By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
The myriad forms of animal cruelty make for a large and grim inventory, but horse soring consistently holds a place near the top of the list. It’s a deliberate and wanton torment of horses, one secretly carried out in training barns to produce a high-stepping gait for prizes in the Tennessee Walking Horse show ring. A more pointless cruelty you would be hard-pressed to identify, and it’s been going on for decades.
Now, with the reintroduction in the U.S. Senate of the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act (S. 2295), we can finally end soring. We want an end to self-policing in the sport. We want the devices so integral to soring cast into the dustbin of history. We want to bring an end to weak and ineffectual penalties. Thanks to lead sponsors Senators Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Mark Warner, D-Va., we have the legislation to get the job done, and it is long past time we saw it enacted. They’re off to a great start, with nearly half the Senate—48 senators total—already co-sponsoring this bipartisan bill.
The PAST Act would amend the 1970 Horse Protection Act, directly tackling the shortcomings in that law that have allowed horse soring to endure for so long. It would ban forever the torturous devices that are an integral part of the soring process. These include chains used in combination with caustic, burning chemicals to inflame the horses’ tender ankles, the heavy stacked shoes that cause tendon and joint damage and obscure the painful cutting and grinding of the animals’ delicate soles as well as the hard and sharp objects inserted to exacerbate the torment. These tools are all meant to create an exaggerated gait in show horses known as the “Big Lick.” PAST would also put the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself back in charge of the oversight of inspectors, scrapping the fox-watching-the-henhouse approach that has played into the hands of the sorers for several generations. Finally, it would impose penalties that constitute a meaningful deterrent, and make illegal the act of soring a horse for the purpose of showing, exhibiting or selling the animal at a public sale or auction.
In the last Congress, PAST passed the House of Representatives by a broad bipartisan margin of 333-96, when it was co-sponsored by 308 representatives and 52 senators. The nation’s leading horse industry, veterinary, law enforcement and animal protection organizations support this bill, which has been endorsed by major newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee (where soring is most prevalent).
The evidence of the need for reform has never been greater. Our undercover investigations in 2012 and 2015 at top “Big Lick” training stables provided undeniable proof of rampant soring in that segment of the industry. More recently, we conducted an analysis of Horse Protection Act enforcement data provided by the USDA covering 2018-2020. The analysis concluded that soring persists unabated—and that industry inspectors are continuing to fail to detect these violations. This is especially evident at shows where USDA veterinary officials are not present to oversee inspections.
Last year, a faction within the soring fraternity found gullible partners in the animal protection field and tried to push through an intentionally feeble compromise measure in the waning days of the 116th Congress. We opposed that devious gambit above all because it would have reinforced the very practice that has permitted soring to thrive—self-policing by show participants. Thankfully, this newly introduced version of PAST is the real deal.
In January 2021, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report confirming that industry inspectors often conduct improper and inadequate examinations, and recommending that USDA rely solely on qualified veterinarians as inspectors, a preference built into the PAST Act.
We’re leading the charge against soring in Congress, and we’re determined to get PAST across the finish line. You can help make that happen by contacting your U.S. Senators today and urging them to cosponsor the bill if they haven’t yet and do all they can to help secure its passage.
However, there is no reason the horses should wait for the legislation to work its way through in order to secure immediate relief from this atrocious cruelty. The USDA itself could accomplish much of what PAST attempts to achieve right now under the authority granted by Congress to the Secretary of Agriculture. That’s why we are again calling on Secretary Tom Vilsack to reinstate and publish in the Federal Register a strong rule amending the agency’s soring regulations. That measure was finalized in 2017 during Vilsack’s tenure as Secretary of the agency during the Obama Administration but shelved by the Trump Administration’s USDA. Vilsack can ban soring devices and return full enforcement oversight to his agency, where we know it belongs. As the Secretary himself understood, a tougher enforcement system and a prohibition on the instruments of soring will make a world of difference. And that’s the kind of world we’re working for.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.