The public comment period for the proposed amendments to the Horse Protection Act has come and gone. All parties within the horse industry have had a chance to let their voices be heard.
Now, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has the unenviable task of sorting through thousands upon thousands of comments and determine which recommendations have merit. Transcripts from the five public meetings, as well as submitted comments are available online. While the vast majority rightfully applauds the intent to end soring, there is a great deal of thoughtful insight and recommendations for change that APHIS seriously should consider.
Much of the dissention focuses on two important areas — the broad language contained within the plan, as well as the proposed ban on “the use of all action devices, pads, and foreign substances at horse shows, exhibitions, sales, and auctions.” APHIS contends “this would align the HPA regulations with existing equestrian standards set forth by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF).”
Yet, according to its comments at the Sept. 6 public meeting in Riverdale, Md., USEF doesn’t seem to agree.
“We believe that unless the proposed language is amended, the enforceability of the regulation is vulnerable to a court finding that the proposed rule is arbitrary and capricious,” said Stephen Schumacher, a veterinarian and the chief administrator of USEF’s Drugs and Medications Program.
USEF and others in the equine industry — including the American Farrier’s Association and the American and International Associations of Professional Farriers — particularly are concerned with the statement “Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses, or related breeds that perform with an accentuated gait that raises concerns about soring at any horse show, horse exhibition, horse sale, or horse auction.”
“This term is ambiguous at best and risks severe unintended consequences in interpretation,” Schumacher said. “The rules in the proposed regulation simply don’t make sense for many breeds and disciplines where soring doesn’t exist. Our solution is simple. We propose that the breeds competing in USEF licensed/endorsed competitions be exempt from this regulation and the responsibility for preventing soring be delegated to the USEF as is the current practice.”
The ambiguity drew a strong response from the American Horse Council, which called the provision “poorly constructed.”
“There are several horse breeds besides Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses, and Spotted Saddle Horses that could be said to have an ‘accentuated gait,’ such as Saddlebreds, Morgans, Hackneys, and others,” according to the letter attributed to Julie Broadway, president of the AHC. “These breeds have never been cited for violations of the HPA and do not perform the ‘big lick’ that is the primary motivation for soring. … [B]ecause the term ‘raises concerns about soring,’ is subjective and undefined, it is unclear whether or not these new provisions of the rule might be extended to such breeds now or in the future.”
Some within the horse industry, including farriers, don’t believe that these concerns have merit. The government wouldn’t go to these extremes, they say. However, it cannot be assumed that those outside the industry correctly understand the terminology.
In an email exchange with American Farriers Journal, APHIS consistently demonstrated a lack of comprehension regarding equine industry terminology. When an official was asked whether pads would be banned in Saddlebred-related events. The answer?
“The Horse Protection Act only applies to those horses that perform with an accentuated gait,” wrote Tanya Espinosa, an APHIS public affairs specialist.
When it was pointed out that pads have a legitimate therapeutic use, APHIS was asked what considerations were made for breeds and disciplines that aren’t traditionally associated with soring, a familiar answer was given.
“The Horse Protection Act only applies to those horses that perform with an accentuated gait,” Espinosa wrote.
APHIS describes pads as weights and a means of concealing objects used to produce force and pain. Is it APHIS’ understanding that this is the only role that pads play?
“When the HPA regulations were created in 1970, APHIS decided to allow [the] industry to retain the use of certain equipment and training devices, noting at the time that if the horse industry failed to establish a regulatory program to eliminate soring, APHIS would consider prohibiting all action devices and pads at a later time,” Espinosa wrote. “Nearly 40 years later, the horse industry has not eliminated soring, [and the] industry acknowledges that soring remains a problem. APHIS’ direct observations indicate that the use of action devices and pads frequently coincides with instances of soring and that their use can cause a horse to be sored. APHIS is proposing to make these illegal since pads may contain illegal objects designed to place pressure on the bottom of the horse’s foot. This is done to force the horse to lift their foot higher, as it is painful to step on. The majority of HPA noncompliance that APHIS detects involves horses that wear action devices and pads.”
It's a curious response that conjures the proverbial image of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
To rectify the ambiguity and avoid unintended consequences — such as prohibiting the use of therapeutic pads for horses that suffer from bruising — the AHC, AAPF and the American Saddlebred Horse Association urge APHIS to limit all HPA changes to Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and Spotted Saddle Horses.
“Soring is a problem that is well defined and limited to a very specific segment of the horse industry; however, as written, the proposed rule is unclear regarding exactly which breeds or disciplines the USDA plans to extend the proposed ban on actions, practices, devices, and substances,” Broadway wrote. “This is unacceptable to the horse industry and must be clarified.”
In a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, 181 members of Congress expressed the same position.
“Naming these three breeds,” according to the letter, “is vital to ensure the wider horse industry is not adversely impacted by the new regulations or new regulatory burdens are not inadvertently placed on breeds and disciplines that have no history of soring.”
Time is of the essence. The nation elects its next president Tuesday. The transition of power takes place at noon Jan. 20, 2017. While APHIS has not set a timetable for a decision, there’s a possibility that the work and expense invested into this effort could be pushed aside by the next administration. With the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (HR 3268/S. 1121) stalling for the second consecutive session on Capitol Hill, it’s an outcome that these members of Congress do not want to see again.
“[We] urge the USDA,” the bipartisan letter states, “to act expeditiously to finalize it before the end of this administration.”
And now we wait.