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Creature Feature: Sore Trick Pony

Tennessee walking horses have been victims of pain-inducing performance enhancers for more than half a century, yet even with laws on the books, the industry’s corruption persists

Tennessee walking horses have been victims of pain-inducing performance enhancers for more than half a century, yet even with laws on the books, the industry’s corruption persists

At her new home with the Sissoms, Molly foxtrots free of pain. TAMARA SISSOM
To the roar of the crowd, a Tennessee walking horse is paraded around the ring at a typical registered horse show in Shelbyville, Tenn. Eyes wild and nostrils flaring, he propels his body forward under the weight of a long-coated rider and the scrutiny of the judges. To look in the horse’s eyes is to see a perpetual state of panic. But the crowd is too captivated by his clownish gait to notice his attempts to escape the pain of his own steps.

To the untrained eye, the energetic prancing of this Tennessee walker appears extraordinary, yet sound. His front hooves swing high; his back end remains tucked underneath his torso in a crouch. It’s a pose likened by showmen to a “praying mantis crawl.”

To other professionals in the industry, however, this horse’s movements are agonizing to watch. Those familiar with the natural gait of a Tennessee walker can see this performance is artificial and exaggerated—and actually causing the horse tremendous pain.

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