WARTRACE, TENN. — IN the heart of horse country here, roads meander through rumpled green hills, past brick manors and million-dollar stables. It's a serene setting, a place where neighbors have known each other for decades, if not generations.
But a furor is building in this pastoral paradise over tough new efforts to protect a legendary horse breed - the high-stepping Tennessee walking horse - from abuse.
Backed by animal-rights activists, the US government is clamping down on torturous practices some trainers use to get the animals to fling out their front legs in championship form.
The result is a clash of cultures that pits a century of equine tradition against the growing 1990s activism to see that animals get only the most humane treatment. In horse country, the consensus is that the new regulations will do nothing to safeguard the horses, and will only jeopardize a multimillion-dollar industry benefiting towns from Virginia to California that host Tennessee walking-horse shows.
The practice in question involves irritating a horse's legs to achieve the high-stepping gait - including soaking them with diesel fuel. Critics call this "soring." (Some animal-rights activists sport buttons that say "Make love, not sore.")
Walking-horse industry officials say 97 percent of their 300,000 horses are free from soring, and that they're doing everything they can to catch violators. But critics say soring - and the corruption that covers it up - is rampant.
A few miles down the road from Shelbyville, Tenn. - the center of the Tennessee walking-horse world - sits championship trainer Mickey McCormick's million-dollar stable. It's a gleaming new facility where horses train on an indoor track spread with cedar shavings.
"These horses are treated like they're at the Taj Mahal," says Mr. McCormick, clad in jeans and a Red Man tobacco cap. He spent $32,000 last year on food alone for the 42 horses at his stable.
Southern plantation owners originally bred the famously mellow Tennessee walking horse for a smooth gait, so they could ride all day without getting saddle-sore.
McCormick acknowledges that some trainers - though fewer these days - do sore their horses to achieve the distinctive gait. But he says they drag down the entire industry.
As for him, "It wouldn't make economic sense for me to hurt these animals," he says, stroking the nose of a championship horse. If McCormick were found to have sored his horses, he could lose his livelihood.
That's what he's worried about under the new inspection regime proposed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The plan allows the industry more leeway to regulate itself. In return, it requires tough penalties for those found guilty of infractions. The first-time punishment is an eight-month suspension from competition.
For trainers like McCormick, however, the big issue is not the penalties, but the inspection process itself.
They say the inspections - which involve picking up a horse's legs and squeezing the area just above the hoof - are purely subjective. If an inspector squeezes too hard or too suddenly, the horse may flinch, thus disqualifying it, even if it hasn't been sored.
The process is so subjective that "it's like making you drive without a speedometer and not telling you what the speed limit is and then suspending your license for eight months if you get a ticket," says an indignant Mark Walling, a lanky, apron-clad blacksmith who works with McCormick.
Trainers say inspectors should also look at a horse's demeanor, attitude, and walk to judge if it's been harmed.
To make its point, the industry is flexing its political muscles. Last week, 13 Southern senators sent a letter to the USDA expressing their "strong concerns" about the walking-horse plan. The USDA and the industry may start trying to forge a compromise in June.
But critics - including a number of longtime industry insiders who've repented from what they say is endemic soring - say inspections must be thorough and punishments extreme. The USDA must be strict, they say, because incentives to sore are so strong.
Championship horses can be worth $500,000 or more. And stud fees for these winners can be $5,000. Furthermore, in an insular world, where prestige is everything, some people are willing to flout the law for fame.
The 1970 Horse Protection Act prohibits soring, but government enforcement has been spotty for many years.
That's no excuse for not following the law, says Cherie Beatty, who heads the Friends of the Sound Horse Society in Unionville, Tenn. "You can't go through a stop sign every day of your life and then complain one day that a cop's there to ticket you," she says.
She and others point out that when USDA inspectors show up at horse shows - about 10 percent of the time - violations double. (At other shows, the industry provides its own inspectors.)
The industry has a reputation for what one observer calls "Mafia-like behavior among a small cadre of rich owners." A recent scandal erupted when a $30,000 check, written by an owner, was found made out to a horse-show judge's wife. Nothing has been proved, however.
Among many industry people, there's a "lack of consideration of these horses as beings," says Angela Langdon-Nielson of Steppin' Out, a watchdog newspaper. But things are slowly changing, she says. "People are saying, 'We've had enough of this disgrace.' "