Washington’s long-running political paralysis sees walking horses pay the price

Thermographic image showing excessive warmth (seen as red and orange colors), which may be caused by inflammation from soring. The pattern seen is consistent with soring using a chemical agent. © USDA
A thermographic image showing excessive warmth (seen as red and orange colors), which may be caused by inflammation from soring. The pattern seen is consistent with soring using a chemical agent. © USDA

It would be hard to go past the long-running push for tougher measures to rein in the illegal practice of soring walking horses if you wanted a case study to illustrate the widespread frustration felt by many Americans over the inability of its federal lawmakers to get much done. 

There has been a congressional gridlock for years thanks to partisan interests and the general inability – or refusal – of lawmakers to reach agreement and make progress.

However, there has been a great deal of common ground in the fight to get tough on soring – the illegal use of mechanical or chemical irritants on the lower legs of horses to encourage the high-stepping “Big Lick” gait favored by some in the walking horse industry.

Soring causes the horse to suffer pain, distress, inflammation, and lameness.

Walking horses have been protected for 46 years under the Horse Protection Act, but a large number of lawmakers and respected organizations have acknowledged it does not go far enough and have pushed for change.

This gave us the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act. This bill was widely supported by Republicans and Democrats, but has never made it to the floor of either the House of Representatives or the Senate for a vote.

It has been pushed relentlessly by organizations, with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) leading the charge, but to no avail.

In mid-January, there was some good news. New rules were announced by federal authorities to introduce better safeguards under existing regulations.

They addressed recommendations made by the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General following an audit of the federal horse protection program.

That audit found the existing industry-led inspection program to be inadequate for ensuring compliance with the Horse Protection Act, which hardly came as a surprise to the many animal advocates who have pushed so long for reform.

The new rules would have – and you can see I am now writing in past tense – put the responsibility on federal authorities to license, train, and oversee independent third party inspectors, as well as establish licensing requirements to reduce conflicts of interest.

HSUS president and chief executive Wayne Pacelle welcomed the new rules, making the well-judged observation: “We will, however, have to be vigilant that President-elect Trump and a handful of opponents in Congress do not interfere with implementation of this rule; meanwhile, we’ll continue to press for federal legislation to build on the regulatory reforms, so the battle is not entirely over.”

He continued: “Congress still has work to do – protecting the rule from attacks, ensuring its acceptance by the Trump Administration and adequate funding for the USDA to enforce it, codifying the rule-making provisions, and increasing penalties for violators. We expect to see legislation introduced soon to address these issues and build on the rule-making.”

But, within days, it had all come to a grinding and unceremonious halt.

The humane society revealed on January 24 that, in its words, bureaucratic bungling had stalled the new rules.

The agriculture department had withdrawn the new regulations.

It transpires the new rule had previously been announced as finalized by the department, but for it to be implemented it must be published in the Federal Register. That didn’t happen in a timely way, and a decision by the Trump administration to freeze all pending rules captured the soring rule and put it in limbo, according to the society.

The USDA had posted on its website the text of the final rule well in advance of Inauguration Day for the new president, it added. But for some unexplained reason, the Federal Register delayed publication of the rule.

“That language was not given the required one-day-early advance posting on the Federal Register until the day before Inauguration Day, and the Federal Register was closed on Inauguration Day,” the society said in a statement.

Pacelle observed: “Now only the Trump administration can revive this long overdue rule. We urge the Trump administration to take an honest look at the issue and to publish the rule and adopt it.”

Dead and buried? Let’s hope not. But lawmakers have got to wake up and realize that Americans aren’t much impressed by this kind of long-running political inertia.

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