Pepsi drops sponsorship of horse show after video of animal abuse

NASHVILLE, Tennessee Thu May 17, 2012 11:43pm EDT

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NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Soft drink maker Pepsi said on Thursday that it was dropping sponsorship of a prestigious national horse show, one day after ABC News broadcast footage of a horse in training for a show being beaten by a trainer.

The Walking Horse National Celebration said that Pepsi had been a sponsor since 2010 of the nation's leading competition for Tennessee Walking Horses, a breed known for its high-stepping gait.

"We have ended our sponsorship of the event," Pepsi spokesman Vincent Bozek said on Thursday without elaborating.

Neither Pepsi nor officials of the horse show would confirm the reason for the cancellation of the sponsorship. But an expert on the Tennessee Walking Horse show circuit, who asked not to be identified, said he believed it was because of the ABC News report, which showed an abusive practice known as "soring."

The Humane Society of the United States conducted an undercover investigation and filmed the video which was given to ABC News and broadcast, said Keith Dane, the society's director of equine protection.

An animal rights activist went to work in a horse barn and secretly taped the abuse in March and April, 2011. It shows the horses being beaten with wooden sticks and poked with electric cattle prods. The horses' ankles were slathered with caustic chemicals and ankles wrapped with plastic to amplify the pain.

The chemicals induce pain and cause the horse to raise its front legs high while in the show ring.

Soring has been such a pervasive practice among Tennessee Walking Horse trainers that in 2009 the industry set up an organization and hired veterinarians to tour shows and inspect the horses.

Dr. Stephen Mullins, president of SHOW, the organization that inspects the horses, said he was disgusted by the video.

"For any animal to be abused like that ... I totally disagree with that," Mullins said.

The Humane Society video was the latest example of the organization going undercover to expose alleged animal abuse. Animal rights groups have used undercover investigations to film practices such as chickens in small cages, diseased cattle dragged by tractors while they are still alive, sows confined in crates. Their aim is to force changes in farming and show practices.

Their efforts have prompted egg producers to agree to an increase in the size of cages, and some major buyers of pork recently said they would no longer buy from farms which confining mother sows in crates.

But the undercover operations also have prompted a backlash from some farm state lawmakers, who have passed laws to make it a criminal offense to infiltrate an agricultural business.

The Humane Society's Dane said the group decided to go undercover in the horse barn because the Tennessee Walking Horse industry's self-policing of the practice of "soring" was not working. He applauded the Pepsi decision, which he said might help clean up the industry.

"This procedure of soring has been going on far too long ... the industry itself has been allowed to self-police and with very poor results," Dane said.

The chief executive of the Walking Horse National Celebration, Doyle Meadows, said in a statement: "The Celebration has worked extremely hard over recent years to gain the trust of our corporate partners and 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."

The Walking Horse National Celebration takes place every summer in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

(Editing by Greg McCune and Sandra Maler)

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