The Tennessee walking horse industry has thumbed its nose time and again at the weak enforcement program put in place by federal authorities 45 years ago to tackle soring, the head of the Humane Society of the United States says.
President and chief executive Wayne Pacelle labelled the track record of self policing in the industry as atrocious.
Soring involves deliberately using mechanical or chemical irritants on a horse’s legs and hooves to encourage the high-stepping gait highly prized in the walking horse show ring.
Congress passed the Horse Protection Act in 1970 to bring an end to soring, putting the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in charge of enforcing it.
However, enforcement has been patchy at best. There is widespread support among lawmakers for the Prevent All Soring Tactics (Past) Act, which aims to toughen controls. However, despite solid bipartisan support and the backing of dozens of major horse industry, veterinary and welfare bodies, the House and Senate versions of the bill have yet to reach the floor for a vote.
Pacelle, writing in his blog, A Humane Nation, was commenting on the decision last week by the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which struck down a USDA regulation requiring private, industry-appointed inspectors to impose mandatory minimum penalties on participants caught soring.
“The court’s ruling leaves no question that federal legislation is essential if we are to end the barbaric practice of soring, but it also makes plain the pressing need for the USDA to overhaul its antiquated and ineffectual regulatory program under the Horse Protection Act,” Pacelle said.
He noted that the act was passed in 1970 and amended in 1976, but has largely proved ineffective.
“The Tennessee walking horse industry has defied the law for more than four decades, thumbing its nose time and again at the USDA’s weak enforcement program.”
The recent court ruling made it clear that the act authorized the USDA to set qualifications for inspectors appointed by horse shows, and to enforce the act itself. But it also held that the department was not authorized to set standards for how private inspectors assessed penalties or, presumably, for any other aspect of how such private inspections were conducted.
“The ruling not only scuttles the USDA’s recent attempt to require these anemic private inspection programs to impose meaningful penalties, it also calls into question the legality of the entire Horse Industry Organization (HIO) program, which the USDA has created to administer the private inspection scheme,” Pacelle said.
The program, he asserted, has been at the very root of the atrocious track record of self-policing in this industry.
“In short, the ruling makes clear what we have been saying for years – the entire private HIO inspection and enforcement scheme instituted by the USDA is a sham.
“HIOs are themselves typically run by members of the ‘big lick’ segment of the walking horse industry, where most soring violations occur. And the industry has demonstrated it will only stop its conduct when the law comes down on them like a ton of bricks.
“Its scofflaw behavior has been unhindered even with the national spotlight trained on its abusive conduct.”
Pacelle said that while the USDA still had authority to issue stronger regulations to prevent soring and enforce the act, the Fifth Circuit ruling underscored why Congress needed to enact legislation amending the existing federal law.
He urged lawmakers to pass the PAST Act upon its reintroduction in Washington DC. The act, he said, would amend the existing federal law to eliminate the Tennessee walking horse industry’s failed system of self regulation, strengthen penalties against soring violators, and ban action devices such as pads and chains that are integral to soring practices.
“In the meantime, it is absolutely critical that the USDA move on its own to eliminate the ineffectual HIO program once and for all, and replace it with a vigorous new set of USDA-mandated standards for individuals to qualify as inspectors, as well as a system to make sure the USDA follows up on those inspections and takes effective enforcement action, with strong penalties that actually deter habitual abusers of walking horses.
“And we need proper enforcement of those laws by the primary federal agency charged with oversight in this case.”