Muddy waters are great for landing catfish, but they leave something to be desired when trying to navigate the bureaucracy of the federal government.

The farrier industry received a harsh reminder of this axiom while wading through the substantial changes that were recently proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service as a means to end soring.

To be sure, soring is nothing short of evil. Those who participate in this vile practice should face severe penalties. While the intentions of the proposed amendments to the Horse Protection Act no doubt are well intended, they are penned so broadly and ambiguously that it begs for clarification. Unfortunately, when American Farriers Journal requested further insight, APHIS offered little more than regurgitated lines from the proposal.

By now, many farriers are aware that all action devices, pads, wedges and foreign substances will be banned if the amendments as stated are enacted. However, the original announcement was vague, prompting some to question whether it would be an industry-wide ban. When asked to clarify, APHIS copied and pasted the language in an email. All bold face, italics and underscores are from APHIS.

“As stated in the proposed new section 11.2(a) Prohibited actions, practices, devices, and substances. (a) Specific prohibitions. No device, method, practice, or substance shall be used with respect to any horse at any horse show, horse exhibition, or horse sale or auction if such use causes or can reasonably be expected to cause such horse to be sore. The use of the following devices, equipment, or practices is specifically prohibited with respect to any Tennessee Walking Horse, Racking Horse, or related breed that performs with an accentuated gait that raises concerns about soring at any horse show, horse exhibition, horse sale, or horse auction ....”

The explanation seems straight forward enough, but there’s ambiguity as it relates to breeds. Specifically, “or related breed that performs with an accentuated gait that raises concerns about soring ….”

Why is this ambiguous? Consider the definition of soring contained within the document, as well as the ensuing paragraph.

“The Act states that the term ‘sore’ when used to describe a horse means that:

  • An irritating or blistering agent has been applied, internally or externally, by a person to any limb of a horse;
  • Any burn, cut, or laceration has been inflicted by a person on any limb of a horse;
  • 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
  • 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.

Soring has been primarily used in the training of Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses, and related breeds to produce an exaggerated gait for competition. However, the Act is intended to enforce prohibitions against soring in all horse breeds.

Is it possible that the bolded portion could be applied in a broad sense to such specific staples of the farrier industry as trimming the foot with a hoof knife and rasp, shoeing, as well as hot shoeing? Is it also possible to interpret the italicized passage to a discipline such as dressage in the event that an activist individual or organization chooses to lodge a soring complaint?

The ambiguity doesn’t stop there. American Farrier’s Association President Jon Johnson correctly pointed out others during an Aug. 10 public hearing in Lexington, Ky.

“A horseshoe could be considered an action device,” the Kansas farrier says. “A shod horse moves differently from a horse that is barefoot, and various shoes have a greater influence on the movement than others. And a pad can be applied with good reason to protect an unusually sensitive, sore surface, with the end result being more comfortable for the horse, rather than one previously in distress.”

There’s an adage within the farrier industry that if you haven’t driven a hot nail, you haven’t been shoeing long enough. It’s simple enough; mistakes happen. Yet, there are owners who aren’t shy about firing farriers for such honest mistakes.

As you well know, that doesn’t even approach the worst of it. Bob Smith cautions his Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School students each session about the behavior of a former client.

“A client told me that if any blood was on the floor, it better be mine,” the Hall Of Fame farrier recalls. “When a client has so little regard for your welfare, it’s time to walk away. It’s not worth it.”

How do you think this type of owner will react when he or she reads 11.2(7) of APHIS’ 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.”

It’s not out of the realm of possibility to envision a farrier having a long talk with an officer when a horse goes lame after a routine shoeing. It certainly concerns Hall Of Fame farrier Michael DeLeonardo, the AFA’s vice president.

“A lot of dressage horses at the Olympics have concave steel [shoes] on their feet,” the California farrier told a public hearing Aug. 16 in Sacramento. “Now, concave steel improperly put on a horse can sore a horse.”

While the proposed language is ambiguous, one thing is perfectly clear — despite the heavy restrictions proposed on trimming and shoeing practices, APHIS sees no value in farriers participating in the inspection process.

“APHIS would assume responsibility for training, screening and licensing inspectors, relieving horse industry organizations of recordkeeping, reporting burdens, training, and administrative requirements associated with industry-trained inspectors,” according to the APHIS Factsheet. “This new cadre of inspectors would be veterinarians and veterinary technicians, required to follow APHIS rules and standards of conduct, and would be available to provide inspection services at industry shows and sales.”

DeLeonardo implored USDA officials to consider specific changes to this proposal.

“We also see that in this document, it says the inspectors will be a veterinarian or a veterinarian technician,” says the AFA’s vice president. “It doesn’t say equine veterinarian. It doesn’t say equine veterinarian technician. We also believe that it should be an equine [veterinarian and equine veterinarian technician].”

Both DeLeonardo and Johnson were adamant that farriers should be included on the inspection teams.

“It would be deeply concerning not to have APHIS licensed farriers accompany a veterinarian to equine events where monitoring is indicated,” Johnson says. “Seeking the primary expert hoof-care opinion from a veterinarian or veterinarian technician who does not make hoof care their primary focus of practice is akin to asking a general practitioner in human medicine to evaluate a complex surgical procedure. It would be unthinkable.”

APHIS downplayed farriers’ expertise when American Farriers Journal asked why farriers were not considered part of the inspection team despite their superior knowledge of proper shoeing applications and their purposes.

“Shoeing is just one piece of the inspection process,” APHIS Public Affairs Specialist Tanya Espinosa responded to American Farriers Journal in an email. “As we state in the rule, we made the change to ensure that inspectors have the professional education, working knowledge, technical and practical experience, training, and ethical responsibility necessary to inspect horses properly under the Act and regulations.”

Yet, we’re all too familiar with the expertise that the USDA demonstrated in their investigation of Tennessee farrier Blake Primm. Given that performance, as well as the proposed trimming and shoeing changes before us, it’s apparent that their understanding of how to protect the horse without hindering the abilities of farriers to help our four-legged friends is as clear as mud.

The USDA is soliciting public response to the proposed HPA amendments until Sept. 26. There also will be a call-in virtual public meeting at 5 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at which interested parties may voice their support or concerns.