THE TENNESSEE WALKING horse, famous for its elegant gait (“Big Lick“), is at the center of a lobby battle between animal rights groups and horse owners. The issue being debated is a practice known as “soring,” in which irritants are used to artificially affect the way the horse walks, essentially burning and blistering its legs so that it accentuates its step. The abusive practice has been around since the mid-twentieth century, and has since been federally banned by the Horse Protection Act (HPA) of 1970. But animal rights activists are arguing that the 43-year-old law is ineffectual since the inspectors tasked with curbing soring practices are often horse owners themselves, which therefore creates a conflict of interest.
A new bill has now been introduced to amend HPA, called The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act of 2013, or the PAST Act. The aim of the PAST Act is to eliminate the shortcomings of HPA by requiring the USDA to limit its licensing of horse show managers and inspectors to people who are “free from conflicts of interest,” with a preference for “persons who are licensed or accredited veterinarians.” Two of the biggest supporters of the bill are the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and The Humane Society, the former having spent over $300,000 in lobbying through late June.
Revival of the issue in Congress is coincident with a ruling by a federal court in Texas affirming the constitutionality of minimum penalties for horse owners who shirk the rules. But although the momentum may appear to be on the side of those fighting for the welfare of horses, the advantage may actually belong to those fighting for the welfare of a multi-million dollar industry. According to Open Secrets blog, the industry brings “$38 million to Shelbyville, Tenn., every year for the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, as well as millions to other areas of the Southeast.”
Another obstacle for the PAST Act is Congress itself, which is loath to tackle the most pressing issues, to say nothing of animal rights. Even if the bill becomes a law, it’s future efficacy is dubious. Much like professional athletes who take performance enhancing drugs undetected, abusive horse owners have mastered the art of evasion. Two tactics currently used to dodge inspectors include the application of topical anesthetics and short-acting numbing agents that are timed to wear off as the horse enters the ring; and, perhaps most sinister, the training of horses to remain still when sore spots are touched, achieved by abusing the horse when it budges.
So the battle against soring is almost certainly uphill. But despite all the sound and fury and the hundreds of thousands of lobbying dollars vainly spent in an effort to galvanize a paralyzed (and likely uninterested) Congress, there’s hope yet for the animal welfare camp. For one thing, the PAST Act is being sponsored by a Republican from Kentucky. Now that’s a good start.