August 23, 2019
Perceptions of Soring in Tennessee Walking Horses
by Hannah Medford, excerpt from Master’s Thesis
The Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed that is very close to my heart. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Appalachian Mountains, and my favorite childhood hobby was trail riding with my grandfather. Although the Walking Horse is a pleasant and versatile breed, as we all know, there is a dark side to the industry known as soring. The term soring has become synonymous with the breed, and violations of the Horse Protection Act by big names such as Bill Callaway have greatly stigmatized the breed. It was this stigmatization of the beloved breed from my childhood, combined with the lack of research on animal abuse within the criminal justice field, that inspired me to conduct research for my master’s thesis with the hope of better understanding the practice of soring within the Walking Horse industry. My research used Agnew’s theory of animal abuse as the basis for understanding the motivations behind using soring. To do so, I collected interview data from Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs) and trainers. I also surveyed attendees at Walking Horse events.
Agnew used a social-psychological analysis, along with leading criminological theories, to explain the causes of animal abuse. He addressed several causes of abuse within his work: ignorance (abusers lack awareness of how their behavior affects animals or abusers are ignorant of the pain and suffering experienced by animals as the result of abusive behavior), justifications of abuse (financial/prestige motivations), and individual factors (gender, age, education). From these, I created several research questions to gain insight into the problem of soring.
The three populations of event attendees, trainers, and DQPs were specifically chosen because a gap in knowledge exists regarding how various actors within the Walking Horse industry perceive soring. While conducting my research, I found that there is an overall unwillingness from individuals within the industry to discuss soring. I was barred by show organizers from attending events to hand out my surveys to attendees. Additionally, many trainers were unwilling to discuss soring at all. Despite these initial difficulties, I was able to obtain data from 58 event attendees, three trainers, and two DQPs.
Responses from the 58 surveyed event attendees were analyzed using statistical software to answer two research questions. The first research question sought to determine if attendees perceived soring as abuse. Results from statistical analyses found that 93.1% of respondents did perceive soring as abuse. The second research question sought to determine whether age, gender, and education had an effect on perception of soring. Results from analyses found that females were more likely to perceive soring as abuse compared to their male counterparts. These results should be viewed with caution due to the small sample size, which may have an effect on results from analyses.
Because trainers and DQPs were interviewed rather than surveyed, these responses were coded and analyzed for common themes, language, and beliefs, rather than using statistical software. Responses from the three interviewed trainers were used to answer numerous research questions.
Among other questions, trainers were asked about the general perceptions of those who use soring techniques. Ignorance was the most common theme emerging from these responses. All three trainers reported a lack of awareness among their peers of how training tactics affect animals and/or no empathy for the pain experienced by the abused horses. Trainers also indicated that the general perception of soring varies between different types of trainers. For example, Respondent 3 reported that “It depends on what group of trainers you are talking to. If you had a section of Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who only trained big lick horses, especially those who had always trained big lickhorses, they would go, ‘well, yeah, it’s bad, but it’s part of the business; it’s just what you do.’ But if you sample those with experience with other breeds, among the flat shod trainers, it’s generally disregarded [sic] from pretty bad to reprehensible.”
Respondents were asked if trainers who use soring are aware of the pain experienced by the horse. Respondents 1 and 2 believed that trainers who used soring techniques are aware of the pain experienced by the horse, with Respondent 1 stating, “You can’t see a horse laying in the stall moaning and not know there is aproblem.” Respondent 3, however, reported that trainers who utilize soring techniques are unaware of the horse’s pain, stating, “Trainers have argued that horses do not feel pain as humans feel pain. This is a big myth among big lick trainers. They do not understand how sensitive the horse is.”
Respondents were asked how trainers perceive the inspection process and if these efforts are deterrents for using soring. Respondents 1 and 3 believed that there exist conflicts of interest within the industry regarding DQPs. Respondent 1 stated, “DQPs are part of the industry, so if it’s not the USDA, I don’t see any point.” The majority of respondents also reported that current prevention measures are not effective deterrents.
As with trainers, DQP responses were coded and analyzed for common themes. Responses from the two interviewed DQPs were used to determine if DQPs are able to effectively deter soring. Neither of the respondents believed that DQPs are able to effectively deter trainers from using soring. Specifically, Respondent 4 stated, “There is a conflict of interestwith DQPs. Some DQPs are honest, but judges are trainers. Everyone knows each other.”
Although soring has been characterized as one of the most blatant forms of abuse within the horse industry overall, little research has been conducted to better understand its use and acceptance. Despite only interviewing and surveying a small sample of individuals within the Walking Horse industry, the results suggested that Agnew’s theory is generalizable to the problem of soring, which serves to promote continued research exploration into both soring and overall abuse within the equine industry as a whole, with the goal of improving policy and deterring future offending.
Policy implications emerge from the findings as well. As previously discussed, analysis of DQP responses did not support their role as an effective deterrent. This sentiment was echoed in trainer narratives. In light of this finding, it is suggested that efforts to introduce the PreventAll Soring Tactics (PAST) Act are continued.
Editor’s Note: Medford’s Masters Thesis was accepted by East Tennessee State University in May 2019. The full Masters Thesis is available online at: https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5003&context=etd
The author grew up with TWHs, trail riding in the Appalachian Mountains. For the past two years, she has been riding and competing in the Hunter/Jumper discipline.
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