As the world's largest Tennessee Walking Horse competition kicks off today in Shelbyville, Tennessee, there will be unprecedented inspections of the horses to check for signs of the abuse that has brought much recent scrutiny to the sport.
The intensified inspections come in the wake of an ABC News "Nightline" investigation that highlighted undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the United States showing one of the sport's leading trainers beating horses with sticks and electric cattle prods and applying painful chemicals to the horses' ankles as part of a training program to encourage the high-stepping gait that wins awards.
The investigation, which aired in May, found that large numbers of the famed Walking Horses have been subjected to "soring," the application of caustic chemicals to their legs to make them raise their feet higher, as well as other forms of abuse. "Soring" is banned by the federal Horse Protection Act.
Organizers of the sport's biggest show, called the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, announced that every horse in this year's competition will be tested by USDA veterinarians for "soring" chemicals or numbing agents. In addition, a "five point inspection process" means that the veterinarians will take x-rays of the horses' hooves, manually test them for soreness, employ thermal imaging to check for inflammation, and watch their gait in the practice arena. The results of the tests will be made public, and a zero-tolerance policy means any positive results will see the horse and its trainer removed from the competition immediately.
"I think it's imperative that we do it," Stephen Mullins, president of the SHOW Horse Industry Organization told ABC's Nashville affiliate WKRN. "We have to do it to ensure the world grand championship has grand champions and winners that are completely compliant with the Horse Protection Act."
Leaders of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry maintain that brutality is rare and that trainers do not have to cheat to win championships, which can add millions of dollars to the value of horses.
But a random inspection by the agents of the Department of Agriculture at last year's Celebration found that 52 of 52 horses tested positive for some sort of foreign substance around front hooves, either to cause pain or to hide it.
Following the ABC News investigation, Pepsi canceled its sponsorship of the competition and the sport came under intense criticism, with calls to clean up an industry in which insiders say has illegal, abusive training techniques have long been prevalent.
Jackie McConnell, the former Hall-of-Fame trainer caught on the Humane Society footage beating and abusing horses with his stable hands at a farm outside Memphis, pleaded guilty to one federal count of conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act and is scheduling for sentencing Sept. 10. He could have faced up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of probation as part of a plea deal. He has also been suspended from the sport for life and expelled from the Hall of Fame.