The annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration begins in Shelbyville, Tennessee, today — the high point of a months-long show season of torture and pain for walking horses subjected to the despicable practice of soring. The good news is, this may be the last year where abused horses are put on show with the blessing of the event’s leadership. Next year, a new Celebration may dawn.
In July, the U. S. Department of Agriculture issued a proposed rule in response to a number of requests in a February 2015 rulemaking petition filed by The HSUS, with pro bono help from the international law firm Latham & Watkins. The proposed rule contains game-changing reforms to end the half-century-long battle against the soring of Tennessee walking horses, racking horses, and related breeds. This cruel practice – where trainers put flesh-burning chemicals on the horse’s feet, or place foreign objects between the shoe and the hoof — has persisted and flourished because of a handful of scofflaw owners and trainers within a segment of the Tennessee walking horse show industry who perpetuate, cover up, and deny the rampant abuse. They’ve also fought in the political realm for decades to block real reform, so that they can continue to abuse horses at their shows. The political allies of the horse soring crowd are using every trick in the book to try to delay or block final action from the USDA.
A year ago today, I wrote about our undercover investigation of ThorSport Farm in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which gathered incontrovertible and damning evidence of soring. All of the 75 wrapping samples that the investigator obtained directly from the legs of horses either owned by or trained at ThorSport had soring or masking substances on them that are prohibited at horse shows by the USDA under the Horse Protection Act. All of our findings and samples were handed over to the proper authorities in Tennessee. Unfortunately justice was not served for the animals, but this investigation has been viewed well over 500,000 times online and like our 2011 Jackie McConnell investigation, has helped educate the public about the persistence of soring.
Earlier this year, the USDA released their foreign substance results from the 2015 National Celebration and their findings were more indicative and damning of the soring industry than anyone could have expected. Of the 200 random samples taken by the USDA at the industry’s marquee competition, 175 tested positive for illegal foreign substances used to sore horses or temporarily numb them to mask their pain during inspection. This astounding 87.5 percent of samples, an increase from 52 percent at the 2014 Celebration, confirm that soring is on the rise among this class of barbaric trainers.
Prior to those results the USDA also revealed a report showing its inspectors disqualified 181 out of 525 (over 34 percent) of the horses they inspected at last year’s Celebration —a figure in line with the results at nine other shows that agency representatives attended that year. That’s clearly not the work of a few bad actors, but the hallmark of an industry hell-bent on maintaining a tradition of cruelty at all costs.
These USDA reports consistently reveal vast rates of industry noncompliance and clinch the case for federal reform to strengthen enforcement of the Horse Protection Act. The USDA first warned in the Federal Register in 1979 that their secretary would consider removing tall stacked shoes and ankle chains if soring persisted. The agency has repeatedly delivered the same message over the past four decades. In 2010, the USDA Inspector General issued a damning report about non-compliance, but also said there are defects in the law’s enforcement that must change. Last month the USDA, recognizing that more than 300 members of the U.S. House and Senate are publicly signed on to legislation to crack down on abuses, took action to correct some of the big gaps in the law by proposing regulations that would eliminate the stacked shoes and chains, and the industry’s own corrupt self-policing system.
I commend Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for proposing common sense solutions to finally help bring an end to soring and to salvage the walking horse industry, securing its place in the humane economy of the 21st century and beyond. This abuse of horses is an appalling form of cruelty – different, but just as brazen as cockfighting or bullfighting. These abusers have had decades to get their house in order. Through the years, they’ve proved that they’re little more than organized criminals, and the only way to crack down on their racket is to strengthen the law and enforce it without prejudice.
The equine community, animal lovers, and humane-minded people across America must step up and show their support for this proposed rule during the public comment period which ends September 26th. Click here to leave a comment stating your desire to end soring for the welfare of the horses. You can also attend one of the final comment sessions in Riverdale, Maryland, on September 6th, or a virtual meeting on Thursday, September 15th.