Soring and other forms of mistreatment of Tennessee Walking Horses are still rampant, and that’s why it’s so crucial that today a strong, diverse group of Senate Republicans and Democrats introduced legislation to strengthen the federal Horse Protection Act. Less than two weeks ago, the Giles County, Tenn. Sheriff’s office raided a farm run by a serial violator of the Horse Protection Act, Jeffrey Alan Mitchell, and found a herd of 55 emaciated Tennessee Walking Horses and seven starved goats that he had allegedly “left for dead.” The HSUS provided financial assistance to horse rescues that stepped up to provide sanctuary and rehabilitation to Mitchell’s hapless victims.
It’s just the latest example of reckless, scofflaw behavior from a person with a history of soring horses.
The bill introduced today, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, is sponsored by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Mark Warner, D-Va., along with a solid bipartisan set of original cosponsors, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, Susan Collins, R-Maine, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and David Vitter, R-La.
Sorers go to great lengths to force their horses to perform an artificial high-stepping gait known as the “Big Lick,” by inflicting pain on the animals’ legs and hooves, causing them to snap their front feet off the ground with every agonizing step—all just to win prizes and bragging rights. The trainers apply caustic chemicals and wrap the horses’ legs tightly with plastic wrap to “cook” the chemicals deep into the flesh for days, secure heavy chains to the horses’ sore legs, attach weighted, stacked shoes that force the horses’ legs into an unnatural angle, and conceal hard objects jammed into sensitive areas of the hooves. They grind the hooves down to expose live tissue and, in an attempt to disguise the sored areas, use numbing agents and acid or other painful substances to slough off scarred tissue. They also subject the horses to “stewarding” – shocking them in the face, kicking them, and hitting them with heavy wooden sticks to get them to stand still despite the pain – and to teach them not to flinch when an inspector presses their sore legs. It’s some of the sickest animal abuse we’ve seen, and it’s high time to end it.
Congress tried to stop soring by enacting the federal Horse Protection Act in 1970. But the law is in desperate need of an upgrade, and rampant soring continues, as documented by the USDA Inspector General, who recommended anti-soring reforms that are now incorporated into the PAST Act. This eminently reasonable legislation will end the industry self-policing scheme that has been an abysmal failure, ban the use of devices associated with soring, strengthen penalties, and make other needed changes to crack down on the small subset (an estimated 10 percent) of the walking horse world that engages in soring. The PAST Act won’t impose a burden on taxpayers – it will simply enable the USDA to redirect its enforcement efforts and resources in a more efficient and effective way.
An HSUS investigation three years ago brought the problem to light, with one of our undercover investigators getting into the stable of Hall of Fame trainer Jackie McConnell and exposing his horrible abuse of horses in order to enhance their performance.
More abuses perpetrated by soring violators continue to come to light every year. In 2013, the Blount County, Tenn., sheriff’s office (assisted by The HSUS, the Blount County SPCA, and Horse Haven Equine Rescue) raided a barn used by Walking Horse Trainers Association Board and Ethics Committee member Larry Joe Wheelon. He and three accomplices were arrested on multiple counts of aggravated cruelty to animals under Tennessee law, for alleged soring violations. That case – one of the few to ever be prosecuted locally in the hotbed of soring activity – is still winding its way through the state’s legal system.
A recent court decision that thwarted the USDA’s attempts to hold industry self-regulators more accountable underscores the need for Congress to take action and pass the PAST Act.
In the prior Congress, the PAST Act won overwhelming support, with 60 Senate cosponsors and 308 House cosponsors, and endorsements from more than 600 groups and key individuals, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Horse Council, U.S. Equestrian Federation, National Sheriffs’ Association, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and veterinary medical associations in all 50 states. The bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in April 2014, but obstruction by a few well-positioned legislators catering to the wishes of those deeply involved in the Big Lick prevented the bill from coming to a vote in the Senate or House before the last Congress ended.
That’s a travesty. The only ones opposing this non-controversial legislation are those who are already breaking federal law, committing horrible cruelty, cheating to win unfair advantage at horse shows, and profiting from it (and their handful of defenders in Congress).
We need to raise our voices and call on our legislators to cosponsor the PAST Act and allow the full Congress to vote on this crucial bill. We anticipate reintroduction of the PAST Act in the House soon, as well. Please join us and take action now to ensure the passage of this commonsense legislation to end a cruel and archaic practice.
* Editor’s Note: The first paragraph of this post has been updated for accuracy.