WASHINGTON, (HSUS) – The 74th annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration began this week in Shelbyville, Tenn., and the jury is still out on whether the industry will make good on its promises to improve treatment of show horses in the wake of shocking undercover investigations revealing cruelty by one of the biggest names in the world of training and show. The act of “soring” horses—applying chemicals and other painful substances to their hooves and legs to force an artificially high-stepping gait—has been illegal under the federal Horse Protection Act since 1970, but it’s so rampant in the industry that the vast majority of horses tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for prohibited foreign substances at previous horse shows had been treated with numbing or masking agents.
When federal laws are broken, whether it’s horse soring, animal fighting, or other criminal abuses, we need agency inspectors and law enforcement officials to do everything they can to root out the perpetrators and prevent further violations. Surprisingly, some members of Congress aligned with the walking horse industry appear to be leaning on USDA and discouraging inspectors from doing everything they can to stop soring. As Roy Exum reported in The Chattanoogan, U.S. Rep. Scott DeJarlais, R-Tenn., wrote a letter stating he is “concerned” about USDA’s enforcement actions, and believes “they are unacceptable and create great uncertainty for the industry.” (As Exum noted, DesJarlais also opposed strengthening the federal law against dogfighting and cockfighting.)
Thankfully, other members of Congress from the region are strongly supporting USDA’s work to enforce the law and prevent illegal cruelty to horses. U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., sent a letter this week to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, to express their “support for USDA’s efforts to detect, eliminate, and punish the cruel soring of Tennessee Walking Horses.” The lawmakers thanked USDA “for finalizing a rule requiring Horse Industry Organizations to issue mandatory minimum penalties for violations of the Horse Protection Act” and applauded the agency “for taking this step to strengthen enforcement of the HPA and end this inhumane practice.”
Reps. Whitfield and Cohen further noted, “With this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration commencing this week, we urge USDA to establish and maintain a strong enforcement presence at that show. We recognize the tension underlying this year’s Celebration, given resistance to the new rule and recent criminal prosecutions under the HPA. We commend USDA and its inspectors for executing their inspection duties with diligence and integrity.”
The letter from the lawmakers included a press release issued by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners also calling for strong enforcement at the Celebration. These key veterinary groups cited the widespread violations of the Horse Protection Act, noting that “SHOW, a horse industry organization (HIO) that will be inspecting horses during this year’s Celebration, is one of three HIOs for which the USDA is pursuing decertification, citing failure to comply with USDA mandatory penalties. Despite SHOW’s claim of a 98.5 percent compliance rate with the HPA at events they inspect, USDA swab tests on 52 horses at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration resulted in 52 positive findings for foreign substances.” They urged veterinarians to take steps to report violations and said there “must be zero tolerance for this abuse.”
We are grateful to USDA for its work to enforce the Horse Protection Act and end criminal soring abuses, and to Reps. Whitfield and Cohen and the veterinary community for standing on the side of law enforcement and horse protection.