Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down a U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation requiring private, industry-appointed inspectors to impose mandatory minimum penalties on participants caught “soring” – the practice of deliberately injuring a horse’s legs and hooves to force the horse to perform an artificial, high-stepping gait highly prized in the show ring. The HSUS shined a spotlight on this sickening cruelty with our release in 2012 of undercover footage documenting Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell and his stable hands soring, beating, and shocking horses. McConnell was torturing horses even while he was on federal disqualification for prior illegal conduct.
The court’s ruling leaves no question that federal legislation is essential if we are to end the barbaric practice of soring, but it also makes plain the pressing need for the USDA to overhaul its antiquated and ineffectual regulatory program under the Horse Protection Act (HPA).
Congress passed the HPA in 1970 to bring an end to soring and charged the USDA with enforcing the Act, which was amended in 1976. But the Tennessee walking horse industry has defied the law for more than four decades, thumbing its nose time and again at the USDA’s weak enforcement program. The recent court ruling made clear that the HPA authorizes the USDA to (1) set qualifications for inspectors appointed by horse shows, and (2) enforce the HPA itself. But it also held that the USDA is not authorized to set standards for how private inspectors assess penalties, or presumably for any other aspect of how these private inspections are conducted. The ruling not only scuttles the USDA’s recent attempt to require these anemic private inspection programs to impose meaningful penalties, it also calls into question the legality of the entire Horse Industry Organization program, which the USDA has created to administer the private inspection scheme, and which has been at the very root of the atrocious track record of self-policing in this industry.
In short, the ruling makes clear what we have been saying for years – the entire private Horse Industry Organization inspection and enforcement scheme instituted by the USDA is a sham. HIOs are themselves typically run by members of the “big lick” segment of the walking horse industry, where most soring violations occur. And the industry has demonstrated it will only stop its conduct when the law comes down on them like a ton of bricks. Its scofflaw behavior has been unhindered even with the national spotlight trained on its abusive conduct.
While the USDA still has the authority to issue stronger regulations to prevent soring and enforce the HPA, the Fifth Circuit ruling underscores why Congress must enact legislation amending the existing federal law. Along with a strong nationwide coalition of horse industry, veterinary, and animal welfare organizations, we urge passage of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act upon its reintroduction. The PAST Act will amend the existing federal law to eliminate the Tennessee walking horse industry’s failed system of self regulation, strengthen penalties against soring violators, and ban action devices such as pads and chains that are integral to soring practices.
In the meantime, it is absolutely critical that the USDA move on its own to eliminate the ineffectual HIO program once and for all, and replace it with a vigorous new set of USDA-mandated standards for individuals to qualify as inspectors, as well as a system to make sure the USDA follows up on those inspections and takes effective enforcement action, with strong penalties that actually deter habitual abusers of walking horses.
Just like we need laws to stop dogfighting and cockfighting, we need laws to stop the criminals involved in the organized crime of horse soring. And we need proper enforcement of those laws by the primary federal agency charged with oversight in this case.