The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s anti-horse-soring rule – put in motion after a damning 2010 Inspector General’s report identified deficiencies in the execution of the federal law against horse soring – is in peril despite the agency announcing final, favorable action on the issue just days ago.
The trigger for the problem was bureaucratic bungling at the Federal Register (the journal of the United States government). The Office of the Federal Register failed to publish the rule in a timely manner after the USDA announced the new policy on January 13th. As a result, the rule got swept up in a broader Trump administration policy to freeze any rulemaking actions still in progress. Consistent with that presidential decree, the USDA formally withdrew this rulemaking action. Horse abusers are getting a “get out of jail free card” because of an ironic and potentially fatal one-two punch by the outgoing and incoming administrations.
This is a startling and hugely disappointing outcome, and it comes despite support for the rule from the USDA, the Office of Management and Budget, and hundreds of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress who called for action on the issue. The Trump administration has the authority to revive this rule, but it will take intentional action by the White House to do so. Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a veterinarian by training, is Trump’s nominee for the USDA, and he hasn’t signaled a position on the issue; that said, every major veterinary organization — including the American Veterinary Medical Association, the veterinary medical associations of Georgia and every other state, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners — favors a crackdown on the practice of soring.
The USDA rule was written, under the direction of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to strengthen regulations to end the cruel practice of soring – the intentional infliction of pain on the hooves and limbs of Tennessee walking horses and racking horses to induce the pain-based show gait known as the “Big Lick.” The rule would eliminate the failed system of industry self-policing that the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General deemed corrupt and ineffective in a 2010 audit, and prohibit the use of large stacked shoes, ankle chains, and other harmful devices that the American Horse Council, AVMA, and many others have said are integral to the soring process.
Violators have lied, cheated, and used every trick in the book to evade detection, hide their corrupt culture of abuse, and to attempt to dupe Congress, the public, and the media as evidenced in the USDA’s Horse Protection Program Annual Activity Reports that reveal 3,691 total violations of the Horse Protection Act since 2011. There was also a significant increase in violations, from a total of 509 violations in 2015 to 922 violations in 2016. In 2015, the USDA started including statistics on the number of horses their inspectors disqualified at the shows they attended for the year, and in 2015 they disqualified 421 horses total. In 2016 that number rose to 716 horses for a total of 1,137 disqualified horses within the last two years. This evidence and plenty more of it – including a series of HSUS undercover investigations that have shown several major “Big Lick” stables knee-deep in the practice of soring — is incontrovertible and overwhelming and shows a widespread, knowing defiance of the law. The rule, and a separate measure in Congress known as the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, were designed to crack down on this scofflaw industry.
The stigma of soring has made the walking horse industry the pariah of the horse world, and has had a long-standing, adverse effect on the economic viability of this industry, which suffers from diminished breeding and attendance at its major events. Every reputable horse industry and veterinary medical organization supports strengthening the law and regulations. There simply is no support for the status quo among major horse industry organizations. Major law enforcement organizations, including the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, also support the actions of the USDA and Congress. The “Big Lick” faction of the horse show industry stands alone in fighting against the rulemaking, even as it claims to oppose soring while at the same time perpetrating the abuse. The Trump administration should take action against this culture of corruption and deception and revive the rule.