Holly has been a horse owner, breeder, and trainer for many yaers. She got her own pony at the age of 8.
The Big Lick Cruelty
Have you ever been mindlessly surfing the internet when you come across animal cruelty or abuse articles? You don’t want to see the information, but some little voice inside your head compels you to click the links and read the disgusting narratives. Afterwards, you feel physically ill, wanting to kick yourself and wanting to strangle and muffle that oh-so-innocent voice. This very thing happened to me this evening, as I was led to an article about horse abuse. It was about the old practice of "soring" used in horse training for gaited horses, especially the Tennessee Walking Horse. As an animal lover, I abhor any type of animal cruelty or abuse, and I believed that such horse training methods had died, but alas, I was wrong. I had to do more research and find more animal abuse articles dealing with soring, and the internet didn’t fail to provide.
Gaited horses are equines that have a smooth natural gait, or way of moving. Their gaits are different than those seen in other horse breeds. If you’ve ever ridden a non-gaited horse at a trot, you know how jostling it can be. It’s different with gaited horses. Many of them use a running walk, called “ambling,” or some other four-beat gait. With the amble, only one foot is off the ground at any given time. Not only is this much more comfortable and enjoyable for the rider, but it’s also pretty to watch.
Here are the most popular gaited horse breeds in the United States:
- American Saddlebred
- Spotted Saddle Horse
- Peruvian Paso
- Paso Fino
- Missouri Fox Trotter
- Kentucky Mountain Horse
- Rocky Mountain Horse
- Tennessee Walking Horse
- Racking Horse
- Walkaloosa (gaited horse with Appaloosa coloring)
To see an example of ambling, watch the following video.
Tennessee Walking Horse
The Tennessee Walking Horse is often the subject of animal cruelty articles – this one included. It’s a real shame, too. This horse breed is known for its gentle temperament and trainability. They’re also strikingly beautiful animals, and a well-trained Walker is a joy to ride. It’s like sitting in a rocking chair!
The Tennessee Walking Horse is a truly American breed, originating on the southern plantations of Tennessee in the late 1700s. Plantation owners needed a horse that could cover a lot of ground quickly while providing rider comfort at the same time. The first Walkers were the results of crossing Canadian Pacers with Narragansett Pacers, but since then, other breeds have been added to the mix. These include the Thoroughbred, the Morgan, the Standardbred, and the Saddlebred.
The Tennessee Walking Horse is usually tall and leggy, measuring between 15 and 17 hands tall. The long neck is graceful, and the head is refined with small ears. The short back gives the horse more strength, and this breed is known for its stamina. Often referred to as “the gentlemen of horses,” the Tennessee Walking Horse is popular with beginners, trail riders, and riders with back problems. Unfortunately, because of the horse’s exaggerated gaits, they’re also popular in the show ring. I have nothing against showing horses – in fact, I’ve participated in horse shows with my own animals. The problem arises when unscrupulous owners and trainers use animal abuse in their horse-training methods.
After World War II, the Tennessee Walking Horse and their shows became extremely popular. Spectators enjoyed watching the high-stepping horses in the ring performing the “big lick.” The big lick is the term used for the exaggerated action of the animal’s front legs. For the spectators and the judges, the higher and more exaggerated the big lick was, the better. In response, some trainers began to use horse training techniques that caused pain and injury to their four-legged pupils, making the horses have sore feet.
Several methods have been used to give Walking Horses sore feet. The most common is “soring,” a disturbing practice I'll describe later. Other methods are almost as bad. Some trainers use horseshoe nails to cause pain. With regular shoeing, the nails that keep the shoes in place are nailed into the “dead” part of the hoof, so they’re painless. For sore feet, however, the nails or tacks are placed into the quick. Think of a horse’s hoof as your toenail. When you trim the dead ends, it doesn’t hurt, but when you cut into the quick, it’s a different story. Now imagine trying to support 1,000 to 1,200 pounds on four painful toenails.
Another method is to trim the hooves into the quick and then ride the horse for hours over hard surfaces. Also, some uncaring trainers place tacks or screws between the bottom of the hoof and the shoes, causing irritation and pain. Another way to achieve sore feet is to use heavy chains on the pasterns. Six-ounce chains are legal, but heavier chains are sometimes used for training. Sometimes, the chains are also treated with caustic substances.
What’s the purpose of sore feet? A horse with foot pain will step higher, in an effort to avoid putting weight on the painful hoof. Every step the horse takes can be agonizing, and permanent damage can occur. When not in the show ring, some of these poor horses have difficulty standing and might spend much of their off time lying down.
Soring: Horse Abuse
Soring is perhaps the most common form of achieving sore feet in gaited horses. For this practice, highly caustic substances are applied to the horses’ front legs. These might include mustard oil, diesel fuel, kerosene, croton oil, collodion, or salicylic acid. Sometimes a combination of substances is used. These caustics are so dangerous that the humans applying them have to wear rubber gloves, special goggles, and sometimes a respirator. Once the caustic is applied to the flesh, the legs are tightly wrapped in plastic, which causes the burning compounds to be absorbed deep into the flesh.
The caustics can actually eat into flesh and bone, as well as cause other problems elsewhere in the body. The list is long, but it includes kidney damage, colic, diarrhea, breathing difficulties, dizziness, convulsions, and nerve damage. Soring is definitely an example of horse abuse. Is it legal?
Soring is illegal, but sometimes it’s hard to detect. Some sored horses are trained not to react to pain when a show steward runs his hands over the lower front legs. This cruel horse training is done in the barn. The animal’s painful legs are squeezed by a handler, and when the horse reacts, it’s beaten or shocked. The animal learns not to react at all, so the show inspector doesn’t realize the horse has been sored.
Sore No More
I say: sore no more! I’m not in the minority here. The vast majority of gaited horse trainers don’t use or approve of soring. I think if the viewing public knew what was really going on behind the scenes, many wouldn’t find those exaggerated “big licks” so impressive. Horses are protected under the Federal Horse Protection Act, but evil trainers are becoming savvier about hiding their soring practices. Another problem is that there simply aren’t enough inspectors to go around. Even when illegal practices are discovered, punishment is often little more than a slap on the wrist.
I’ll give you a prime example. Just a couple of months ago, a prominent “big lick” trainer was arrested for 52 counts of animal cruelty. 18 of these were felonies. Jackie McConnell, a trainer in Collierville, Tennessee, had allegedly been using soring methods for years. McConnell was widely admired by many in the gaited horse community, and his brother, Jimmy McConnell, was named Trainer of the Year and has won three World Grand Championships for training.
This wasn’t the first time Jackie McConnell was accused of horse abuse. He was found guilty of violating the Horse Protection Act and was placed on a five-year suspension by the USDA. Obviously, this action didn’t stop McConnell from continuing his animal abuse. If the initial charges and penalties had been more severe, perhaps McConnell wouldn’t have had the opportunity to cause more animal suffering. The trial hasn’t been set for his latest charges, but if he’s found guilty, I hope the penalty is a lot worse on the trainer. I think a fitting punishment would be for him to undergo the same treatments he used on innocent animals.
I hate animal cruelty. As a former horse trainer, I firmly believe it has no place in horse training. Horses and ponies are wonderful animals—loyal, trusting, and intelligent. They respond well to kindness, consistency, and firmness—but not to fear and pain. I always used gentle training methods that were in line with natural horsemanship. I’ve been involved with dog training, too, and the same principles hold true for training canines. I suspect it’s the same with any type of animal training, but it might be even more important with horse training. Why? Because horses are prey animals, historically speaking, so they’re often fearful and rarely aggressive. When horse abuse occurs from a human handler, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the animal to ever fully trust the person again. In fact, this fear can be easily transferred to all humans.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.