Congress enacted the Horse Protection Act in 1970, making it a federal offence to show, sell, auction, and exhibit or transport a sored horse, or a horse whose hooves have been chemically or physically altered to inflict pain that causes an exaggerated gait in the showring common among Tennessee Walking Horses and other gaited breeds.
"This decision sends a clear message to anyone who sores a gaited show horse that the US Department of Agriculture can and will take allegations of violations of the Horse Protection Act seriously," said Keith Dane, director of equine protection for the society.
"We hope this indictment signals a renewed USDA resolve to prosecute alleged abusers of Tennessee Walking Horses and other victims of soring."
Dane, who has been tracking the issue of horse soring for more than 25 years, said alleged violators of the Horse Protection Act are rarely indicted on charges.
Despite more than 40 years of Horse Protection Act enforcement, the lack of an effective deterrent against soring has allowed the practice to continue.
From 2007 to 2009, Department of Agriculture veterinarians found an average of nearly 500 violations of the law each year - even though they attended only about six per cent of all shows at which Tennessee Walking Horses and related breeds were exhibited due to limited agency resources.
On Friday last week, a federal grand jury in Chattanooga returned a four-count indictment against Barney Davis, 38, of Lewisburg, Christen Altman, 25, of Shelbyville, and Jeffery Bradford, 33, of Lewisburg.
According to the indictment, Davis, Altman, and Bradford have all been charged with conspiring to violate the federal Horse Protection Act by "soring" horses and deliberately falsifying entry forms and additional related paperwork.
Davis was additionally charged by indictment with knowingly shipping and transporting a sore horse, Jose is My Daddy, for show, and with entering the same sore horse into a show - both violations of the Horse Protection Act.
The Office of Inspector General began its investigation into the alleged crimes in August 2010.
USDA-Office of Inspector General special-agent-in-charge Karen Citizen-Wilcox said in a department-issued press release: "The USDA-OIG will continue to aggressively pursue violations of the Horse Protection Act in order to protect horses and competitors from illegal and unfair acts and practices."
Soring is the practice of applying chemical irritants to burn skin or inserting screws or other foreign objects into the sensitive areas of a horse's hooves, causing severe pain to the front legs or feet.
Because of the pain, horses raise their front legs immediately after touching the ground, thus producing the exaggerated gait rewarded in show rings of the Tennessee Walking Horse and other gaited breeds. Horses who are sored often live in constant pain, unable to stand or move comfortably.