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FOSH Sound Horse Conference


Friends of Sound Horses (FOSH) announced that the fourth Sound Horse Conference was a powerful and positive
experience that brought together veterinarians, researchers, Tennessee Walking Horse owners, breeders and exhibitors, the USDA, and numerous individuals concerned about the ongoing soring abuse of big lick Tennessee Walking Horses.

The Conference, held March 28-30 in Brentwood, Tennessee kicked off with a “meet and greet” reception where sound horse supporters could meet and share ideas and form relationships to develop strategies for a sound Tennessee Walking Horse future. Some of the attendees and participants at the conference included:
  • USDA National Horse Protection Coordinator Dr. Rachel Cezar 
  • Dr. Tracy Turner, who does the USDA thermography exams at the horse shows
  • Tennessean Clay Harlin whose family owns Harlinsdale Farm
  • Dr. John Haffner,  veterinarian at the Horse Science Faculty at MTSU
  • Donna Benefield, who testified before Congress on the PAST Act
  • Teresa Bippen, President of FOSH (Friends Of Sounds Horses)
  • Carl Bledsoe,  Reformed Big Lick Walking Horse Trainer
  • Michael Blackwell, DVM
  • Neal Valk, DVM
  • Marty Irby,  Aide to Congressman Ed Whitfield, and former President of TWHBEA
  • Senator Joseph Tydings, Father of the Horse Protection Act
  • Bill Harlin, 90-year-old legendary Walking Horse figure who publicly endorsed the PAST Act in The Tennessean
  • Walking Horse Report Editor Jeffrey Howard
  • TWHBEA Executive Committee member David Williams, VP Breeders
  • Robert Beech, Tack proprietor, son of Walking Horse legend, the late S. W. Beech
  • Dave Thomas,  Publisher of Shelbyville NOW
  • Gary Lane, Master Gaited Horse Clinician
  • Big Lick activist Sheryl Crawford
  • WHOA President,  Dee Dee Miller
  • Former TWHBEA President David Pruett
  • Kim Bennett,  Walking Horse Trainer
The Conference theme was “A Future Without Soring,” and Master of Ceremonies, Marty Irby, former President of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders & Exhibitors Association, led the way in bringing the sound horse to the forefront. A panel discussion “Enjoying a Good Career with Gaited Horses in The Future” provided options for those wanting work within the Walking Horse industry. Attendees heard from Heritage-certified breeders, trainers, riding instructors, and clinicians specializing in gaited horses,

The optimism continued with an update on the PAST Act and a $25,000 grant announcement from the Humane Society of the United States for individuals using, competing and promoting their Tennessee Walking Horses in non-traditional venues.Dr. John Haffner, DVM of Murfreesboro, Clay Harlin of Brentwood and Cat Dye of Winchester all spoke out for the PAST Act.

John Haffner, D.V.M., an equine veterinarian with experience with show Tennessee Walking Horses, told his life journey that brought him to the realization and public declaration: “The fact is the big lick can only be accomplished by soring. When one soring technique becomes detectable, another one is developed. The big lick is a learned response to pain and if horses have not been sored, they do not learn it.”

Dr. Haffner began his talk, “Soring: A Necessity for the Winning Gait,” with a scripture reading from Isaiah 1: 15-20. As he read these Bible verses. He said it was “as if God was speaking directly to my heart saying it was time to get out of a business built on the suffering of horses.” He spoke of his experience re-examining a mare that had been turned down by the USDA at the Columbia Spring Jubilee, where he was show veterinarian. He did the exam “with the horse show videographer recording it and could find no problem with her.”

Later he was asked to testify in a court case about the matter. In a pretrial meeting with the defense attorney, he asked what he should “say if they asked me if soring was routine.” But Haffner said he was never asked the question at the trial.  In fact, he said, “It apparently never comes up. …In my opinion it is the critical question... that reveals the farce that inspection is. It is all a game. The trainers pretend they don’t sore the horses, the DQP’s pretend that some horses haven’t been sored, the USDA lets everybody pretend that there are only a few bad actors that sore, and horse show life goes on.” At the end of the trial,   “When the decision was rendered, the judge wrote that he ruled for the defendant based substantially on my testimony. …that was in February. It was just in time for everybody to get ready for the show season. And did they ever get ready. I saw more open oil of mustard and blatant soring that spring than I had ever seen in my life. …The oil was so pungent in the cross ties that it made my eyes water. The USDA had been put in their place, and I had helped do it. So we were free at last to show like we wanted. That entire spring and summer I was troubled greatly about what I had done.”

By August, he believed he had received God’s message to stop doing wrong. Two weeks later he had sold his part of the practice and was out. In retrospect, “The thing I could never work out was how to let some horses in and keep others out. If they were doing the big lick, they had been sored. It was and is that simple. Some of the horses can make it though inspection and some cannot.”

Before taking questions, he concluded his remarks with a discussion of pain. “Pain is a complex sensation. Individuals respond differently to the same stimulus. …The degree of pain resulting from a particular stimulus will vary depending on many uncontrollable factors. Pain is an immense subject of research and is difficult to elucidate, even when working with humans who can tell the investigator when and where and how bad it hurts. So to try to determine scientifically what hurts or doesn’t hurt a horse with mathematical certainty is not a promising endeavor. And I submit it is not necessary or reasonable to expect the exact painfulness of any training technique to be determined by any repeatable quantitative means. But it is reasonable to assume that oil of mustard on the skin or excess pressure on the sole hurts.”

His answer to a question about horses’ memory of pain: “The suggestion that a horse that has been trained to do the big lick can be turned out over the winter and put back on pads in the spring and do the big lick without soring fails to take into account an important fact. That fact is that this is only possible with horses that at one point in their training were sored. They learned the gait because of the pain induced by the chain hitting on the pastern or the pressure shoe pressing on the sole. Those horses remember the pain and they will do the big lick without a recent episode of soring. It is safe to say that a horse that has never been sored will not do the big lick if someone puts a built up shoe and a chain on him and starts riding. He will walk in an odd manner with an exaggerated gait, but he will not immediately start stroking. And he certainly would not win a class at the Celebration.”

The panel discussion of “Current Soring Tactics” openly discussed the current abuses and methods used to achieve the winning “big lick” and flat-shod performance gaits. The panel provided information from veterinarians about technology and science currently used to identify soring and scar rule violations, as well as detection of caustic agents and foreign prohibited substances.  A practicing veterinarian discussed his professional experience in Tennessee and the difficulty of detecting some soring methods, and another DVM discussed the actual pain felt by the horses from the act of “soring” used for achieving the big lick.  He explained that it’s not just “sore” like a sore muscle, but acute pain like a throbbing tooth ache and that the horse is forced to endure and walk on that throbbing pain with both front feet.

Attendees were mesmerized by luncheon speaker Pastor Clay Harlin’s story of being ostracized by the Tennessee Walking Horse industry after a newspaper published his factual account of widespread soring abuse, and his career change where he successfully re-crafted his professional life.  The mood then lightened as others recounted how they are seeking opportunities to promote the Tennessee Walking Horse in competitions, including dressage, endurance/competitive trail and versatility, as well as horse shows. Panelists described shows and rail classes that are growing in size and popularity, the rapidly-growing specialty of gaited dressage, and how gaited horses are now a significant winning force in distance and endurance riding. Attendees also heard more about Tennessee Walking Horses’ natural skills and abilities in versatility competitions

The USDA provided inspection and violation statistics from 2013, demonstrating the very high rate of violations among big lick horses.  In closing, attendees heard the current situation of a trainer who has recently left the big lick industry and his successful search for different training methods to humanely train Tennessee Walking Horses.

Sunday offered an opportunity for attendees to visit Rising Glory Farm, a sound Tennessee Walking Horse farm in Lewisburg, Tennessee, to view Tennessee Walking Horses exhibiting their natural gaits and participating in equine sporting events.  Gaited horse clinician Gary Lane shared with riders and the audience ways to develop a horse’s natural gait, and Tennessee riding instructor, Cat Dye, and her students demonstrated numerous fun activities with their Walking Horses.

In addition to FOSH, major sponsors for this conference in 2014 included the American Horse Protection Association, Animal Welfare Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, the National Walking Horse Association, Parelli Education Institute, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Walking Horse Owners Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association, David Pruett, Frank Neal and the Tennessee Voters for Animal Protection.

Videos and transcripts from the Sound Horse conference speakers are available at  
FOSH is a national leader in the promotion of natural, sound gaited horses and in the fight against abuse and soring of Tennessee Walking Horses.  For more information about FOSH, or to become a member, please visit www.fosh.infoor call 800-651-7993.

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