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March 03, 2014

Sorting Out Sordid Details on Soring

Tn_walking_horses_270x224This Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to take up S. 1406, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, introduced by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va. If approved by the committee, it will be poised for consideration by the full Senate, where nearly half of all 100 senators have already cosponsored the bill. A House companion bill, H.R. 1518, introduced by Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., has an astonishing 267 cosponsors – well beyond the 218 majority needed to pass a bill on the House floor.

The bill amends an existing federal law – the Horse Protection Act of 1970 – to rein in the cruel practice of “soring,” in which unscrupulous trainers deliberately inflict pain on the hooves and legs of Tennessee Walking Horses and certain other breeds to exaggerate their high-stepping gait and give them an unfair competitive advantage at horse shows. A brave undercover investigator from The HSUS exposed barbaric mistreatment of Tennessee Walking Horses at the stable of Jackie McConnell, a Hall of Fame trainer, resulting in federal and state prosecution of this man. Soring methods include applying caustic chemicals, using plastic wrap and tight bandages to “cook” those chemicals deep into the horse’s flesh for days, attaching heavy chains to strike against the sore legs, inserting bolts, screws or other hard objects into sensitive areas of the hooves, cutting the hooves down to expose the live tissue, and using salicylic acid or other painful substances to slough off scarred tissue in an attempt to disguise the sored areas. 

It’s been a federal crime for more than 40 years to injure horses to enhance performance in these shows, and I want to be clear that the main opposition to this bill comes from lawbreakers. This bill is being advanced precisely because a criminal element within the Walking horse industry persists in its cruel treatment of horses; the current law, and the enforcement of that law, have not proved sufficient to deter their routine criminal conduct. Honest and law-abiding trainers tell us that soring is rampant in the Big Lick sector of the industry, where the high-stepping, artificially-induced gait of the horses is what wins ribbons at shows, like the Celebration in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

The USDA Office of Inspector General did an exhaustive audit of the agency’s enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, and in a 2010 report, recommended reforms that would be codified by the PAST Act.  S. 1406 will amend the Horse Protection Act to end the failed industry self-policing system, strengthen penalties, ban the use of devices associated with soring, and make the actual soring of a horse for the purpose of showing or selling it illegal. The PAST Act is endorsed by the American Horse Council and more than 50 other national and state horse groups, as well as by the American Veterinary Medical Association, every state veterinary medical association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and many others.

Now, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who represents the region where the Big Lick horse soring crowd does its handiwork and brews its chemical concoctions to torment horses, has introduced a bill that in many ways affirms the status quo, but in other ways makes the situation even worse for horses. Lawmakers could not have a clearer choice – a bill that offers real reform, or one that appears to have been written by a criminal network of horse abusers who want to make sure the federal law doesn’t get in their way. 

Blackburn’s bill would do the following;

•        It would make the current problem worse by establishing a single Horse Industry Organization – essentially giving the industry “bad apples” the opportunity to set the rules and manage all inspections, while eliminating those HIOs that actually insist on no soring at shows they oversee now.

•        It would give titular oversight to agricultural commissioners in Kentucky and Tennessee – the two states where soring is most concentrated. There are already laws prohibiting soring on the books in these two states, but enforcement is rare and the illicit practice appears to be tolerated by some officials. No real action to curb this cruelty has ever been taken by those states themselves, other than two recent prosecutions (one driven by an HSUS investigation). 

•        It would empower the Walking Horse Trainers’ Association to help shape the HIO board. A review of the history of members of the WHTA board demonstrates that most of them have been repeat violators of the HPA, often throughout their careers, racking up HIO suspensions and being found guilty by federal administrative law judges. 

•        It does not address the use of pads and chains (action devices) and heavily weighted shoes – equipment directly associated with soring and the development and maintenance of the Big Lick gait of the “performance horse.” The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners have called for an end to the use of this equipment as a prerequisite to ending horse soring. A shocking 93 percent of HPA violations are in the padded performance segment and involve Big Lick horses.

•        It does not strengthen HPA penalties which are currently so weak they are routinely ignored by those engaged in soring, identified as a key enforcement problem by USDA’s Inspector General.

•        It expressly prohibits application of the Federal Advisory Committee Act to the single HIO. This is a blatant effort to shield discussions between the HIO and USDA, so they can be held in secret with no public input or accountability. Years ago, HIO meetings became subject to the open government rules of FACA and there is no justification for returning to an era of secrecy. 

The people of Tennessee and Kentucky, as much as any people, want real reform. Independent surveys of their attitudes reflect this. Now, Congress, which took the reins and cracked down on dogfighting and cockfighting last month by strengthening the federal law against these spectacles of animal combat, has the same choice with another form of staged cruelty. I am confident that lawmakers and the public have had enough of the horse soring crowd’s gamesmanship and animal abuse, and they’ll do the right thing, starting with the first committee vote on the issue on Wednesday.

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