Federal oversight needed to address cruel, corrupt treatment of horses

Horses hold an iconic place in our nation’s history. Without Paul Revere’s trusty steed, Brown Betty, the colonists in New England might have never known of the British forces’ late night advance toward Lexington. As American settlers moved west to the Pacific, horses pulled covered wagons and plowed fields on new homesteads. Horses accompanied many of our military commanders into battle, and horses still carry our fallen soldiers to their final resting places at Arlington National Cemetery.

Horses have been our companions and helped make this country what it is today.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side to our nation’s relationship with horses. America’s admiration for horses’ natural magnificence is the foundation of numerous industries, yet many of the horses used in these enterprises are treated poorly. Two sporting industries plagued by this inconsistency are the Tennessee Walking Horse show circuit and the world of horse racing.

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Tennessee Walking Horse shows are too often gaudy pageants that mask a deeply entrenched subculture of abuse. The Tennessee Walking Horse is a breed long-admired for its unique gait and gentle disposition. Unfortunately, these same traits have motivated unscrupulous trainers to practice what is known as “soring” — the infliction of extreme pain on the horses’ feet by using caustic chemicals and painful devices to elicit an exaggerated version of the horse’s natural walk. This gait, known as “the big lick,” is prized at certain horse shows and draws handsome stud fees for champion horses.

Although soring has been illegal under the federal Horse Protection Act (HPA) for 40 years, it remains a ubiquitous and insidious part of the Tennessee Walking Horse community. While the walking horse industry shrouds its training methods in secrecy and denies that the problem exists, trainers who have been compelled to speak truthfully in court appearances paint a different picture. Horse trainer Barney Davis at his sentencing hearing in a Tennessee federal court, after pleading guilty to soring horses, said that “Every walking horse that enters into a show is sored. They’ve got to be sored to walk. There ain’t no good way to put it, but that’s how it is.”

Davis and his contemporaries in cruelty and greed should face meaningful consequences for their crimes. Currently, USDA enforcement of the HPA is inadequate and the statutory penalties too weak to deter this crime. A recently released USDA rule would make penalties mandatory, but we need congressional action to ensure exposure of, and accountability for, violations.

The sport of horse racing has also been overtaken by rampant cruelties inflicted for the sake of financial gain. Once referred to as “the sport of kings,” horse racing is now subject to widespread drugging of racehorses. “Doping” is the practice of administering drugs to horses in order to give them a competitive advantage when racing. According to an investigative report in The New York Times earlier this year, “trainers experiment with anything that might give them an edge, including chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.” Doping is extremely dangerous to the horses and the jockeys who ride them because it masks warning signs of injuries and can cause horses to push beyond their limits. Devastating human and animal injuries and deaths have occurred as a result.

While the decentralized horse-racing industry has long promised to end this abuse, industry oversight has proved ineffective.

Lax enforcement allows violators to evade sanctions or receive mere slaps on the wrist as penalties. Inconsistent rules among various state commissions create a “race to the bottom” environment where individuals can avoid stricter sanctions by simply taking their operations to states with more lenient or non-existent regulations.

Federal oversight is urgently needed to address this corrupt practice that has spread to racetracks across the country because of the horse-racing industry’s inability or unwillingness to stop it. In 1980, the Corrupt Horse Racing Practices Act was introduced in Congress to address the doping problem, but never passed. Thirty-two years later, the trainer of I’ll Have Another — the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes — was suspended in California for accumulated doping violations. It is time for Congress to finally take a stand for these tremendous equine athletes by passing the Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act (H.R. 1733/S. 886).

Horses are our companions, our partners in sport and a living reminder of the American spirit. We owe it to them to acknowledge this special bond and to give them the humane treatment they deserve.

Moran is co-chairman of the Animal Protection Caucus and a member of the House Committee on Appropriations.