US regulators strengthen rule to stamp out horse soring

New restrictions follow decades of failed bids to stop abusive training tactic

Published: May 24, 2024

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USDA photo by Christophe Paul
Dr. Rebecca Nanney, a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian, uses a portable ultrasound instrument while inspecting a horse for signs of soring during a competition in Kentucky in September. Under a new federal rule, only USDA-trained individuals will be authorized to check horses for signs of the illegal training technique.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finalized a rule to fortify regulations against soring, a painful horse-training technique that has endured despite being prohibited for more than a half-century.

The new regulations, slated to take effect in February, come after the failure in recent years of multiple legislative and regulatory efforts to fix weaknesses in the Horse Protection Act, the 1970 measure that was meant to eradicate soring.

Soring is the practice of cutting, burning or otherwise intentionally inflicting pain on a horse's lower forelegs and feet so that it lifts its legs higher in an attempt to escape the discomfort. The exaggerated gait, known as the "big lick," helps horses, particularly walking and racking breeds, to win show competitions.

Despite being illegal, soring is still occurring due to lax enforcement, weak penalties and the fact that devices used for soring are still permitted.

The new regulations, published this month, are designed to toughen enforcement and, in particular, overhaul an inspection program created by the USDA in response to a 1976 amendment to the Horse Protection Act.

The provision allowed the management of shows, sales and auctions to hire people in the horse industry — such as farriers, trainers and veterinarians — to inspect horses. Congress charged the USDA with creating rules for training and licensing these inspectors.

The agency established a so-called Designated Qualified Person (DQP) program. There are 59 DQPs, and they are the primary parties responsible for soring inspections. Only one is a veterinarian, according to a spokesperson for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. APHIS veterinary medical officers do inspections as well, though less frequently.

In brief

Studies referenced by the USDA have found industry-selected inspectors far less likely than APHIS inspectors to find evidence of soring.

The new rule eliminates DQPs. Instead, APHIS will screen and train qualified people who then can be appointed by the managers of any horse show or sale.

These Horse Protection Inspectors, as they are called, primarily will be veterinarians with equine experience. APHIS said it currently has eight veterinarians trained and available to detect soring, and an additional five have been hired and are being trained. The agency is recruiting more.

If there is an insufficient pool of veterinarian applicants, APHIS will consider veterinary technicians and animal welfare officers with prior equine experience for the role.

The rule also bans implements that encourage an exaggerated gait. These include boots, collars, chains and bangles placed on the lower extremity of the leg in such a manner as to cause friction, as well as pads and wedges that alter a horse's gait (with exceptions for therapeutic use). The items typically are used on Tennessee Walking Horses and Racking horses, the two breeds for which the agency has found elevated levels of soring.

The rule does not increase financial penalties. Ranging from between $2,000 to $3,000 per violation (and capped at $13,000), the penalties are enshrined in the Horse Protection Act and can be changed only through congressional action.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners praised the new rule.

AVMA President Dr. Rena Carlson said in a press release: "Ending the cruel and inhumane act of horse soring is long overdue and the strengthened regulations announced by the USDA will help end this needless suffering of horses by providing more enforcement mechanisms to maintain horse welfare."

Bumpy road to reform

This is not the USDA's first attempt to fix the problem through enhanced regulations. Changes almost went through in 2017 during the final days of the Obama presidency. In early January of that year, the agency posted on its website proposed regulations that contained many of the provisions in the current rules.

However, in what has been described as a "clerical error" by members of Congress, the new rule was not published in the Federal Register before the inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20. That day, the new administration froze all pending regulations. The anti-soring rule change — reportedly along with hundreds of other pending regulations — was thrown into limbo.

USDA photo by Christophe Paul
A rider at the Kentucky Celebration competition in September demonstrates the "big lick" gait.

The Humane Society of the United States sued the USDA, saying the rule had been withdrawn unlawfully and should be enforced. A district court dismissed the case, but an appeals court agreed with the Humane Society and sent the ruling back to the district court to determine the next steps.

In the meantime, the USDA announced that it was withdrawing the ill-fated regulation and was "making the development of a new and improved [Horse Protection Act] proposal a top regulatory priority."

The new version incorporates findings from a 2021 independent review of methods for identifying soring in horses, such as the recommendation that only veterinarians, preferably with equine experience, be allowed to examine horses.

The proposed rule drew around 8,000 comments during a 60-day comment period last fall. More than 7,000 were variations of a form letter supporting the rule, including one that listed 107,257 signatories, according to the USDA.

Even as the agency has been working on regulation reform, Congress has been weighing a legislative fix. The Prevent All Soring Tactics (or PAST) Act, which contains many of the changes in the USDA rule, has been introduced in every Congress since 2015. It has strong bipartisan support and was passed by a wide majority in the House in 2019 and 2022, only to die in the Senate due to opposition from senators in Kentucky and Tennessee. These states are home to the majority of walking horse farms and competitions.

The PAST Act of 2024 is in committee in both chambers.

What's next?

USDA photo by Christophe Paul
A field radiography machine is used by a USDA veterinarian to assess the presence of illegal metal within the pads or any objects and materials inserted near the hoof that may cause pain during the Kentucky Celebration in September.

Having already been published in the Federal Register, the new USDA regulations are well on track to become effective on Feb. 1 — barring another administrative snafu or a legal challenge.

Marty Irby, a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association who worked for years to fortify the Horse Protection Act, worries about both possibilities.

"While I'm a big supporter of President Trump more broadly," he said in an email to the VIN News Service, "I expect that if he defeats Joe Biden, then all of these type regulations will be rolled back once again — likely just before the new rules take effect."

Irby, who is now president and CEO of Capitol South LLC, a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., said a threat to the rule also could come from outside the administration.

"The Tennessee Walking Horse industry has long said they'd sue if these regulations were finalized," he explained, "and I expect we will soon see something in that regard if they haven't filed it already."

The Walking Horse Report, an industry publication, reported last week that The Torridon Group, a law firm that prepared industry comments on the rule, would challenge it in a district court this summer.

When asked about the possibility of legal action, the APHIS spokesperson said by email: “For this new rule, APHIS followed all proper rulemaking procedures …. We believe that these steps, along with several layers of interagency review to ensure compliance with all related Executive Orders, Acts, and regulations overseeing the rulemaking process, help ensure that the new HPA final rule is legally sound."

Irby said X factors like lawsuits are why he has pushed for a legislative solution.

"Regulations change, and only the law is more concrete," he said. Plus, he wants to see penalties strengthened, which the USDA cannot do.

"I still believe the best path to victory that will end soring is an altered version of the current PAST Act that is still limping along in Congress with no end in sight."

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