MELISSA BLOCK, host:
There was no championship final in the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration this weekend for the first time in its 68-year history. The final event was canceled after federal inspectors disqualified most of the horses. The inspectors check for signs of abuse called soring, which makes the horse's high-stepping gait more pronounced. The cancellation of the event in Shelbyville, Tennessee, sent owners and spectators alike into an uproar.
Sarah Gilliam has been covering this story for the Nashville Tennessean, and Sarah, explain what the competition's officials have said about why they cancelled this event on Saturday night.
Ms. SARAH GILLIAM (Reporter, Nashville Tennessean): Well, there's been two different sides to this. The Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration officials said that they called off the championship because show officials could not guarantee the safety of the crowd. However, law enforcement officials say they had control over the crowd, so there's kind of a conflicting opinion.
BLOCK: Were tempers so high that there really was the risk of some violence happening there?
Ms. GILLIAM: Well, you know one of the trainers who was able to show, who passed the inspection, told me that he was concerned about the safety of the people around him just because he couldn't get his horse through the crowd. He was concerned that maybe his horse might injure one of the spectators because they were so crammed in, shoulder to shoulder.
BLOCK: They had all gathered in one place to protest this?
Ms. GILLIAM: That's correct. They were gathered around the warm-up rings as the exhibiters would go into the actual show arena.
BLOCK: And what preceded this was these problematic inspections. As I understand it, there are two sets of inspectors, one from within the walking-horse industry and another from the Department of Agriculture. What happened there with these inspections?
Ms. GILLIAM: Well, the inspectors were inspecting these horses before they go into the show ring, and the industry inspectors and the USDA inspectors were having conflict over the interpretation of what they call soring, which is a practice that can cause pains to the legs of the walking horse.
BLOCK: Tell us more about that soring, and what is done to these horses, and what's the point of it?
Ms. GILLIAM: Well, soring can be accomplished in a couple of ways. They've been known to blister or irritate horses' forelegs through injections or chemicals, and then also in the past you've seen cutting or burning of the horses' legs, which altogether is used to enhance the gait of the walking horse.
BLOCK: Make them prance higher, is that the idea?
Ms. GILLIAM: Yeah, they're looking for that signature high step.
BLOCK: How widespread a practice is that within the industry?
Ms. GILLIAM: Well, you know, when you talk to the trainers, they don't really have a comment. They think it's taboo, and then the other people say it has to be there or else they wouldn't be turned down. So in the championship show, out of 10 horses, only three were able to go in. So I mean, I don't know if that speaks for itself, but that's really where the controversy lies, is the conflict of the inspection process.
BLOCK: Is there anyone within the community that was saying there is abuse of these horses, maybe not across the board, but there is some and we need to do something about that, we need to stop it?
Ms. GILLIAM: Sure, there definitely has been some concern in the community, in the walking-horse community, in fact. But these same trainers who are getting turned away are saying hey, I was allowed in last week, why is it a problem today?
BLOCK: How are these horses judged?
Ms. GILLIAM: The judges watch these horses in several different gaits - flat walk, run walk. They also canter their horses. So they watch the horses for several minutes around the ring, and the horses turn around and reverse and go in the opposite direction, and they're judged on their way of going. And it is a flashy event. People are yelling and the crowd whistling and hooting and really encouraging the riders and, you know, trying to get the judge to look at their horse.
BLOCK: Well, what happens now?
Ms. GILLIAM: Well, now there are several committees meeting to decide what to do. The president of the breeders association has said that they're going to get together soon to come up with a response to what happened at the celebration, but right now everybody's trying to decide what really happened.
BLOCK: Sarah Gilliam of the Nashville Tennessean. Thanks very much.
Ms. GILLIAM: Thank you, Melissa.
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