Horse soring – a practice where unethical and remorseless trainers intentionally injure the front feet and legs of horses by mechanical or chemical means to exaggerate the animals’ gait in order to win ribbons in the show ring – is one of the most disgraceful forms of organized cruelty practiced in a highly organized way in the United States. It’s an appalling act, done for entertainment and profit, and I put it in the same category as dogfighting and cockfighting.
The horse soring crowd not only has professional lobbyists but also some key lawmakers doing their bidding in Congress – almost exclusively from the states of Kentucky and Tennessee. But they also play their tricks in the courts, and we’ve seen them engage in some pretty brazen actions as of late.
Their maneuvers in two separate legal proceedings didn’t turn out the way they’d imagined, and that’s good news for our efforts to shut down their abuses. In two distinct cases, these horse owners filed lawsuits against individuals and organizations involved in the seizure and rescue of their horses, resulting from complaints against soring perpetrators filed under Tennessee’s cruelty to animals statute. The owners, several of whom are repeat violators of the federal Horse Protection Act, attempted to claim loss of value of the horses after authorities seized the abused animals, suing state authorities and animal groups who had intervened. In both cases, the unethical horse owners failed in their legal maneuvers to profit from cruelty.
One of the cases stemmed from an unsuccessful prosecution in a Blount County, Tennessee circuit court against Larry Wheelon, a notorious trainer with a long history of soring horses. The HSUS assisted with the removal and care of the horses after Wheelon’s arrest. We also obtained from the USDA (through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests) shocking, graphic video and images taken during the investigation, and made them available to the public to help expose Wheelon’s abuse. The judge overseeing the case against Wheelon dismissed it on a technicality, and also ordered the return of the horses to the owners Wheelon worked for. These owners then filed suit against Blount County SPCA, alleging they suffered financial loss during the period of the legal proceeding, for the SPCA’s role in protecting the horses and participating in Wheelon’s prosecution.
Although not a defendant in the case, The HSUS assisted with legal fees and research for the defense of the suit. I am happy to report that a separate Blount County judge accepted the owners’ dismissal of the case, once they realized they weren’t getting anywhere. Neither the local SPCA nor The HSUS sent a dime to the owners of these animals.
And separately, in June, U.S. District Judge Samuel Mays, Jr., dismissed a lawsuit brought against The HSUS, the State of Tennessee, Fayette County, Tennessee, and other individuals, including District Attorney General Michael Dunavant, by walking horse owners Kelly and Beverly Sherman of Murchison, Texas, for damages they claimed they suffered as a result of the seizure of their horses in the investigation of horse sorer Jackie McConnell, also a very big name in the world of Tennessee walking horses. That investigation resulted in McConnell’s conviction for conspiracy to violate the Horse Protection Act and Tennessee state law, and resulted in significant criminal and civil penalties.
These outcomes vindicate the Blount County SPCA, The HSUS, and state and county agencies in Tennessee involved in these attempts to seek justice for tortured horses. These trainers are the worst actors in a corrupt segment of the show world for Tennessee walking horses where soring runs wild and rampant.
The outrageous cruelty of these HPA violators is bad enough. But the temerity the owners showed in bringing counter-claims was a rare exercise in shamelessness and a thumbing of their noses by well-funded abusers at state and private actors committed to the rule of law. The dismissal of these cases sends a message to the owners of sored horses that they cannot seek to reap financial reward from their involvement when soring abuse of their horses is uncovered and prosecuted.
What’s more, it’s a reminder that The HSUS won’t relent in its campaign to rid the industry of the rampant practice of horse soring. Ultimately, what’s needed is for leaders in Congress to step up and pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 1847, which U.S. Reps. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., both veterinarians, reintroduced this spring and which currently has the bipartisan support of 252 House cosponsors. H.R. 1847 would upgrade the 1970 Horse Protection Act and effectively end the training and exhibition of “big lick” walking horses by banning the use of large stacked shoes, ankle chains, and other devices integral to the soring process. The bill would also abolish the failed, conflict-ridden system of industry self-policing and it would increase penalties for soring. H.R. 1847 enjoys vast support from the horse industry and veterinary and law enforcement agencies such as the American Horse Council, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and National Sheriffs’ Association. Identical legislation had a bipartisan group of 50 Senate cosponsors in the last Congress, and reintroduction of a companion Senate bill is anticipated soon.
Meanwhile, the USDA has frozen a final rule that would achieve many of the same urgently-needed reforms. Veterinarian and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue can publish this final rule at any time, and there’s no reason for him to delay any further. In February, Reps. Yoho and Schrader sent a letter signed by 154 Representatives to President Trump, urging him to get the rule published and to support the PAST Act. Let your representative know you want Congress to pass the bill, and bring horse soring to an end once and for all. And write to Secretary Perdue at this address and tell him to stop scofflaws from abusing horses.