Commentary: Congress needs to deliver comprehensive soring reform
Industry leader says it’s past time to end the barbaric practice on horses
Two-time World Grand Championship Tennessee Walking Horse Midnight Sun. (Photo: VisitFranklin.com)
In March 1984, at only four years old, I made my first public show-ring appearance aboard Carbon Princess—the 1979 Tennessee Walking Horse World Champion Aged Mare. She was 18 hands tall and had the heart of a champion. More than that, she was my best friend.
During that era, competitors came from far and wide, many of them the sons and daughters of Tennessee Walking Horse trainers who either train or still compete. We showed all across the region in Pin Oak, Texas; Lake Charles, LA; Jackson, Miss.; Montgomery, Ala.; Atlanta, G.; and more.
Yet not even one of those horse shows exists today. Why? Because of soring. Soring is the intentional infliction of pain to Tennessee Walking Horses’ front feet by means of applying caustic chemicals such as mustard oil or kerosene, or by inserting sharp objects into the hooves to create the pain-based high step known as the “Big Lick.”
And today, the Tennessee Walking Horse is but a shadow of its former self because of soring, and the “Big Lick” is prized only in Bedford, Rutherford, and Maury Counties as well as North Alabama, Asheville, NC, and few rural parts of Kentucky. And the breed has become widely known as the “pariah of the equine world.”
Today, the U.S. House will hear testimony on the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, which would amend the Horse Protection Act (HPA) by banning the use of large-stacked shoes and ankle chains used in the show ring to exacerbate the pain induced; providing felony level penalties for those convicted of violating the HPA and eliminating the current industry self-policing scheme and replacing it with federally licensed USDA inspectors.
We worked in 2019 to successfully pass the PAST Act through the U.S. House by a vote of 333 to 96 and it passed because we developed a new strategy in concert with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others to rename PAST in honor of the HPA’s author, my late friend, U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings D-MD.
But the U.S. Senate is a different beast, and a handful of lawmakers can block a vote, which is exactly what happened. It’s a political science lesson that a sectional alliance in the Senate can stymie a measure that would easily attract 80 “Yes” votes in the 100-member Upper Chamber.
While we continue to support the old PAST Act, the last decade has proven obstructionism prevails in the Senate. That’s why we worked with leaders in the walking horse breed in 2020 forge revisions to the bill that would achieve buy-in from the breed. In the end, we settled on a compromise to eliminate ankle chains and provide felony penalties, as the PAST Act does, but allow a smaller, removable shoe used by other breeds.
Under the compromise, the USDA and federal law enforcement agencies could bring felony charges against perpetrators, but there would be a supplementary independent non-governmental body free from conflicts that could swiftly issue fines and suspensions, as the USDA continues to allow violators to compete for years before taking action against them. We’ve all watched the USDA fail to end soring for six decades, and even allow trainers to punt and take their suspensions after they’ve retired well past the age of seventy.
The compromise went further than the PAST Act to end the use of treacherous devices known as tail braces that hold the horse’s tail in a U-shaped position after the ligaments in the tail have been severed — all for a certain look. And the effort would effectively marry the old PAST Act with alternative legislation recently introduced by Tennessee Republican Sens. Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn and Republican Reps. Scott DesJarlais and John Rose.
But some animal groups who want to continue fundraising on the issue blocked the ban on soring that would have taken effect in November of last year. It’s time for them to get on board or get out of the way. A vote in the House is no win for horses especially if it falls short of 2019’s 333 vote record and passing legislation through both chambers that can be signed into law is the only pathway to bring resolution to the issue.
Rather than banking on the uncertainty of very limited regulatory improvements that can be quickly unwound by any future Secretary of Agriculture, Congress should act to deliver comprehensive reform and end the scourge of soring.
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