Since 1986, USDA has tallied 9,777 Horse Protection Act suspensions against Tennessee walking horse owners, trainers and handlers. More than one-third went to Tennessee competitors, though the USDA records include handlers from 38 states. The top 10 states are:
North Carolina: 444
South Carolina: 281
Source: USDA, Friends of Sound Horses
When federal horse welfare inspectors proposed mandatory minimum penalties for Tennessee walking horse abuse, they based their decision on some startling numbers.
In recent years, federal inspectors have attended only about 7 percent of all horse shows, but the shows that U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors oversaw accounted for more than half -- and sometimes up to 80 percent -- of violation tickets written by the horse-industry helpers who do the lion's share of monitoring for horse abuse.
The most active set of industry inspectors, a group that has overseen the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration event, wrote 477 violations at 252 shows in 2008. But 280 soring violations, or 59 percent, were written at the 16 shows USDA inspectors also attended.
Soring uses chemicals and devices to make the legs of Tennessee walking horses tender and painful, causing them to reach their high-stepping, contest-winning gait step within less training time.
Dr. Chester Gipson, deputy administrator of USDA's animal care division, said the agency has noticed the discrepancies and announced new rules last week, including minimum penalties from industry enforcers.
"Inspectors cannot be present at every show," he said. "We know those shows that attract more competition are those where the HIOs [horse industry organizations] don't enforce so much."
But horse advocates such as Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, say soring is unlikely to be stopped by industry policing.
"It's a clear case of the fox guarding the henhouse," states a Humane Society of the United States fact sheet on Tennessee walking horse "soring abuse."
More surprising numbers
Soring has been banned by the Horse Protection Act for 40 years.
USDA records show that, of the 9,777 Horse Protection Act violations cited in the past 26 years, 4,350 are repeat offenders. Some offenders have 12 or more violations, yet they continue to work and show in the industry.
Some are even industry inspectors and judges.
The Walking Horse Trainers Association awards a "trainer of the year" designation, and all of the past 10 recipients have past suspensions from violating the Horse Protection Act. Altogether, those 10 trainers share 55 violations.
Lori Northrup, director of Friends of Sound Horses, said the industry's culture is ingrained by generations of looking the other way.
"I just posted a comment from someone [about the new rules] on our website," she said. "It says, 'Soring in Middle Tennessee is as common as watering your horse.'"
David Howard doesn't agree.
He owns and publishes the Walking Horse Report, an industry news service, and is chairman of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, the premier walking horse event in the country with a 10-day series of shows every September.
Three years ago, the Celebration formed a new organization to inspect at its shows, Howard said, "because we couldn't get the horses in the shape that we want them."
"Our compliance percentage for the last three years is just amazing," he said.
The previous organization was made up of trainers and owners who asked the Celebration to take over the inspection training and operations, he said, so Celebration officials hired a full-time veterinarian to oversee the new organization, called SHOW.
"We fired about 17 of the inspectors" from the old organization "because we thought they had conflicts of interests. All of our inspectors now don't have horses," he said.
He also said two recent criminal cases of horse abuse -- charges filed against two Middle Tennessee men since the high-profile 52-count indictment against Collierville trainer and former Trainer of the Year winner Jackie McConnell -- were not caught and divulged by the government, but by the Celebration's show inspectors.
"We immediately issued lifetime suspensions to them [the trainers]," Howard said.
USDA's penalty was lighter, he said.
"One of them got a $2,500 fine and a year's probation. The other fellow got, I think, three months."
McConnell, a former Celebration winner, recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga to violating the Horse Protection Act and faces sentencing Sept. 10. The Celebration has banned him from its events and grounds, and his photos and memorabilia will be removed from the Celebration grounds in Shelbyville.
The USDA receives $500,000 a year in funding for horse-industry enforcement, thanks to what horse advocates say was an industry-influenced cap in 1976. That's enough to send inspectors to only 7 percent of all Tennessee walking horse shows nationwide, according to officials.
The same amendment created the self-regulating authority of the horse industry organizations. Each walking horse show association hires, trains and operates its own show inspectors to determine whether the horses are healthy and naturally trained or sored.
Advocates understand that, without adequate funding, industry inspectors are a necessity.
But Tennessee horse shows are a $45.3 million industry, according to the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture. Advocates say pressure to win and to profit can easily twist altruistic intent.
"We know that soring is not limited to a 'few bad apples,' and we applaud USDA's decision to crack down on violators across the industry," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "Congress should take further steps to give USDA the tools it needs to eradicate cruel soring practices once and for all."
In the meantime, the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration begins at the end of August. Howard believes publicity around the McConnell conviction and the other soring cases will hurt the show's prospects.
"People can't be reading this kind of material [news stories about court cases and abuse videos] and it not affect them and affect their choices of what they do with their entertainment dollar," he said.