March 25, 1960
Soring Tennessee Walking Horses and drugging hunters was as much an issue and topic of discussion in 1960 as it is today.
Cruelty To Hunters And Jumpers
At the end of this column is a letter written by the Governor of Tennessee, followed by comments from the President of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ Association, about showing these animals with sore ankles, concealed by bell boots, so as to produce more brilliant performances at the running walk. Why should The Chronicle, whose chosen field is not this breed but the Thoroughbred, publish such an item and thus air out the dirty linen of others? The answer is that we have some dirty linen of our own that needs airing—and badly.
It is common knowledge that a number of the hunters now winning in the show ring are able to give the quiet and collected performances which put them in the ribbons, only because they are under the influence of tranquilizers. These drugs are advertised by pharmacautical companies to prevent injuries while shipping—an entirely legitimate use. In order to win hunter classes in the show ring, however, one must have a near-Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred, a breed which for 250 years has been selected on the basis of racing temperament. Thoroughbreds naturally possessing hunter temperaments are consequently few and far between. But, with the help of tranquilizers, the keenest race horses can easily be keyed down to lamb-like performances. Thus the unfortunate beasts are turned into drug addicts, becoming more and more dependent on the needle. Taken intermittently, as recommended by the manufacturers, tranquilizers do not affect a horse’s normal functions, but taken regularly there is considerable evidence that they can affect not only the nervous system, but also respiration and vision.
With jumpers the problem is just the opposite. Although stimulants have undoubtedly been used on a few jumpers ever since the end of the last century, the rushing, excitable performances so characteristic of these classes are due, not so much to drugs, as to the fact that the horses have previously been “poled” over fences to prevent their ticking them. Certainly a light pole in the hands of an expert is a perfectly legitimate schooling device, but there is far too much use made of wires, tack poles and other instruments which belong only in the chamber of horrors. These lead to both physical and mental cruelty. Although our jumpers may be physically sound, the majority, because of schooling method and overfacing, are temperamentally unsound—just watch any AHSA jumper division and count the number of horses that go quietly round the course in standard bridles—the fingers of one hand will be ample for this purpose.
What to do? Most exhibitors quite honestly deplore these practices. On the other hand, they show horses to win ribbons. Just a few rotten apples in the barrel—and there are, in fact, just a few—can force these practices on the others. To put the whole responsibility for clearing up the situation on exhibitors is unrealistic. They must have help from authorities.
What authorities? Are these going to be political bodies, such as the State of Tennessee, or are they going to be the exhibitors’ own organizations, the local, state and national horse show associations?
The Tennessee Walking Horse situation has been a scandal for years, but it was only last January that the American Horse Shows Association got around to adopting rules with teeth in them—by which time the fat had already been dropped in the direction of the fire. If the AHSA would arrange for saliva tests at a few of the major shows, the use of tranquilizers would soon be reduced to minor proportions. As for the jumpers, Lt. Col. Jonathan Burton, a former Olympic rider, gave the answer in our issue of Jan. 29th—abolish the tick rule. Ticks are not counted in international horse shows or classes (FEI) in which horses schooled for these events perform far more quietly and safely.
It is much later than a lot of people think. Unless we put our own hunter and jumper houses in order—and quickly—we are certainly going to get the same kind of working over from the press, politicians and public that the Walking Horse people are not enjoying a bit.
This article was first published on March 25, 1960, in The Chronicle. It's part of a series celebrating 75 years of Chronicle history.