One piece of unfinished business from the 2013-14 Congress is federal legislation to crack down on the barbaric and sickening practice of “soring” of Tennessee Walking Horses; the House and Senate took no final action on this bill last year even though a supermajority of lawmakers, 368 cosponsors in total, demonstrated strong bipartisan support for the companion House and Senate bills. Two weeks ago, a group of Republican and Democratic Senators picked up where the last Congress left off and introduced the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, S. 1121. Their aim is to end the practice of sorers torturing horses by burning chemicals into their forelegs or inserting painful foreign objects into their hooves. These folks torture horses to cause them to snap their legs up in a freakish gait known as the “Big Lick” – a behavior that wins ribbons at shows.
It is an industry rightly under siege. Horse lovers all across the nation, and the vast majority of people in Tennessee and Kentucky where the industry is centered, recognize it is a stain on humanity’s dealings with animals and an example of heartlessness and greed.
Unfortunately a small group of lawmakers are very closely aligned with those in the industry who engage in soring, and they are actively working to stop law enforcement from cracking down on this practice. That group is led by Tennessee’s senior U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who singled out The HSUS in his recent press release introducing his legislation on behalf of a criminal segment of the industry. He’s been joined by presidential aspirant Rand Paul (R-KY) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Their misnamed Horse Protection Amendments Act, S. 1161, would not protect a single horse from abuse. On the contrary, it would actually weaken existing protections for horses.
Sen. Alexander is also leading efforts to block strides to curb the trade in elephant ivory, and he and Sen. Paul were among just a handful of senators who opposed a bill to upgrade federal penalties and prohibitions against animal fighting, enacted as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. Senator McConnell did favor the bill to crack down on animal fighting.
Their soring-defense bill would maintain the failed system of industry self-regulation while designating a single horse industry organization to manage the inspections and penalty process. This will only make matters worse by giving the very figures in the industry responsible for abusing horses the power to rewrite the rules, while eliminating reputable horse industry organizations that have a zero tolerance policy for horse soring at shows they now oversee. Titular oversight of this self-policing scheme would be placed in the hands of agriculture commissioners in Kentucky and Tennessee – the two states where state authorities have proven themselves most unwilling to confront soring.
Contrast this with the PAST Act, introduced two weeks ago by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Warner (D-VA), which would amend the Horse Protection Act to make the underlying act of soring illegal, and make other essential reforms to end soring. The PAST Act will end the corrupt system of industry self-policing, putting the U.S. Department of Agriculture in charge of inspections, rather than having horse industry organizations choose cronies from inside their own ranks to conduct inspections.
The PAST Act will ban the use of devices (including stacks and chains), which are associated with soring in the Tennessee Walking, Spotted Saddle and Racking Horse breeds. Former industry insiders and veterinary experts have made it clear that without stacks and chains, horses wouldn’t respond to the soring used to achieve the Big Lick gait. The “alternative” bill introduced by Sen. Alexander does not address stacks and chains at all, and does nothing to strengthen the penalty structure of the Horse Protection Act.
There is no doubt that the PAST Act is the only bill that will end horse soring: it will strengthen penalties against violators of the law by establishing felony-level jail time for core offenses, increasing fines, and allowing permanent disqualification for repeat offenders and disqualification of sore horses for increasing periods based on the number of repeat violations. The current penalties amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist and allow violators to continue evading the law and exhibiting sore horses at competition. Stronger deterrents are necessary.
More than 600 groups and key individuals, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Horse Council, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the state veterinary medical associations of all 50 states, have endorsed the PAST Act. The only folks on board with the Alexander bill are those representing the horse soring crowd.
The PAST Act is urgently needed to finally accomplish what Congress set out to do nearly 40 years ago – stop soring and protect America’s walking horses. The Alexander bill should be seen for what it is – a cover-up, a distraction, and a sham. It’s time for leaders in both chambers to allow a debate and a fair vote on the issue.
P. S. In a late breaking development today, a judge in Tennessee threw out the search warrant in a case filed last year under the state’s animal cruelty statute. The utter failure of the Tennessee court system to do anything about rampant soring, even when presented with overwhelming evidence collected by federal agents, is a compelling argument for Congressional action.