Pushed to act by a series of HSUS undercover investigations and a national campaign that attracted the support of more than 300 members of the U.S. House and Senate across the political spectrum, the U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced strict new rules to crack down on the barbaric practice of horse soring — the intentional infliction of pain on the legs and hooves of show Tennessee walking horses and related breeds, to force them to perform the artificial, pain-based “Big Lick” gait. An enormous coalition of animal welfare groups, horse industry organizations, veterinary organizations, law enforcement, and others backed federal action, but ultimately credit goes to President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for getting this done on their watch. This has been one of The HSUS’s top federal priorities, and I am thrilled to pass on this news to you today. We will, however, have to be vigilant that President-elect Trump and a handful of opponents in Congress do not interfere with implementation of this rule; meanwhile, we’ll continue to press for federal legislation to build on the regulatory reforms, so the battle is not entirely over.
As requested in a rulemaking petition submitted by HSUS attorneys with the assistance of the law firm Latham & Watkins, the USDA rule, which was years in the making, bans the use of stacks and chains on Tennessee walking horses and racking horses (the breeds that have been chronic victims of soring). These medieval-looking devices accentuate the pain when chemicals are burned into the horses’ legs and their feet are injured with cutting and concealed hard objects. Injuring their feet and then forcing them to walk on four-inch stacks with chains banging against their sores creates the exaggerated gait prized by judges at some of the top horse shows. The rule also eliminates the failed industry self-policing program, and puts the USDA squarely in charge of enforcing the rules to eliminate these abuses. No other category of horse shows, for any other breeds, have needed laws and rules aimed at them. It’s a testament to the ongoing scofflaw culture that pervades a segment of the Tennessee walking and racking horse show world.
When you consider that the first major step in this process was taken more than 45 years ago, with Congress passing the Horse Protection Act of 1970 – attempting to outlaw the practice but leaving loopholes that the horse soring crowd walked through almost every day – you may have a sense of the countless hours devoted by reformers to deliver mercy to these horses, and to outlaw a practice that is as deplorable and intentional as dogfighting or cockfighting. The HSUS has been investigating and campaigning against the cruelty of horse soring since the late 1950s; it is a concern nearly as old as The HSUS itself.
The USDA’s Office of Inspector General conducted a comprehensive two-year audit released in 2010 that exposed how trainers within the industry deviously evade detection and continue to use horrific practices to attain the Big Lick. The OIG concluded from its findings that in order to fix the continued abuse, an overhaul of the USDA’s regulations to eliminate the flawed system of industry self-policing and stiffer penalties are vital and necessary. That OIG report provided an enormously important grounding for our national anti-soring campaign.
U.S. lawmakers weighed in on the issue in a major way, with House and Senate bills introduced in the 113th and 114th Congresses, attracting enormous bipartisan support. Forty-two Senators and 182 Representatives sent letters voicing support for the USDA’s proposed rule. Special thanks goes to Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Steve Cohen D-Tenn., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., along with former Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., David Jolly, R-Fla., Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., along with former Sen. Joe Tydings, D-Md., who introduced the original Horse Protection Act of 1970. They are all champions in fighting for reform, and their work positioned us for success with the USDA. We are tremendously grateful to each of them.
Congress still has work to do – protecting the rule from attacks, ensuring its acceptance by the Trump Administration and adequate funding for the USDA to enforce it, codifying the rulemaking provisions, and increasing penalties for violators. We expect to see legislation introduced soon to address these issues and build on the rulemaking.
But as with our successful efforts to strengthen the federal animal fighting law a decade ago, and our work to bring an end to the use of chimpanzees in invasive experiments, this rule is a triumph for our movement. We need to be vigilant, but today, we should celebrate.