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America’s walking horses in a race against time

As this Congress gallops toward the finish line, one bill that could greatly enhance the health and welfare of America’s beautiful walking horses is getting bucked to the sidelines. 

Over the past four decades, veterinarians have seen a cry for help in the big, brown eyes of walking horses that have endured chemical and physical abuse, known as “soring,” to achieve an unnatural, high-stepping gait in the show ring.  This inhumane practice is so common that many horse trainers and owners believe they must use it to be competitive, despite its damaging and sometimes deadly effects on horses. 

{mosads}In 1970, Congress recognized the cruelty involved in this practice and passed the Horse Protection Act (HPA) with the goal of cracking down on bad actors. Now, more than 40 years later, we are still seeing horses sored at an alarming rate due to a culture of corruption that is deeply ingrained in the performance side of the walking horse industry. 

Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that roughly 20 percent of all entries in the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, the largest annual U.S. walking horse show, were in violation of the HPA. That means that one in every five horses entering into the arena showed signs of abuse. This is simply unacceptable! 

The problem lies within the walking horse industry, which is charged with hiring its own inspectors to check for signs of soring; much like handing a burglar a “get out of jail free” card. When the USDA sends its federal regulators to oversee these shows, they find violations at a rate of five to 10 times what walking horse industry inspectors identify. For an industry that claims to have cleaned up its act, we haven’t seen any signs of progress. Even the USDA’s inspector general’s office says it’s time to abolish the show industry’s self-regulatory ability in the interest of better protecting these walking horse competitors. 

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have offered a solution—the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act (H.R. 1518/S. 1406). The PAST Act takes many important steps to ban the unethical practice of soring, from making the actual act of soring illegal to overhauling the USDA’s oversight and enforcement capabilities. By ensuring that federal regulators have the resources and authority they need to identify and punish violators for their crimes, we can make it possible for America’s walking horses to be admired for their natural beauty without forcing them to live their lives in pain. 

The PAST Act has broad, bipartisan support from more than 360 lawmakers, yet languishes in the halls of Congress because some high-ranking officials do not have the guts to cross party lines and support a law that is based in common sense and the recognition of our human responsibility to protect animals that cannot protect themselves. As a former USDA veterinary medical officer who oversaw the enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, I know our nation’s walking horses deserve better. 

For the past two years, the AVMA, the American Association of Equine Practitioners, every state veterinary medical association in the United States, and numerous other groups and individuals, including many former walking horse industry leaders, have been urging Congress to pass this important legislation. 

In February, the AVMA was pleased to see this Congress take decisive action by passing legislation that cracks down on those who engage in animal fighting activities, another unethical endeavor with severe consequences for both animals and people. Now it is time for Congress to extend that same sort of compassion toward America’s walking horses. 

Congress: don’t let your work on this issue come to a grinding halt at the end of this year. Put your partisan differences aside and get back in the saddle to do what’s right for America’s walking horses. The reins are in your hands to guide these beautiful creatures toward a life free from pain—pass the PAST Act now! 

DeHaven, DVM, MBA, is the executive vice president and chief executive officer for the American Veterinary Medical Association. He is the former administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Tags Ed Whitfield Kelly Ayotte

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