Photos courtesy of USDA APHIS
Scars on the pastern and heel bulbs of the horse in the left photo are indicative of soring. The right image shows a normal or un-sored pastern. Note the lack of disturbance to the skin and hair.
A 45-year-old federal law to prevent the abuse of horses soon might include tougher language to elminate soring, a controversial training tactic that involves inflicting pain to the lower limbs of show horses to illicit an exaggerated, high-stepping gait known as the big lick.
The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act of 2015 — commonly known as the PAST Act — seeks to amend the Horse Protection Act of 1970 (HPA) by establishing a new system for inspecting horses while strengthening penalties and enforcement procedures. While soring always has been illegal under the HPA, the proposed amendment grants the U.S. Department of Agriculture greater ability to enforce the law. If passed, all soring-implicated devices also would be banned.
USDA describes soring as "a cruel and abusive practice used to accentuate a horse’s gait" that's accomplished by irritating or blistering a horse’s forelegs with chemical irritants or mechanical devices.
This is the second time in as many years that Congress has considered the PAST Act. The bill died in committee in 2013, despite widespread congressional support. It also faces a legislative adversary. Two days after the PAST Act hit the Senate, Rep. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn) filed the Horse Protection Amendments Act, which calls for codifying the status quo by leaving the identification, inspection and penalty process surrounding soring up to a single governing body — the Horse Industry Organization, or HIO.
HIOs already are charged by federal law to find and penalize soring violators via a private inspection program. This self-policing system, critics say, is marred by colluding industry leaders and horse aficionados who allow soring to continue — allegations that HIO insiders flatly reject. During recent years, USDA officials have attempted to shore up the agency's weak regulations by exerting more influence on the show circuit.
The result has been legal action. Last February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit chastised the federal agency in Contender Farms v. USDA, which found that USDA strayed beyond its statutory boundaries to regulate behavior by doing a job designated to HIOs — penalizing suspected soring violators.
"Congress did not authorize the USDA to develop a private enforcement scheme administered by HIOs as a means of policing the HPA," the ruling stated.
That decision, equine welfare advocates say, underscores the need for legislative action. Last month, the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Equine Practitioners petitioned U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make regulatory changes to the HPA that would bar the use of performance action devices, abolish the horse show industry's self-policing system and create a new structure where federal officials are responsible for the HPA's enforcement.
USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinoza responded that altering the HPA isn't up to the federal agency. By email, she stated: "The Horse Protection Act was put in place by Congress and the regulations to enforce the Act are written by USDA. Any changes to the Act itself must be made by Congress, therefore any legislative changes must be made by Congress."
So far, more than 300 lawmakers have signed on in support of the PAST Act and its companion in the House of Representatives.
"Regardless of whether soring is done using chemicals or physical methods, it's unethical and illegal," reads a statement by AVMA. "It has always been unethical, and it's been illegal since 1970 ... but it continues."
Federal officials confirm that soring remains widespread in Tennessee Walking Horse show circles and among other gaited breeds. At this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, USDA inspectors logged 226 HPA violations and disqualified 181 horses from the event in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Another 35 violations were identified by Designated Qualified Persons, or DQPs.
DQP inspectors are licensed by the HIO and certified by USDA to identify sored horses and impose appropriate penalties.
The USDA's Espinoza explained that seven DQPs and a variety of USDA inspectors monitored the Celebration, the show circuit's premier event. “On an average, there were about five VMOs (Veterinary Medical Officers) in attendance: one to do thermography, two to evaluate the horses via palpation pre-show and post-show, one to do digital radiography and one to do blood testing,” she said.
The discrepancy between numbers of USDA-identified violations compared with those spotted by DQP inspectors has led some equine welfare advocates to suggest that DQP system is a sham, wrought with conflicts of interest. The PAST Act calls for replacing DQPs with a new inspection system. It also directs USDA to prescribe new regulatory requirements to license, train, assign and oversee anyone hired by horse shows, exhibitions, sales or auctions to detect and diagnose sore horses at such events.
The last time equine welfare advocates tried to strengthen the HPA was in 2013, via two pieces of legislation. One bill aimed to outlaw certain types of shoes while the other — a earlier version of the PAST Act — barred the Walking Horse industry from self-policing its shows. Both died in congressional committees despite generating support in the House and Senate.
The AVMA, American Association of Equine Practitioners and other equine welfare groups want a better outcome for this year's PAST Act, which is in House and Senate committees. "The AAEP encourages everyone who wishes to see an end to the abusive act of soring to email or call their congressional representatives in order to voice support for the bill," urges an article on the AAEP website. "Unless congressional representatives hear from constituents, the current session of Congress may end without this bill becoming law."
Dr. Elise Ackley, an assistant director in the AVMA's Governmental Relations Division, compared this year's PAST Act to its near-identical predecessor, noting that the current makeup of Congress could make a difference.
“... It is important to realize that the makeup of this Congress has shifted, including the leadership structure," she said. "We are working with a different majority that has a rather full schedule on their plates and a short timeline to accomplish their priorities. With more than 365 lawmakers supporting the bill (in the) last Congress, the AVMA is hopeful that both chambers will recognize the importance of this bill and see the need to pass it as quickly as possible.
"We know this is an important issues not just for our members but for the welfare of America’s walking horses, and we are moving full steam ahead to see this passed," she added.
Absent from the list of PAST Act supporters are the industry sponsors of major Tennessee Walking Horse organizations, including the Walking Horse Trainers Association and the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association. However, individual members of both organizations appear on the sponsor list.