The Humane Society of the United States Applauds Introduction of Federal Bill to End Rampant Abuse in Tennessee Walking Horse Competitions

Amendments to Horse Protection Act Would Eliminate Corrupt Industry Self-Policing Practices and Make Other Key Reforms

WASHINGTON (Sept. 13, 2012)—The Humane Society of the United States commends Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., with original co-sponsors Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Jim Moran, D-Va., for introducing H.R. 6388, the Horse Protection Act Amendments of 2012. This bill will significantly strengthen the Horse Protection Act, originally passed in 1970 to stop the cruel practice of “soring” – the deliberate infliction of pain to Tennessee walking horses’ hooves and legs in order to produce a high-stepping gait and gain unfair competitive advantage at horse shows.

H.R. 6388 would end the failed system of industry self-policing, ban the use of certain devices associated with soring, strengthen penalties, and hold accountable all those involved in this cruel practice. Although the Horse Protection Act was signed into law more than 40 years ago, the systematic abuse of Tennessee walking horses continues unabated. Trainers have devised a gruesome array of techniques to make it painful for these majestic horses to step down, so they will lift their front legs extremely high in the prize-winning, unnatural gait known as “the Big Lick.” H.R. 6388 is a necessary step to strengthen the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s enforcement capabilities and end this torture for good.

“Until Congress strengthens the Horse Protection Act, we expect that unethical trainers and owners will continue their illegal ways and sore horses, in order to win blue ribbons and profits,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, who attended this year’s Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration. “This legislation will make the Horse Protection Act work better, and it will fortify the existing law and outlaw training methods and devices or implements used to injure horses in these shows.”

“Far too often, those involved in showing the Tennessee Walking Horse have turned a blind eye to abusive trainers, or when they do take action, the penalties are so minor, it does nothing to prevent these barbaric acts,” Rep. Whitfield said. “This amendment does not cost the federal government any additional money and is essential in helping to put an end to the practice of soring Tennessee Walking Horses by abusive trainers.”

“In Tennessee, soring horses is illegal and unacceptable,” said Rep. Cohen. “Those responsible for abusing these horses should be punished severely and banned from the sport. How we treat animals is a direct reflection of our character, both as individuals and a nation. There is no ribbon, no prize nor championship worth the price of one’s humanity.”

In 2010, the U.S.D.A. Office of Inspector General conducted an audit of the Horse Protection Act enforcement program and found that trainers in the industry often engage in soring and then go to great lengths to evade detection rather than comply with federal law and train horses using humane methods. The Inspector General’s audit also called attention to serious conflicts of interest in the system that allows inspectors to be chosen by horse industry organizations. H.R. 6388 draws upon the Inspector General’s recommendations.

Most significantly, the bill aims to abolish the corrupt self-policing practices currently allowed. It requires U.S.D.A., instead of the industry organizations, to assign licensed inspectors when they are requested by show management. This reform should yield improved consistency and rigor in the inspections and penalties. Despite  claims of a 98 percent compliance rate at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, U.S.D.A.’s own inspectors found that 100 percent of horses randomly chosen there tested positive for prohibited foreign substances applied to their pasterns.

The HSUS’ undercover investigation of well-known trainer Jackie McConnell revealed that trainers can continue to sore horses and enter them into shows undetected, as McConnell did while serving a five-year federal disqualification. The investigation drew national attention and led to public outrage over the practice of soring. McConnell has since pleaded guilty to a felony conviction for charges related to conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act, and three of his associates pleaded guilty to related charges.

Earlier this year, former Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Barney Davis was convicted in federal court for violating the Horse Protection Act. According to Davis, “every trainer sored horses, I mean, every trainer sored horses. I mean, you have to. That’s the bottom line…Without the soring, without some kind of soring, the horse, they’re not going to do the Big Lick.”

The bill adds a prohibition on “action devices,” typically metal chains that are strapped to the lower portion of the horse’s front legs. The chains rub against and strike the tissue that has been sensitized by caustic chemicals, so the horse lifts his front legs high off the ground in reaction to the pain. H.R. 6388 also outlaws “stacks” and pads, known as performance packages, which are nailed to the horse’s hoof to add weight and height, forcing the horse to lift his feet higher and strike the ground harder, at an abnormal angle. The stacks are also often used to conceal sharp or hard objects that have been inserted into the soft tissue of the horses’ hooves to increase pressure and pain and obtain the desired gait. These devices have been widely condemned by veterinary groups, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

H.R. 6388 also explicitly prohibits the actual soring of a horse for the purpose of showing or selling the horse, as well as the act of directing another to sore a horse for these purposes.

The bill strengthens penalties to establish a more meaningful deterrent. The current Horse Protection Act’s misdemeanor criminal penalties would be raised to felony-level, providing up to three years’ jail time for each violation, and potential fines would be doubled. A third violation could trigger permanent disqualification from participating in any horse show, exhibition, sale or auction. A recent analysis of the violation history of the top 20 trainers in the industry’s Riders Cup “high point program” found that every trainer on that list in the past two years was cited for soring violations, with a total 164 violations among them. Only seven percent actually served suspension penalties – and of those, all but a handful were for a mere two-week period. Many of the trainers and judges participating in the Celebration also have records of soring violations.