The “big lick” faction of the Tennessee Walking horse industry is engaged in an ongoing criminal enterprise. Many of the top winners in the industry knowingly injure horses as a customary practice in order to induce an exaggerated gait for the purpose of winning prizes—a practice known as “soring,” where trainers injure the feet or legs of horses to cause excruciating pain when the animals step down, so they will fling their front legs high in response. Trainers, riders, industry inspectors and judges, and others involved in the horses’ training, showing, and in the evaluation of their fitness and performance are all part of the game. When questioned about the widespread practice of soring, they offer feeble protests and denials of this criminal conduct. It’s a knowing deception, and no lawmakers or key decision-maker should be bamboozled by this con job for one more day.
In September, I wrote about the case of Bill Callaway, who trained Gen’s Black Maverick, the horse crowned with the industry’s top honors at the breed’s National Celebration this year, and who conveniently began an eight-month disqualification (along with his brother John Allan) for violating the federal Horse Protection Act (HPA), just two days after the Celebration came to an end. He knew he was about to be prohibited from participating in any and all industry events for mistreatment, but he wasn’t the only one in on this bit of long-delayed and deferred punishment—where authorities had him pegged for violating the law, but allowed him to participate in the sport’s major competition. The horse’s owners, the leadership group running the Celebration, and their judges at the event almost certainly had to know, too. They all had their roles to play in his entry and exhibition at the show, and then to crown him the World Grand Champion for 2017.
It would be like a baseball pitcher caught doping or with some other disqualifying violation, but they let him pitch in a World Series game, and then suspending him in the off season. Or it’s the equivalent of a cheat in cycling being allowed to race in the Tour de France, but then to serve a suspension after he won the sport’s top prize.
The Callaway case was by no means a one-off. There is a new case that underscores how others are gaming the system in a similar way. We now know that the owners of the 2016 World Grand Champion were in on a similar scam a year before the Callaway clan claimed the top prize in the industry.
USDA officials cited the trainers and owners of a horse named Honors and disqualified the horse from competition a number of times. The horses’ owners, Keith and Dan McSwain, decided they would try their luck in the courts, seeking an injunction to prevent the agency from disqualifying Honors, to ensure their favored horse could participate in the National Celebration.
The McSwains’ roll of the dice was successful; U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story issued an injunction blocking USDA from disqualifying Honors before providing the McSwains the opportunity for a hearing to adjudicate the merits of any alleged violations going forward—a practical impossibility, as horses are inspected and either passed or cited immediately before they are to be shown. As a result, USDA inspectors examined the horse at the 2016 Celebration, but declined to notify show management of their findings. Industry inspectors cleared the horse. He entered and showed, and ultimately, the judges gave him the top prize—the 2016 World Grand Champion.
Now, over a year later, the McSwains finally got their comeuppance, with USDA’s decision to fine and suspend them beginning last week—fourteen months after their win, but too late to stop them from competing in that high-profile competition. And the fine, under federal law passed almost 50 years ago to penalize horse abuse, is small for people who have invested a considerable sum in bringing a horse to the World Grand Championship. In short, the McSwains were able to game the system and get their horse into competition with little consequence.
We found over a dozen others who exhibited at this year’s show and who, like the Callaways, went on federal disqualification right after the show. What better evidence do we have of a culture of cruelty and a gaming of the system to allow scofflaws to continue to participate in the marque events in the industry?
We can wring our hands over the issue of soring. Or we can change the legal architecture that allows this series of scams to continue and to enable competition organizers to allow chronic and known violators of the law to claim the top prizes in their sport. The key action is for Congress to pass the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, H.R. 1847, led by veterinarian Congressman Ted Yoho (R-FL) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR), which will bring urgently-needed reforms without any additional taxpayer burden. PAST has strong bipartisan support with 269 cosponsors, and endorsements by every major organization in the equestrian world including the American Horse Council and more than 60 other national and state horse groups, along with leading groups in the veterinary and law enforcement communities.
Tell your representative it’s high time that this institutionalized cruelty be abolished once and for all, as Congress intended when it passed the 1970 HPA—and urge them to support the PAST Act and do all they can to get it enacted quickly to root out endemic cruelty in this industry.