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Federal Court Ruling Threatens Walking Horse Shows

April 3, 1988

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ After high-stepping past allegations of cruelty and abuse for over three decades, the Tennessee walking horse industry may be stopped in its tracks by a federal court ruling, officials say.

Based on the decision of a Washington district judge, the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the stacked shoes and limited the weight of leg chains used to give the show horses their flamboyant stride.

The move has crippled the walking horse industry, said Mack Motes, president of the Walking Horse Trainers Association, which plans to help fight the court decision.

″We’re trying to save our breed,″ Motes said.

Several shows in Alabama and Tennessee have been canceled since the regulations were announced two weeks ago, and things look grim for the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. The annual 10-day show, scheduled for late this summer in Shelbyville, typically attracts more than 2,000 horses from across the country and is considered the World Series of the breed.

″I don’t think the celebration could go this year,″ said Frederick Harper, an animal scientist with the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service.

U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch ordered the new regulations in a suit filed by the American Horse Protection Association against the Agriculture Department.

The rules forbid the use of bracelet-like chains weighing more than 6 ounces and padded shoes for racking and walking horses. Chains of up to 10 ounces and stacked shoes 4 inches high had been allowed.

The special shoes and chains are needed to keep the walking horse industry on its feet, proponents say.

A horse on stacked shoes ″gives a better show .... That old horse really gets into it,″ said Reese Smith Jr., spokesman of Friends of the Show Horse.

But animal protection activists say chains can cause soreness and swelling of the leg and that padded shoes, which cover the horses’ hooves, help hide sores. They also can hide objects that are placed between the horses’ hooves and the shoes to cause the animals pain, said Russ Gaspar, general counsel for the American Horse Protection Association.

Many in the industry say they are being penalized for abuses long since corrected, including the use of chemical irritants in the 1960s.

Irritants placed above the hoof combined with chains to make horses lift their feet up and out in a flamboyant gait called the ″big lick,″ but they also gave the animals raw sores.

Their widespread use helped push Congress to pass the Horse Protection Act of 1970, which banned irritants and other soring practices and prompted the industry to form an elaborate inspection system for each show.

Motes said the industry isn’t causing sores now and added that 98 percent of horses inspected over the past five years have passed.

Nevertheless, the judge ruled that horse protection group had raised doubts about the accuracy of show inspections in the suit.

USDA spokeswoman Nancy Robinson said the department on Friday asked Gasch whether the industry could keep using the devices while the department sets final rules, which could take two months or more.

Smith, whose organization has raised over $400,000 and hired lawyers to fight the court decision, said industry groups do not know yet exactly how they will fight the decision, but they expect to challenge it in court.

Harper estimates the state’s economy would lose about $140 million in one year if walking horse shows were wiped out. There are about 500 shows in the state each year, mostly to benefit charities, he said.

″The walking horse is the only show horse that really attracts people, they’re exciting,″ Smith said. ″We have a special horse. And we’re treated special - especially bad.″

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