By KEITH DANE
The Humane Society
of the United States
A divide exists over the fate of Tennessee walking horses, with America's horse industry, veterinary organizations, animal welfare community and a majority of Congress on one side, and a small faction of horse abusers and their loyal legislators on the other.
At issue is the practice of "soring" - the intentional infliction of pain to the legs of horses in the Tennessee walking horse, racking horse and spotted saddle horse breeds, perpetrated to force these horses to perform the high-stepping "Big Lick" gait that wins ribbons in show rings. It is accomplished through the use of chains and caustic chemicals that burn the horses' legs, heavy or tall "stacked" horseshoes, and other gruesome, damaging techniques.
Congress passed the federal Horse Protection Act in 1970 to stop soring, but the practice has nonetheless continued behind a curtain of public acceptance by some in Kentucky and a failed pledge to self-police. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that it would consider banning stacks and chains unless the industry put a stop to soring within "a reasonable length of time" through self-regulation. Close to four decades later, the industry's enforcement record has been abysmal. The abusive "Big Lick" faction has no intention to clean itself up, and never has. Instead, these trainers have expended every effort to camouflage soring while manipulating statistics to deceive regulators, Congress and the public.
It's deeply disturbing, then, that a few federal legislators, including Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, are advocating legislation that would actually weaken protections for horses under the federal Horse Protection Act. They signed on to bills at the very moment that legislation promising real reform has gained tremendous momentum. Their bills are designed not to fix the problem, but to confuse and to produce a stalemate in Congress.
Their bill would codify and make even worse the conflict-ridden industry scheme of self-policing, allowing the abuse to continue unfettered.
In contrast, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, HR 1518/S. 1406, introduced by Congressman Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., would end horse soring for good. The bill eliminates industry self-policing, prohibits the use of devices implicated in soring on horses in the Tennessee walking, racking and spotted saddle horse breeds, and increases penalties to finally provide an effective deterrent.
The PAST Act is endorsed by the American Horse Council, the American Veterinary Medical Association, all 50 states' veterinary medical associations (including the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association), the American Association of Equine Practitioners, more than 50 leading horse organizations and many others. It now has 320 cosponsors in Congress - a majority of both the House and Senate - and has been approved in a Senate committee. The Alexander and Blackburn bills only have a total of 15 cosponsors between them.
There are plenty of voices within the Tennessee walking horse industry calling for passage of the PAST Act, including Bill Harlin, described as "synonymous with Tennessee walking horses," and the owner of Harlinsdale Farm that some of the most famous grand champions in the breed called home. "Self-regulation," he said in recent public comments, "will never work."
Ending the abuse will save the Tennessee walking horse breed, not destroy it. Allowing rampant soring to continue means a continual black eye that affects the whole industry, diminishing attendance at shows, causing corporate sponsors to pull out, and putting those who obey the law and treat their animals humanely at a competitive disadvantage.
The PAST Act is the path to a sound future for these horses. It's an overdue solution to decades of cruelty and cheating in the "Big Lick" sector of the industry. As representatives in one of two states with the highest number of violations of the Horse Protection Act, Kentucky's federal lawmakers should support true reform through the PAST Act and reject the thinly disguised attempt by some individuals within the industry of turning the clock back on protections for horses.
Keith Dane is vice president of equine protection at The Humane Society of the United States, an owner of Tennessee walking horses and a horse show judge.