Photo courtesy of USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
This horse is wearing stacked shoes and also illustrates soring. The green color indicates a foreign substance painted on the pastern. Any irritation caused by the chemical would be exacerbated by the chains.
With a smooth gait well-suited for carrying riders great distances in comfort, the Tennessee walking horse is symbolic of the American South. The breed's unique running walk and high-stepping gait, known as the “big lick,” can bring big money in the show ring. Those high steps kick up more than dirt in the arena. They’re kicking up tensions in the horse community lately, as well.
Two bills before Congress seek to amend the Horse Protection Act of 1970 to stop an abusive technique known as soring. The original law banned soring, but four decades years later, the practice continues.
Soring involves inflicting pain to the front pasterns (ankles) or front feet so that the horse lifts its legs higher, trying to escape the pain. Soring techniques include the use of caustic agents and/or chains around the pasterns, sharp objects embedded under the pads of the shoes and special shoes designed to increase pressure to the sole of the foot. While many horse experts maintain that soring is practiced by a minority of “bad actors,” violations are found at the highest-level shows.
Proponents of the two proposed amendments to the Horse Protection Act claim that their respective bills will crack down on soring. But they do so in very different ways.
The first, introduced last year with the name Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, would toughen the penalties for soring; place the selection and oversight of inspectors entirely in the hands of the federal government; and ban a variety of training devices and shoe configurations used in walking-horse shows. The House bill, HR 1518, is before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. A companion bill in the Senate, S 1406, was forwarded Wednesday by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to the full Senate.
A competing bill was introduced in February. HR 4098, now before the same House subcommittee as the PAST Act, would create a committee chosen by state governments and the walking-horse industry to regulate the selection of inspectors. It also calls for objective criteria to be used during inspections. A companion bill, S 2193, was introduced in the Senate on April 1, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Although both bills purport to end soring, proponents of the PAST Act contend that the alternative proposal would be less effective at stopping soring than making no change at all.
“We feel that it would actually make everything worse because it would put everything into the hands of the industry,” said Dr. Whitney Miller, assistant director of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Governmental Relations Division.
In addition to the AVMA, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the American Horse Council and the Humane Society of the United States support the PAST Act.
Most major walking-horse groups, including the Walking Horse Trainers Association and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association, oppose the PAST Act and support the alternative bill. They object to PAST Act provisions that place inspections under government control and ban certain instruments commonly used in gaited-horse competitions, which they say do no harm to the animals.
Soring culture resists reform
Dr. Linda Montgomery, a veterinarian, a board member of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association and firm opponent of soring, remembers being introduced to the culture of soring when she purchased her first walking horse nearly 50 years ago.
“The old man who sold it to me showed me the padded shoe and said, ‘If you drive a wood screw up through the bottom, you’ll have a show horse by Saturday,’ ” Montgomery recounted.
“I thought, ‘Damn! Here I am fixing to be a veterinarian, and this old fool is telling me to do this.’ ”
A decade later, the Horse Protection Act of 1970 outlawed the inhumane practice. But it did not eliminate it. In May 2013 alone, 140 official warnings of violations were issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Montgomery believes that soring remains widespread. “In all my years of being in the horse industry … I’ve never yet seen a ‘big lick’ horse that wasn’t at some point in his life sored,” she declared. “If they (trainers) say they’re not still doing it, I wouldn’t believe it if they were standing on a Bible.”
Some in the horse world point to a 1976 amendment to the Horse Protection Act as the problem. The amendment stiffened some penalties and allowed for regulation from within the industry. Critics contend that it is self-regulation that has allowed soring to persist.
“They’ve had 43 years to clean up their act, and haven’t done it,” said the AVMA’s Miller.
Under the Horse Protection Act as currently written, most inspectors, known as Designated Qualified Persons, are hired from industry. USDA representatives inspect a relatively small proportion of events. Inspectors examine horses for scars, signs of pain upon palpation of the limbs, presence of chemical agents on the limbs, objects embedded in the shoes, and changes in blood flow to the limbs.
In 2010, the USDA Office of the Inspector General issued a report that the inspection system was ineffective. Two years later, a noted walking horse trainer was captured on video abusing horses. He subsequently pleaded guilty to one federal count related to the conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, and 22 counts of animal cruelty, according to ABC News. The developments caught the attention of legislators.
Proposed ban on ‘pads and chains’ spurs debate
In April 2013, Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., introduced the PAST Act, which has drawn 268 co-sponsors. The companion bill, S 1406, was introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on July 31. It has 50 co-sponsors.
Whitfield Press Secretary Marty Irby described the congressman as “an avid equine supporter” and horse owner who has introduced several pieces of legislation over the years “to strengthen and protect the horse industry as well as ensure the humane treatment of horses.”
Under the PAST Act, the USDA would license all inspectors for walking-horse shows, horse exhibitions, horse sales and auctions, giving preference to licensed veterinarians. The program would apply not only to Tennessee walking horses, but to racking horses and spotted saddle horses, as well. The bill also would strengthen penalties for soring by stiffening monetary fines and possible prison sentences.
Additionally, the proposed law bans a number of contraptions commonly used in the training and showing of gaited horses, namely, “action devices,” which are chains, rings and/or bracelets that encircle the ankle, producing pressure and movement that prompts the horse to lift its legs higher; and “performance packages,” which are high-stacked, padded shoes that change the position of the horse’s hoof relative to the ground. In so doing, stacked shoes exaggerate the lifting of the gait in much the same way that wearing high heels changes the gait of a human.
The PAST Act’s introduction has sharply divided the walking horse world. For example, in May 2013 the executive committee of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association voted to support the PAST Act; seven months later, the association's newly elected International Board overrode that decision in voting to oppose the bill.
Bill opponents dislike handing over inspections completely to the USDA. Winky Groover, a board member of the Walking Horse Trainers Association, considers it an example of government excess. But the more contentious issue is the prohibition on action devices and stacked shoes, also called pads.
Whitfield spokesman Irby said the provision “would eliminate 94 percent of the problem by eliminating the pads and chains because 94 percent of (Horse Protection Act) violations found are within the padded performance ‘big lick’ segment of these horse shows.”
Montgomery, the veterinarian and Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association board member, disagrees. “Action devices, in my opinion, don’t hurt a thing,” she said. “I know the padded shoe doesn’t hurt. And I know what’s going to happen when they take it away.”
Crooked trainers, she predicted, will simply find new ways to sore a horse “that will be more injurious to the horse itself."
Miller of the AVMA acknowledges that the use of stacked shoes and action devices alone may not be inhumane, but they “provide an incentive to sore,” she said. “The performance packages are not only changing the natural gait of the horse but also provide a lot of ways to hide objects under stacked shoes.”
Groover maintains that using modern imaging techniques such as digital X-ray would eliminate the risk of foreign objects being concealed beneath pads. Although using X-rays to screen every horse wearing stacked shoes would be too time-consuming to recommend, Groover said, a random screening procedure might be a good compromise.
Dr. Jerry Black, chair of the Welfare and Public Policy Council of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), supports the device ban because the industry has not been able to consistently enforce their responsible, humane use, he said, but allowed them instead to be tools to facilitate soring. “The problem with the devices is their ability to accentuate the discomfort the horses have endured in the past,” Black said.
For example: "When used in conjunction with chemical irritants on the pastern of the horse’s foot, the motion of the action device creates a painful response, resulting in a more exaggerated gait," he said. "While there is little scientific evidence to indicate that the use of action devices below a certain weight are detrimental to the health and welfare of the horse, banning action devices from use in the training and showing of Tennessee walking horses reduces the motivation to apply a chemical irritant to the pastern.”
He continued: "Because the Tennessee walking horse industry has not taken the necessary steps to eliminate soring by the use of action devices and pads, the proposed legislation calls for a total ban on their use. Action devices and the performance packages have been a major contributor to the soring problem. In order to stop this abuse — and that is the correct term — one step is to eliminate them altogether.”
Groover countered: “Pads and action devices do not sore horses; unscrupulous people do.” He said a wholesale ban on action devices and performance packages “kills the performance horse (show) without stopping soring.”
Alternative bill allows continued self-policing
On Feb. 26, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced an alternative amendment to the Horse Protection Act. HR 4098 would retain a self-regulatory inspection system and would require inspectors to base a finding of soring on objective criteria. The bill has 11 co-sponsors.
The companion bill S 2193 was introduced to the Senate last week by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) It has three co-sponsors.
Blackburn’s staff initially agreed to a request from the VIN News Service for an interview with the congresswoman but later declined to schedule it, citing her busy schedule. Neither she nor her staff responded to questions asked by email.
The Blackburn bill would put the selection of inspectors in the hands of a Horse Industry Organization (HIO) consisting of up to nine members. The commissioners of agriculture for Tennessee and Kentucky would appoint two each; the Tennessee walking horse industry would select two; and those six members would select up to three more members.
The composition of the HIO would effectively make the fox guard of the henhouse, by Irby’s description.
“All of the board of directors for (the Walking Horse Trainers) Association collectively have 117 violations of the Horse Protection Act of 1970,” he said. “Strikingly, the current president has 23 of the 117 violations.”
On the May 2013 list of violation warnings, the VIN News Service found two warnings directed to Mickey McCormick, the current president of the trainers association.
Groover, spokesman for the association, responded to questions about the violations by expressing frustration with how the Horse Protection Act is enforced.
“We’ve been under a subjective inspection that was based on palpation,” Groover said. “If a horse moves, he’s considered reacting to palpation. Was the horse sored, or was he just reacting?” Just because a horse moved his foot during inspection, he said, “(does) not tell you whether that horse had been intentionally sored or not.”
Groover said the Blackburn bill has a provision that he and his colleagues believe can correct what they view as unreliable enforcement of the law.
The bill calls for “objective inspection,” defined as: “an inspection conducted using only inspection methods based on science-based protocols (including swabbing or blood testing protocols) that A) have been the subject of testing and are capable of producing scientifically reliable, reproducible results; B) have been subjected to peer review; and C) have received acceptance in the veterinary or other applicable scientific community.”
This provision appears to eliminate two methods currently used to detect soring: visual inspection for scars, hair loss and skin irritation; and manual palpation.
Supporters of the PAST Act adamantly oppose the Blackburn bill and vice versa. And then there are those such as Montgomery, the veterinarian on the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association board. She believes neither bill is a good solution.
“I think one goes too far and one doesn’t go far enough,” Montgomery said.
While she doesn’t like the PAST Act’s device ban, Montgomery supports USDA-governed inspections. “They could do this objectively and decently and professionally,” she said.
She believes that supporters of the Blackburn bill are “trying to do what they can ... to maintain the status quo.” She added, “I don’t believe this HIO system does a lick of good.”
Montgomery said she suspects that the bill came about as a result of political pressure from some in the walking horse industry. “I suspect Marsha Blackburn got talked into this,” she said. “I suspect she’ll wish she hadn’t gotten into this before it’s over.”
On one point all sides agree: The situation is frustrating and reflects poorly on the industry.
“Our frustration is that we want to follow the rules,” said Groover, expressing particular discontent with what he described as inconsistent enforcement of the “scar rule” provision of the Horse Protection Act. Groover said his understanding of the law is that “you can have some tissue change over the back of a horse’s pastern and some minimal hair loss.” But at a recent show, violations were issued on horses that had anything less than “an absolutely pristine pastern," Groover said.
“Tell us what (the rules) are and quit changing them," he said, "and we’ll bring it into total compliance. We want to clear this industry of this black eye as much as anyone else… The walking horse is a fantastic breed.”
Black of the AAEP echoed that sentiment. “The whole horse industry is frustrated that we haven’t been able to stop this act by what is probably a very small number within an otherwise good industry,” he said. “AAEP is very supportive of the Tennessee walking horse breed and its industry as a whole. We want to be part of the solution if possible, so that we can support the showing of these great horses, but we cannot abide practices that inflict pain or are abusive.”
Montgomery said it’s time that walking-horse owners and exhibitors actively work to change the culture of performance walking-horse shows. “I think we’ve sat back and watched people run at this as hard as they please, however they please,” she said. “We as horse owners and exhibitors haven’t done our part. And it’s time we all look to it and do it.”