By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - An animal rights group fiercely opposed to what it calls cruel treatment of famed Tennessee Walking Horses is backing an alternative show that does not judge horses on the high-stepping gait they say is a result of an abusive practice.
The Humane Society said it contributed the maximum $1,000 to the World Versatility Show under way through Saturday in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to highlight a better way to train and show the horses known for their exaggerated steps.
The owners and trainers of Tennessee Walking Horses, a popular breed in the American South, have been criticized for decades over a practice called "soring" - slathering the lower legs with caustic chemicals to induce pain that causes the horse to step higher. While chemical soring is officially banned, it is suspected that some trainers still use it.
In 2011, the Humane Society produced an undercover video of a celebrated walking horse trainer, Jackie McConnell, abusing horses at his stable. The video, broadcast on ABC television last year, showed the animals being beaten with sticks and poked with electric cattle prods. It also exposed that soring was used in their training.
McConnell, 61, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges this month, and was banned from owning and training horses for 20 years. He also was fined $25,000 and sentenced to a year's house arrest and four years probation.
Eight horses were removed from McConnell's training barn and are being kept at an undisclosed location, authorities said.
The alternative show this weekend does not include the controversial "Big Lick," an artificial movement in which the horses raise their forelegs up and forward.
The Big Lick is produced by "padding" a horse with thick front horseshoes that animal rights groups say are abusive. The alternative show will restrict the horses to light shoes, or barefoot without shoes, and the animals are judged by natural talent in events such as jumping, reining and driving.
If a horse can perform the Big Lick naturally, it is allowed at the alternative show.
"We do want to help the Tennessee Walking Horse to be the horse of the future and move away from the reliance of abusive training practices and devices that the breed has been associated with," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society, along with other animal rights groups, has been aggressive in recent years in exposing cruelty to animals. They have used controversial undercover operations to expose abusive farming practices at chicken, beef and pork facilities. Some Midwestern state legislatures have banned undercover operations at agricultural facilities.
The alternative show is taking place one month before the prestigious 75th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, where the Big Lick will be performed.
Mike Inman, chief executive of the National Celebration, said the event does not condone soring, but allows the use of thick shoes.
"The difference in equipment and shoeing accentuate the natural ability of the athlete, it doesn't provide the ability," he said.
Mike Dunavant, Fayette County district attorney general, who prosecuted trainer McConnell, praised the alternative show as highlighting better practices.
"(It) promotes people who engage in the humane treatment and training of Tennessee Walking Horses," he said.
(Reporting By Tim Ghianni; Editing by Greg McCune and Gunna Dickson)