By Pam Sohn
A Tennessee Walking Horse breeders group and University of Tennessee agricultural researchers are looking for funding to research the normal gait of walking horses.
UT researchers Alan Mathew and Paul Roberson said a $1.4 million to $1.6 million balance and mobility study, coupled with genetics studies, would legitimize the animals' gait, help preserve the breed's future and settle growing training questions.
"This study will finally help us determine if today's horses are still in synch with the natural gait of this breed," said Dr. Mathew, head of the UT department of animal science.
Mr. Roberson, a doctoral student already working on some aspects of the project, said federal scrutiny of the breed's training methods has played a part in the study's design. Last year's grand championship walking horse show in Shelbyville, Tenn., ended early and without a champion when inspectors disqualified all but three entries.
Inspectors said they found signs of "soring," or illegal and inhumane training methods.
"(One) goal of the study is to determine whether we can identify whether inhumane training methods have been used on a particular horse, and the other thing is to identify the movement of the walking horse, so we want to get a baseline of how a (natural) walking horse moves," Mr. Roberson said.
Using 3-D cameras, genetic markers from the horses, historical film of past horse show performances and analyses from judges and veterinarians, researchers and the breeders group also hope to gain insight into preserving the breed.
"If today's show horses are not functioning the way the breed's founding sires and mares did, then we as an industry may need to change our expectations for this breed," said Chuck Cadle, executive director of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association.
Dr. Mathew said training methods may induce the gait in a horse, but the genetics are not there to produce animals with a natural tendency to perform the trademark high-stepping gait. If the bloodlines are "diluted," he said, "then we would be fully dependent on training," whether humane or inhumane, to produce horses with the smooth and showy gait.
Mr. Cadle said the breeders group is contracting to help UT raise money for the study. Researchers said they plan to seek funding from foundations, private horse groups and the United States Department of Agriculture, which enforces the Horse Protection Act.
Dr. Mathew and Mr. Roberson said they hope to begin the study in about six months, and they expect it to take three or four years.
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University of Tennessee researchers seeking $1.4 to $1.6 million for the Tennessee Walking Horse gait study said expenses would include:
* About 40 horses
* High performance 3-D camera equipment
* DNA testing and analysis
* Technician salaries
* Graduate student support
* Laboratory work