I attended Catholic grade school when corporal punishment inflicted by nuns was still permitted. Throughout my time in kindergarten to grade 8, there was one particular nun whose apparent fondness for punishment made her stand out from the rest. She had tactics that would make an Abu Gharib prison guard blush.

Most third grade boys have a mischievous streak, but we had one classmate who could push her to the limits. He and the sister were as natural enemies as a dog and cat. As the school year mounted, she would inflict more and more punishment on him. The more she did — the more he seemed to rebel.

If was after Christmas break that the sister tried a different approach to punishment. Anytime this boy would caused trouble, the dozen or so classmate boys would receive the same punishment. If he was caught even with minor infractions like chewing gum, his punishment became ours. 

It didn’t work. The hellion would still do what hellions do. The only thing she accomplished was making the other boys in the class resent her and take us away from things that matter to boys. 

She passed away years ago, but her spirit of universal, unreasonable punishment is alive and well at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). After years of failing to end soring within the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, the government agency is proposing changes to the Horse Protection Act that target the cruel practice, but could negatively affect other breeds and disciplines.

This is a massive document, and I don't recommend reading through it if you are driving or operating heavy machinery. Do take the time and read through it, as it could pose significant changes to your practice. Although there are measures directed at Walking Horses and “related breeds,” the ambiguity of language is very concerning.

On the page,scroll down to the list of changes — there are many of them. Among one section is various language that indicates a banning of pads, bands, toe extensions, and action devices, among others. Do word searches on the affected terms and see the identify all of the mentions. These results could greatly affect a whole other universe outside of Walking Horses. So even though these tools have perfectly humane and important uses with other show horses, the USDA thinks by preventing their use, soring will end. I doubt that, criminals usually find ways to stay ahead of authorities, especially when the authorities are incompetent for the task at hand. Furthermore, the use of padded packages and other banned devices doesn't guarantee someone is trying to sore a horse.

Here’s another snippet to digest from the proposal:

Shoeing a horse, or trimming a horse's hoof in a manner that will cause such horse to suffer, or can reasonably be expected to cause such horse to suffer pain or distress, inflammation, or lameness when walking, trotting, or otherwise moving is prohibited, as is paring out of the frog. Bruising of the hoof or any other method of pressure shoeing is prohibited.

I certainly understand the intention, but do you want government agents — many of whom know nothing about the horse's foot — determining what is intentional harm? I question whether investigators are qualified enough to investigate this and any other part of the HPA with a fair and knowledgeable approach to hoof care. Let me remind you of the case of Blake Primm. This Tennessee shoer was a firsthand witness to the “expertise” of USDA investigators in a soring investigation, and to how the agents exercise that absence of expertise. You should read this story, but here are a few quick points from Primm’s case to consider:

  • The USDA investigation farrier was incapable of pulling a shoe.

  • Government agents did not know what impression material is, or know it could be used for legitimate footcare applications.

  • The government had Primm pull the shoes and then instructed him to put them back on after they found no evidence of soring.

Nonetheless, after first asking Primm to testify as a witness, the government did an about-face and arrested Primm, charging him with animal cruelty. Ultimately this case was bungled by the USDA, and a judge threw it out. Although exonerated, Primm still incurred legal bills equaling $12,500. To sue the government for this, Primm reports his attorney estimate the cost at $20,000, with no guarantee of victory, so the farrier decided not to pursue the case. What would you do? How would you like prospective clients to come across your name along with “animal cruelty” in a Google search, even if you were not convicted? Would that help your practice?

Now imagine what could happen if the USDA can exercise this authority beyond Walking Horses and soring?

Granted, there are HPA revisions that do call for more funding for investigations and training for investigators. There are no detailed breakdowns of how those tax dollars would be used for said training, but I hope it means the government can get someone with the "expertise" to at least be able to pull shoes.

Public hearings have been held in Tennessee, Kentucky, California and Maryland. The USDA is soliciting responses from the public here before Sept. 26. We’ll see what direction this proposed legislation goes and what will happen in future hearings.

Does the Walking Horse industry hold blame in its failure to police itself with soring? Absolutely. Yes, soring is a disgusting act and the industry had plenty of time to stop it. But that isn’t the point and is a different discussion. The point is that because it can't stop soring among small amount of practitioners within the Walking Horse industry, the USDA could negatively affect much of the equine industry.The USDA can’t stop the offender, so it is going to punish the rest of us.

I sometimes wonder if she were alive today, if the punishing nun would have abandoned her  ways and adapted the modern teaching style of talking about feelings and empathy for the violator. I think her love of misguided and damaging punishment was so strong, she would have renounced her vows and left the convent. And if she could have worked for the USDA. They both like to punish all after failing to punish one.

American Farriers Journal will have more coverage and look at the implication of these changes on show horse farriers in our November issue and on our website.