Congress can finally ensure horses are not tortured for ribbons and prizes

Meaningful change will never be initiated or supported by a criminal industry that polices itself. Over a half-century of intentional animal abuse committed by a segment of the Tennessee walking horse industry has been well-documented. Lawbreakers who inhumanely train these noble animals have turned one of America's oldest equestrian traditions into a national tragedy. It is past time for Congress to end this cruelty.

In the 115th Congress, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act was cosponsored by two-thirds of the House and nearly half the Senate in an impressive showing of bipartisan collaboration. The PAST Act has been reintroduced in the Senate and in the House. Its sponsors include two equine veterinarians: Reps. Kurt SchraderWalter (Kurt) Kurt SchraderDems walk Trump trade tightrope Lobbying World Congress can finally ensure horses are not tortured for ribbons and prizes MORE (D-Ore.) and Ted YohoTheodore (Ted) Scott YohoSecrecy behind Saudi nuclear talks infuriates Congress Congress can finally ensure horses are not tortured for ribbons and prizes Trump's decision on health care law puts spotlight on Mulvaney MORE (R-Fla.).

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It’s an open secret that horse shows featuring high-stepping “Big Lick” Tennessee walking horses are hotbeds of cruel training methods known as “soring.” Competing with a sored horse has been illegal since passage of the Horse Protection Act in 1970, but the abuse is still rampant in some quarters. This is because those primarily responsible for setting the breed standard are also often the perpetrators. Horses are tortured to exaggerate their gait for the sake of ribbons, prizes and glory for their owners. The PAST Act will eliminate the use of the devices integral to the soring process, increase penalties for violators and end a corrupt industry system of self-policing that continues to condone and perpetuate intentional animal cruelty.

In the Tennessee walking horse show circuit, horses are forced to wear tall platform shoes that add height, weight and an unnatural angle. These “stacks” often conceal cutting of the horse’s soles down to the sensitive tissue and the insertion of hard objects into this tender area to create more pain. It’s analogous to forcing human athletes to run a race barefoot across hot coals.

Trainers also apply chemicals to burn the sensitive skin just above the horses’ hooves, then wrap the area in plastic to cook the chemicals into the flesh. When ridden, chains affixed around the horses’ legs strike against the injured skin. This creates so much pain that the animal flings her legs high in the air because it hurts when she strikes the ground. To avoid detection during official show inspections, trainers use temporary numbing agents and teach sored horses not to react to pain when inspectors look for signs of soring, often by brutally beating the horse.

I have personally been involved with this wonderful breed for most of my life and have worked for three decades from within and outside the industry to protect these horses. Like many of my fellow Tennessee walking horse enthusiasts, I have witnessed firsthand the heinous abuse and the damage soring has done to the animals, the businesses and the value of the breed. Banning the barbaric implements used to produce the “Big Lick” and eliminating the industry self-policing, as the PAST Act would do, are the keys to spare these horses from abject cruelty and restore the breed’s reputation. A small minority who turn a blind eye to the abuse are addicted to the “look” of the “Big Lick” and will never change their ways voluntarily. They’ve had nearly 50 years to do so, but the torment of their equine victims continues. 

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The American Horse Council and over 50 other horse groups strongly endorse the PAST Act, as do the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, every state’s veterinary medical association, National Sheriffs’ Association, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, all major animal protection organizations, key newspapers in Tennessee and Kentucky, the majority of voters in both states and many voices from within the Tennessee walking horse industry.

Sadly, soring of Tennessee walking horses persists despite U.S. Department of Agriculture’s enforcement efforts and work by the Humane Society of the United States and others to expose and stamp out this cruel practice. The Horse Protection Act sought to put an end to it but has been an inadequate deterrent. The PAST Act will fix gaps in the law to end this brutality. It is high time to enact this common-sense bipartisan legislation supported by horse welfare advocates and veterinary and horse industry experts alike.

Keith Dane is the senior advisor of Equine Protection for the Humane Society of the United States. Follow the organization on Twitter at @HumaneSociety.