Tennessee Walking Horse

After more than a half-century of ill-fated attempts at eliminating horse soring, is the federal government finally closing in on a solution? An answer could be on the horizon.

Anti-soring legislation is gaining momentum after the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce unanimously approved the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act without changes during a markup session Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Washington. A markup session is intended for subcommittee members to debate, amend and rewrite proposed legislation. The bill moves to the House Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration.

While the PAST Act of 2021 (H.R. 5441) likely will follow its 2019 processor (H.R. 693) to approval in a full House vote, its companion legislation (S. 2295) languishes in the Senate. Despite the espousals of support for the mounts most susceptible to soring — Tennessee Walkers, racking horses and Spotted Saddle Horses — progress has proven elusive for our elected leaders on Capitol Hill.

Since enaction of the Horse Protection Act (HPA) in 1970, Congress has introduced 21 pieces of legislation intending to eliminate soring. All have failed to make the trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. However, the long-awaited change could arrive from a collection of anonymous bureaucrats in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

APHIS is drafting a proposal to amend the HPA that will include 2021 research by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that’s contained in A Review of Methods for Detecting Soreness in Horses. The NAS says the information in the report helps determine whether horses have been subjected to soring practices. The report was sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders Foundation, USDA and APHIS.

APHIS defines soring as “the application of any chemical (e.g. mustard oil or diesel fuel), mechanical agent (e.g. overweight chains), or practice (e.g. trimming a hoof to expose the sensitive tissue) inflicted upon any limb of a horse, that can cause or be expected to cause the horse to suffer physical pain or distress when moving.” The practice produces a high-stepping gait that’s favored in the Tennessee Walker show horse world.

An Elusive Goal

President Richard Nixon signed the HPA into law Dec. 9, 1970, charging APHIS with the task of ensuring that sored horses were not allowed to be transported or participate in shows, exhibitions, sales, or auctions. Perhaps more importantly, APHIS was responsible for inspecting the horses.

Success in eliminating soring was as elusive then as it is now. Funding and staffing levels were in short supply, prompting Congress to amend the HPA in 1976 with the Designated Qualified Person (DQP) Program. Horse Industry Organizations (HIO), under the supervision of the USDA, trained and licensed DQPs to assume the inspection duties. The USDA’s Inspector General found in 2010 that soring persists despite the inspections.

“APHIS has not achieved the HPA’s objective of ending soring because of two principle weaknesses in the existing regulatory structure: APHIS does not have direct control over the inspection process; and the use of certain equipment and training devices is allowed under existing regulations,” according to APHIS. “Consistent with the Office of Inspector General’s findings, APHIS has determined that using HIOs to train and license DQPs has not been effective in achieving Congress’ goal of eliminating soring.”

APHIS launched a bid of its own to amend the HPA in 2016. As it specifically pertains to farriery, the proposed rule prohibited the use of all action devices — except certain boots — and all associated lubricants; as well as all pads and wedges, unless prescribed and the horse is receiving therapeutic, veterinary treatment, on all Tennessee Walking Horses and Racking Horses. It also mandated that a farrier would be physically present to assist horse protection inspectors at horse shows, exhibitions, sales and auctions “that allow Tennessee Walking Horses or Racking Horses to participate in therapeutic pads and wedges if more than 150 horses are entered.” If 150 or fewer horses are entered, a farrier will be on call.

The rule also outlawed several farriery devices, equipment, appliances and practices on “any horse at any horse show, exhibition, sale, or auction.” Specifically, the rule prohibited:

  • More than one action device on any one limb of a horse.
  • Pads or other devices on horses up to 2 years old that elevate or change the angle of the hooves more than 1 inch at the heel.
  • Artificial extension of the toe length, whether accomplished with pads, acrylics or any other material or combination thereof, that exceeds 50% of the natural hoof length.
  • Toe length that does not exceed the height of the heel by 1 inch or more.
  • Pads that are not made of leather, plastic, or similar pliant material.
  • Any object of material inserted between the pad and the hoof other than acceptable hoof packing, which includes pine tar, oakum, live rubber, sponge rubber, silicone commercial hoof packing or other substances used to maintain adequate frog pressure or sole consistency. Acrylic and other hardening substances are prohibited as hoof packing.
  • Single or double rocker bars on the ground surface of horseshoes that extend more than 1 ½ inches back from the point of the toe.
  • Metal hoof bands placed less than ½ inch below the coronet band.
  • Any action device or any other device that strikes the coronet band.
  • Shoeing a horse, trimming a horse’s hoof, or paring the frog or sole in a manner that will cause suffering, pain, distress, inflammation or lameness during movement.
  • Lead or other weights attached to the outside of the hoof wall, the outside surface of the horseshoe, or any portion of the pad, except the bottom surface within the horseshoe.

The rule was set to amend the HPA in the waning days of the Obama administration; however, officials failed to publish it in the Federal Register before the end of the president’s term. The Trump administration withdrew all unpublished rules and sent them back to the relevant agencies for review. The final rule was not resurrected.

Another Chance

To pave the way for its upcoming proposal, APHIS withdrew its 2016 rule that ultimately died on the vine.

“The report examined the inspection methods that Designated Qualified Persons use for identifying soreness in walking horses, new and emerging approaches for detecting pain, and use of the scar rule in determining compliance with the Horse Protection Act and made a number of science-based recommendations regarding revision to APHIS’ Horse Protection Act program and associated regulations,” according to Mark Davidson, APHIS’ acting administrator. “We have reviewed the July 26, 2016, proposed rule in light of the NAS report, and determined that the rule does not sufficiently address the report’s findings.”

Although the latest proposed rule hasn’t been completed, the report offers a peek behind the proverbial curtain. The NAS report focuses exclusively on the detection of soreness. It makes no recommendations related to farriery.

“Differences in training and experience account for the discrepancies between inspections done by APHIS veterinarians and designated qualified persons, who are mostly non-veterinarians licensed by the horse industry organizations that host shows,” according to the NAS. “The report recommends inspections only be administered by veterinarians. If budget constraints necessitate the use of third-party inspectors, they should be trained by APHIS, evaluated, and screened for conflicts of interest. The report also recommends specific information and methods that inspectors should learn in their training.”

The committee that compiled the report further recommends the use of thermography to detect inflammation, as well as blood testing for pain medications and swabs for prohibited substances, such as pain relievers.

“The physical exam is critical in detecting soring, and protocols for the exam should draw on current knowledge of how horses experience and present pain,” according to NAS. “Inspections should no longer require that the horse be repeatedly sore in a specific area to be disqualified, due to the physiological changes that occur after repeated stimulation of a painful area. Conducting the inspection in an area with as few distractions as possible will reduce the impact of environmental effects — such as noise, lights, or other animals and people — on the horse’s behavior and make pain response clearer.”

It also calls for a review of the scar rule and proposes that only experienced veterinarians, such as a veterinary medical officer, disqualify horses.

“This decision should be made based on diagnosis of local pain where a horse is touched, but it should also include a thorough assessment of the horse’s gait, and other signs such as excessive restlessness, weight shifting, or pointing a front limb,” according to NAS. “The report also recommends that the ‘scar rule’ — language included in the Horse Protection Regulations that requires horses to show no evidence of soring scars during inspections — should be revised and be based on what can be accurately assessed by a gross examination during an inspection and proposes new language.”

A Mountain of Questions

While a proposed rule with a foundation of improved inspections and soring detection is a good start, a mountain of questions remains.

Will farriers have a role during the inspection process? If so, what qualifications and training must they possess?

Will APHIS put forth its 2016 shoeing rules? If not, what will it propose? Will farriers have a role in drafting these rules?

Although it’s vitally important that soring is eliminated, it’s equally important to ask what unintended consequences can result from a proposed rule? There are countless examples of elected representatives drafting well-meaning legislation, only to cause unintended harm to others. Just one example is Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School forcing California to change its postsecondary education law after it violated the school’s constitutional freedoms.

And, considering the monumental role budgetary shortfalls have contributed to undermining the HPA, how will the federal government pay for the proposed rule? Will it fall to the Walking Horse industry? If so, can it sustain the costs? If it can’t, what responsibility does it have to the more than 20,000 Americans who rely upon jobs that directly and indirectly support the Walking Horse industry? It’s not an insignificant question considering that it contributes $3.2 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

These are but a few questions that rest on the top of a substantial mountain. They must be considered carefully because while APHIS has a solemn responsibility to protect the horse, it must also protect the American people as it tries to finally solve the elusive goal of eliminating soring.