is more than 30 years old and yet, Dr. Sharman’s comments mirror closely equine lameness and thermography expert Dr. Tracy Turner’s comments and observations to the USDA in 2014 and also make you wonder why the USDA does not require more packages be pulled, at least during championship events.
Thermovision done during the Auburn Study did not reveal the presence of the suspicious cold spots that Dr. Turner’s pictures show, likely because no one at the vet school was freezing the horses to hide pain responses during the study.
This brings us to the last two items worthy of note for the “really” June round up. First was a notice that appeared on a show bill for an upcoming one-night show to be held in Middle Tennessee. No photographs are to be taken on the show grounds unless the camera is being wielded by an approved photographer. Really? Really.
First, how do you control all the phones and I pads that people haul to the show grounds? Will there be camera police moving about the audience waiting for a pop of unauthorized flash to catch the miscreants in the act? But more importantly, what do the show organizers think is likely to be going on there that they are afraid that the world may see?
Could it be that photos of empty grand stands or blank spaces around the sacred oval are to be suppressed so that the outside world doesn’t know how many or how few people are attending these shows that supposedly put so much money into the local economy?
Perhaps it’s the candid and unretouched photos of horses hitting licks that raise eyebrows outside of the enclave, that make the show organizers nervous, so the photos must be suppressed unless they are running in official walking horse media where everyone appreciates that hunkered down, goose stepping creature that just won the big blue ribbon. You can Photoshop away all of the pinned ears, gaping mouths and other inconvenient attributes from those ‘perfect’ official photo shots.
How does a no photograph policy fit in exactly with the oft repeated refrain that the show horse world has nothing to hide and invitations to the general public to come on down and participate in a proud Tennessee Tradition? Come on down, buy a ticket, spend money at the concession stand, and just don’t take any pictures…. Southern hospitality at its best.
Lastly, came the announcement of The Celebration’s panel of judges for its 2015 privately organized horse show purporting to be the grand championship event for the entire breed.
This is a show where people who disagree with the Celebration’s policies and its practices have been ejected from the grounds (that inconvenient camera thing again) even after purchasing a ticket, or had their faces placed on trash cans so that people can readily identify them as “the others”, or been banned from the show grounds altogether after getting crosswise with the Celebration’s board of directors.
Horse Protection Act violators are, however, welcome to sit in the box seats, sign autographs, and receive prizes and accolades.
Mike Inman, the Celebration’s CEO, praised his newly named judges, all of whom are HPA violators. One of whom, with a very short fuse, was involved, not that many years ago, in a very public altercation that brought local authorities to the show ground.
That’s it for June and the horse shows of July are just around the corner.