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Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;

How Far Will Some People Go to Win?

By Dorinda Troutman, RMR Staff Writer


September 2008 Issue


     Recently, we received articles at RMR about inhumane practices in the horse show world: soring and tail blocking.

     These practices are widespread. Soring is most common with American Saddlebred and Tennessee Walking Horses that compete in exaggerated, high-stepping gait classes. Tail blocking is most common in Western Riding, Western Pleasure, Dressage, Hunter Under Saddle and Reining classes.


Soring is when a caustic, painful substance is applied to the fetlock area, or a deliberately painful condition, such as sharp objects between shoes and hooves that have been trimmed too closely, causes a gaited horse to step higher because their feet are in pain.


Tail blocking can be done surgically, or by injecting a substance (commonly alcohol), into the dock of the tail to kill nerves and keep a tail from being swished in the show ring. A horse that appears to be calm and relaxed is more apt to win. This numbing lasts from six months to the life of the horse, and also prevents the horse from swishing at biting insects, or signaling pain or irritation to a person or another horse.


Other Artificial “Enhancements”

     In addition to tail blocking, many horses competing in horse show classes wear tail extensions which make the tail reach to the ground. While most of these tie-on tail extensions weigh from a quarter to a half pound, some of them have weights attached of up to five pounds to force a horse to keep its tail still.

     Gaited horses that compete in high-action saddle seat classes with exaggerated gaits have other inhumane treatments. These horses have their tails “nicked” or bent and braced. When nicked, the retractor muscles on the underside of the dock are partially cut and then the tail is placed in a mechanical tail set so that when the muscles and ligaments heal, they remain in that upright shape.

     Gaited horses are frequently shown in stacked shoes on their front feet, which are up to five inches high. These cause damage to tendons, knees and spines.


     Lauren Maruskin, Equine Protection Project Assistant with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), tells an additional story of abuse in the show ring.

     “I’d say that pain masking was the most prevalent abuse in the horse show industry. Definitely the ‘big one.’ A lot of nice school horses and show ponies are just not sound enough to be entered in shows. It’s a dirty secret kept by trainers and owners. They also might be selling the horse the next day and don’t want buyers to know the horse is unsound.”


     Dr. Robert Miller, DVM and renowned equine behaviorist agrees: “A California state horse show drug tester told me the only equine show he has never detected drugs in the animals is Bishop Mule Days. It’s a sad situation that big money rules horse shows and encourages horses to be drugged to win.”

     In this issue of RMR, we will focus on practices when showing primarily stock horses in Western classes. In future issues, we will discuss, in more detail, “soring” and “pain masking.”


Tail blocking at Western horse shows

     Breed clubs have strict rules governing inhumane procedures at horse shows. The AQHA Official Handbook of Rules and Regulations states clearly “Any surgical procedure or injection of any foreign substance or drug that could affect a horse’s performance or alter its natural conformation or appearance is prohibited.”

     The AQHA also states that a horse needs to have normal tail function – to be able to raise the tail to or above the horizontal plane. If a horse is examined by the AQHA or a show representative, and its tail function is not normal, the horse shall be immediately reported to AQHA, and may be temporarily or permanently suspended from AQHA approved events.

     However, the official rule book of the National Reining Horse Association has only one rule about tails:

      “The following will result in no score: (g) use of any attachment which alters the movement of or circulation to the tail.”


     Dr. Marvin Beeman, DVM, of Littleton , Colorado , has had extensive experience with attempting to stop tail cutting and blocking. He was asked by AQHA to spearhead stopping the practice and says that although a majority of tail cutting was stopped, tail blocking has been more difficult to detect.

     Dr. Beeman says, “If a horse that was proven to be tail blocked was made unable to show again that would help.”

     “It’s unfair to ask a judge to determine if a tail has been blocked. A veterinarian should always be asked to determine a suspicion.

     “AQHA funded a research project to determine whether blocked tails returned to full use and found that they didn’t. Blocking tails has nothing to do with the health and welfare of a horse. It is an insult to a horse and a foolish approach to winning.

     “It’s also against AVMA and AAEP rules for any vet to do anything against the rules of the breed club, and so no vet should ever cut or block a horse’s tail.”


     Gary Day, a Colorado reining trainer and retired show judge with more than 50 years’ experience, says horses are being bred more now that have quiet tails and that EMG (electromyography) machines are used to detect blocked tails, but the machines are too expensive to use at any but the very largest shows.

     Day says, “In shows without an EMG machine (and veterinarian), a judge can’t afford to pass judgment on whether a tail has been cut or blocked. They could have a lawsuit brought against them or the AQHA.”


     Lee Ann Demars, a long-time AQHA and APHA judge from Montana , says, “I don’t see as many dead tails as I used to – most people are coming to their senses. I also think false tails are helping to keep people from blocking – they keep a horse’s tail more quiet, and they create a prettier picture of their horse.”

     Demars explains why some horses with blocked tails may successfully complete: “Judges are not vets. I’ve had horses in my barn that looked like their tails had been blocked, but they just naturally had quiet tails.

     “If a vet is at the show, a judge can make a call to ask the vet to examine a horse’s tail, but most shows don’t have a vet on-call due to cost. 

Are Fashion Trends in Western Show Classes Encouraging Inhumane Practices?

     AQHA rules state that in Western Riding, Western Pleasure and Hunter Under Saddle, “the horse’s head and neck should be in a relaxed, natural position, with his poll [top of head] level with or slightly above the level of the withers.”

     Even if a person does not attend horse shows, a glance in the AQHA or Paint Horse Journals, or watching a championship class on a video on the internet or television will show that the horses currently competing in these classes consistently carry their polls lower than their withers and have hair extensions on their tails. Reining horses can be seen to occasionally step on their very long tails or extensions as they make a step back when coming out of a sliding stop.


     Dr. Miller says: “People go to extremes to win or make money. I recognize all of those ‘dead’ tails at horse shows as being cut or blocked.

     “I believe that a conspiracy exists in the horse show industry. Every one of these evil practices — soring, tail cutting and blocking, training a horse to carry its head too low, competing with a very young horse – can be condemned from the point of view of horsemanship.

     “If Western Pleasure horses were shown as they were 50 or 60 years ago, a good amateur could turn out a champion. But it takes a pro to produce the freaks seen in today’s Western Pleasure classes. A real cowboy wouldn’t be caught dead on them.

     “The trainers are judges, and the judges are trainers. Too often, they scratch each other’s backs.

     “The only way these inhumane practices are going to change is if working trainers are barred from judging. There is just too much ego and greed from people winning and making money from inhumane practices. Only retired trainers should be judges.”


     Judge Lee Ann Demars says, “A lot of people are wondering why and talking about the trends of long tails, low heads and expensive, fancy showing costumes that are currently in fashion. I think it is as simple as human nature wanting to be more cutting edge in order to win.

     “The Quarter Horse has changed a lot in the last 20 to 30 years; especially in the last decade. Shipped semen has made it easier for even the average breeder to experiment and improve, and to get the conformation they want for a horse to naturally carry its head lower.

     “Horse shows are consumer-driven. A consumer needs to have sense enough to breed, buy the right stock, and choose a trainer for the long-term and the good of the horse. As horsemen we need to have personal standards and decide if being outlandish (such as the trend in women’s show clothing) is what we want.

     “As a judge, when I have five horses in a class, even if they are undesirable horses, I need to either place those horses or disqualify them.”


     Dr. Beeman, who is also a renowned expert on horse conformation, says that the way some horses carry their heads very low and tails flat is not correct.

     “I disagree with anything that puts a horse’s head out of a normal position when they are loose and traveling, free to use their head and neck, and tail, as balance arms. It’s the breed association’s responsibility to police whether winners are or are not following their rules.” 

     Lee Ann Demars encourages all horsepeople to are concerned with these practices to get involved.

     “Stopping any inhumane or illegal practice needs to start at the grass-roots level. Every exhibitor needs to be aware of drug use, tail blocking and any other inhumane practice and make the call to report it to the show management and the breed club. We need to set our personal standards higher and to decide to drive change.”

Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor;


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