It’s been an eventful past few weeks on Capitol Hill with some members of Congress taking aim at the practice of soring. Yet, one must wonder whether lawmakers will finally pull the trigger and hit their mark.
It’s a legitimate concern. After all, nearly 50 years have passed since President Richard Nixon signed the Horse Protection Act (HPA) into law. The despicable practice continues.
Make no mistake — the entire industry is not soring these majestic animals. Let’s put away the broad brush. These are the acts of a few. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., acknowledges as much when he introduced H.R. 1847, the House’s version of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act.
“As a veterinarian and lover of animals, we must continue to keep pressure on a select group of bad actors in the Walking Horse industry,” Yoho said when introducing the bill in March 2017. “They must comply with existing law and stop this illegal practice for good.”
Chapter 44, Section 1821 of the Horse Protection Act defines soring as:
“(A) an irritating or blistering agent has been applied, internally or externally, by a person to any limb of a horse,
“(B) any burn, cut, or laceration has been inflicted by a person on any limb of a horse,
“(C) any tack, nail, screw, or chemical agent has been injected by a person into or used by a person on any limb of a horse, or
“(D) any other substance or device has been used by a person on any limb of a horse or a person has engaged in a practice involving a horse,
“and, as a result of such application, infliction, injection, use, or practice, such horse suffers, or can reasonably be expected to suffer, physical pain or distress, inflammation, or lameness when walking, trotting, or otherwise moving, except that such term does not include such an application, infliction, injection, use, or practice in connection with the therapeutic treatment of a horse by or under the supervision of a person licensed to practice veterinary medicine in the State in which such treatment was given.”
Despite enjoying the support of 280 co-sponsors, Yoho’s legislation has been languishing in the House Subcommittee on Health for more than a year.
More recently, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., introduced an amendment that failed to be attached to the ill-fated farm bill. The legislation effectively was the final rule enacted by the United States Department of Agriculture on Jan. 13, 2017. The rule was withdrawn for agency review weeks later by the incoming Trump administration. The rule largely mirrors Yoho’s version of the PAST Act.
A week after the amendment — and subsequently the farm bill — failed, Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced Senate Bill 2957 — the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act of 2018.
Both versions of the PAST Act intend to amend the HPA by establishing a new system for inspecting horses for soring, stiffen penalties and change enforcement procedures.
From a farriery perspective, the bill bans the use of action devices, “weighted toe, pad, wedge, hoof band, or other device or material at a horse show, horse exhibition, or horse sale or auction that is placed on, inserted in, or attached to any limb of a Tennessee Walking Horse, a Racking Horse, or a Spotted Saddle Horse … to artificially alter the gait of such a horse; and is not strictly protective or therapeutic in nature.”
Both bills define action device as “any boot, collar, chain, roller, or other devices that encircles or is placed upon the lower extremity of the leg of a horse in such a manner that it can rotate around the leg or slide up and down the leg, so as to cause friction; or strike the hoof, coronet band, fetlock joint, or pastern of the horse.” It does not consider soft rubber or soft leather bell boots, or quarter boots that are used to protect the foot as an action device.
This is significant. The USDA did not provide a clear definition of action device when it initially proposed the rule. It simply called for the prohibition of all action devices, pads and substances applied to a horse’s limbs. The language was written so broadly that many, including the American Farrier’s Association (AFA), felt the need to address it during the USDA’s public comment period.
“AFA leadership feels strongly that without specific qualifying language for the prohibited devices, this proposed revision would be much too broad and vague,” according to the statement. “For example, a horseshoe could be considered an action device, since a shod horse moves differently from a horse that is barefoot and various shoes have a greater influence on movement than others. A pad can be applied with good reason to protect an unusually sensitive solar surface with the end result being a more comfortable horse, rather than one previously in distress.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) support the PAST Act’s bid to ban action devices and “performance packages.”
“Performance packages (also called stacks or pads) made of plastic, leather, wood, rubber and combinations of these materials, are attached below the sole of the horse’s natural hoof and have a metal band that runs around the hoof wall to maintain them in place,” according to the joint AVMA and AAEP policy. “Performance packages add weight to the horse’s foot, causing it to strike with more force and at an abnormal angle to the ground. They also facilitate the concealment of items that apply pressure to the sole of the horse’s hoof. Pressure from these hidden items produces pain in the hoof so that the horse lifts its feet faster and higher in an exaggerated gait.”
Does the shoeing package by itself harm the horse? There has been little research conducted during the past 40 years on the specific effects of the performance shoeing packages.
Researchers from the University of Tennessee studied 20 Tennessee Walking Horses to determine the effects of stacked wedge pads and chains, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Veterinary Research in January 2018. The study found that the shoeing application “evoked no acute or subacute stress or nociceptive response.”
The rub? The study was conducted over a 5-day period.
“Although these findings should not be extrapolated to the long-term use of such devices in Tennessee Walking Horses performing the running walk,” the researchers wrote, “the data should be considered when making evidence-based decisions relating to animal welfare and the use of stacked wedge pads and chains.”
A study published by the American Journal of Veterinary Research in August 1980 and conducted by Dr. Ram C. Purohit of Auburn University, found a 1- to 2-degree rise in temperature in the superficial and deep flexor tendon area, as well as inflammation. After raising the heels 8 degrees, the horses stumbled and tired easily.
“They did not regain a sound gait for about 7 days,” Purohit wrote. “Raising or lowering the heels of Tennessee Walking Horses and shoeing one with wedges and pads from barefoot status causes thermal patterns in the flexor tendon area that can be distinguished on thermography.”
Inflammation subsided about a week after the heels had been raised or lowered 8 and 12 degrees respectively.
Regardless, the AAEP wants more research to “determine the effect of shoeing alone and shoeing plus chains of variable weights in the development of pastern irritation and scarring on both young and mature TWHs.”
The companion bills have the influential support of hundreds of groups including the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners and the American Horse Council.
“This bipartisan bill,” Warner says, “will finally put an end to this cruel and abusive practice.”
It’s a bold statement and an admirable goal to be sure, but the likelihood of eradicating soring is low.
If history is any indication, both bills will die in committee. Congress has introduced 12 bills targeting soring since 2012. None made it out of committee.
That’s not to say lawmakers shouldn’t continue trying. As economist Kenneth Boulding once said, “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”
Yet, the larger reason the legislation will likely fail is because of Congress itself. The almighty dollar speaks loudly and removes the big stick from the HPA. As much as money entices some Tennessee Walking Horse trainers to sore horses, lawmakers are reticent to put taxpayers’ money where their mouth is as it relates to putting teeth into the HPA and ensuring that inspections are fully funded.
Six years after the HPA was on the books, Congress effectively defunded inspections, opening the door for some who might not have the horses’ best interest at heart. Both versions of the PAST Act aim to rectify this by eliminating self-policing.
Both bills increase the penalties from a misdemeanor to a felony, which elevates incarceration time to a maximum of 3 years. They also increase fines from $3,000 to $5,000 for each violation. As some in the horse industry have pointed out, $5,000 isn’t exactly a powerful deterrent. Federal law allows for a maximum of $250,000 for felonies. There’s plenty of wiggle room to be found between those extremes, should lawmakers choose to do so.
Of course, there’s no indication that Congress as a whole is taking the issue seriously. No doubt, there are some who do. Yet, until Congress truly prioritizes the eradication of soring, the horse industry will continue to see recycled, toothless bills that continue to miss their mark.