Pepsi pulls sponsorship of horse show after controversial footage airs

Sarah D. Bunting

Soft-drink giant Pepsi announced Thursday that it would no longer sponsor a national horse show, thanks to startling footage aired by ABC News of a horse in training. The video showed the horse undergoing an abusive practice known as "soring." (Warning: Video may be upsetting to some viewers.)

Pepsi had sponsored the Walking Horse National Celebration since 2010, said the horse show, which is the nation's leading competition for Tennessee Walking Horses – a breed whose best-known attribute is its unique high-stepping gait. Pepsi spokesman Vincent Bozek confirmed, without elaborating, that the company has "ended our sponsorship of the event." Nor would horse-show officials explain the specific reason for the end of the relationship.

But according to Reuters, a Walking Horse showing insider, who chose to remain anonymous, thinks it's thanks to the ABC News footage of "soring," filmed by a Humane Society of the United States undercover operative and given to ABC News for broadcast. Keith Dane, the HSUS director of equine protection, said that an activist got a job in a horse barn and taped the abuse in March and April of last year, as part of an undercover investigation. The video (linked here; be aware that it contains disturbing footage) shows Walking Horses getting beaten with wooden sticks and zapped with cattle prods, and enduring the application of caustic chemicals like mustard oil and diesel fuel to their ankles, which were then wrapped in plastic and metal chains to increase the pain. The resulting soreness, which gives the practice of "soring" its name, induces the horse to lift its front legs in the show ring, creating the gait – a flinch, really, as "Nightline" correspondent Brian Ross noted -- for which the breed is famous. The electric shocks "help" the horses develop an insensitivity to pain; if show judges check for evidence of soring or other abusive practices used to create the gait, the logic goes, the horse won't react.

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Soring had become such a problem in the TWH community that the industry cracked down in 2009, creating an organization to investigate the practice and hiring vets to check up on horses and shows. The organization's president, Dr. Stephen Mullins, found the video disgusting: "I don't condone that at all." (Jackie McConnell, the trainer who, along with his employees, was caught on the tape, had no comment for ABC News, and showed no remorse. McConnell was the go-to trainer for rich owners who wanted their Tennessee Walking Horses to dominate the competition; he's now facing a federal indictment.) Mullins told "Nightline" that the practices aren't even necessary, but he also said he didn't believe they were "rampant." Unfortunately, a random check of a recent horse show belied that statement; swabs of 52 horses found foreign substances on the legs of all 52 animals. (It wasn't Vaseline, either. "Benzene" is just one chemical on the list shown by "Nightline.") And Jennie Johnson, another trainer interviewed on the program, thinks the problem is widespread.

The Humane Society frequently goes undercover to expose deplorable situations like this one; the HSUS and other animal-rights orgs have caught everything on video from chickens in overcrowded cages to sick cows dragged by tractors to nursing sows confined to crates. Some farm-state lawmakers have reacted poorly, passing laws to making "infiltrating" an agribusiness a crime. But some agriculture companies have made positive changes after seeing upsetting footage, agreeing to increase cage sizes or only buy from farms that let pigs walk free.

In the case of the horses, Dane said, they'd sent a camera into a show barn because the industry's attempts to police itself were ineffective. He hoped Pepsi's decision would get results. And it seems that the cola corporation got the fiscal attention of the Walking Horse National Celebration, at least. Chief executive Doyle Meadows issued a statement about gaining the trust of corporate partners, adding that "we would do nothing to destroy that relationship. As the Celebration moves forward to promote a sound horse we hope that everyone will assist in our efforts to promote this magnificent breed."

But it seems like it's the trust of, and relationship with, the equine partners that might need promoting.

The Walking Horse National Celebration is held in the late summer, in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

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