The abuse of Tennessee walking horses has been in the news since The HSUS released video footage of one of the industry’s top trainers striking a horse in the face with a wooden handle and pouring injurious chemicals onto the feet of a horse. It was four decades ago that Congress passed the Horse Protection Act to prevent and criminalize “soring” and other abuses of horses. Tennessee state representative Janis Sontany wrote in a column in The Tennessean on Sunday: “Soring has been a well-kept dirty secret in this industry and it’s time for this nonsense to end.”
In 2010, The HSUS and a broad coalition of horse industry and animal protection groups filed a legal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture documenting that soring practices are rampant in the industry as part of trainers’ and owners' determination to produce the high-stepping gait, or “big lick,” glamorized in the show ring. The petition sought a number of regulatory changes to improve HPA enforcement including the implementation of a mandatory penalty structure.
Today, in the wake of the furor that’s resulted from the public witnessing the abusive practices documented in HSUS’s investigation, the USDA announced that there will be mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the law. Through the years, industry inspectors (part of what are known as “Horse Industry Organizations”) cited some trainers for “soring” but penalties were not consistently meted out, and there was no therefore meaningful disincentive to stop the abuse.
Today’s announcement changes the equation and provides much-needed improvements in HPA enforcement finally providing some level of deterrence for lawbreakers. I commend Agriculture Secretary Vilsack for issuing this rule today.
As pleased as we are with USDA’s action, there’s additional reform that’s needed in order to root out soring. Animal protection groups, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the USDA’s own Inspector General have argued that the current system of industry self-regulation is fundamentally flawed. USDA inspectors should be doing the enforcement work, since they don’t have the inherent conflicts that industry personnel have.
That’s a task that Congress must complete. Federal legislators must amend the HPA to eliminate the industry’s role in enforcement of the Act, close loopholes that violators often slip through, and give the USDA the tools to fully protect this wonderful breed of horse, as Congress intended when it passed this law 42 years ago.
Since McConnell’s indictment, we’ve been hard at work bringing this abuse to the attention of state and federal authorities, urging them to do more to enforce and stiffen existing laws. We petitioned USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to treat the use of numbing and masking agents (used to camouflage evidence that a horse has been sored) as felony interference in enforcement of the HPA. And we asked the Tennessee Attorney General to investigate whether the current state cruelty law is being followed in reporting and prosecuting soring at horse shows in the state.
A recent analysis of the violation history of the top 20 trainers in the industry’s Riders Cup high point program found that every one of them was cited for HPA violations in the past two years, with a total 164 violations among them. How many served a suspension penalty? A mere 7 percent and of those, all but a handful were for a measly two-week period.
We will also be calling on the industry itself to take some common-sense steps, including ousting those who torment animals from the show ring, establishing a zero-tolerance policy for this criminal behavior, and adopting practices and policies that will secure a place in the future of American equestrian sport for this breed. We want to help the industry reform, rebuild, and regrow, with the good, law-abiding animal lovers at the helm, reaping the rewards of fair, humane and legal competition.