Horse abuse for ribbons and prizes has to stop
Animal protection bills tend to attract broad support each session of Congress and it’s no wonder why — polling shows strong public support for protecting animals from harm and constituents regularly call or write to their lawmakers on an array of animal welfare measures. But the support for one animal related bill, in particular, is virtually unparalleled: The Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (H.R. 693), which would protect horses from abuse, recently hit an important milestone in the House. The bill surpassed the 290 cosponsor mark (and indeed is now well past 300), meaning that under new rules instituted by Democratic leadership, the PAST Act will move directly to the floor for a vote before the full chamber.
Nearly 50 years ago, Congress passed the Horse Protection Act (HPA) to protect horses from the abusive practice of soring, where individuals intentionally inflict pain on the animal’s hooves and legs to create an exaggerated high-stepping gait for competitions involving Tennessee Walking Horses and similar breeds. Methods involved in soring include applying diesel fuel and kerosene to burn the skin, grinding down hooves to expose sensitive tissues, and applying sharp or abrasive objects to tender areas to maximize pain.
Since the law’s enactment, failings in enforcement and weak punishments have allowed soring to persist. The PAST Act aims to remedy those problems by expressly banning the practice of soring, ending the failed system of industry self-policing and shifting to inspectors trained and licensed by the USDA, prohibiting the use of specific “action devices” such as heavy chains and weighted shoes used to inflict greater pain, and increasing penalties for violators.
The bill isn’t new — indeed, in the 113th Congress the PAST Act amassed a staggering 308 cosponsors in the House — but passing the PAST Act has taken on a heighted urgency in recent months.
Unfortunately, under the current administration, HPA enforcement has taken a nosedive — a bleak reality that the Washington Post reported on in 2018. In fiscal 2016, for example, the USDA issued 956 warnings for HPA violations. In 2017, that number dropped to 213. In 2018, the USDA issued zero warnings for HPA violations.
The decline appears particularly stark considering that a flurry of enforcement activity surrounded the 2016 National Celebration (the crowning event and largest horse show for the Tennessee Walking Horse breed). Thirty-eight separate administrative complaints (legal proceedings against alleged violators) were filed in direct response to the USDA’s findings at the 2016 Celebration. The complaints cited over 600 previous official warnings that were given (and which underscore the troubling history of chronic citations that so plagues the industry).
Such enforcement actions and scrutiny were short-lived, however. The USDA had zero new investigations — from which all enforcement actions stem and zero administrative complaints in fiscal 2018. Information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveals that no HPA administrative complaints appear to have been filed for over two years.
So, what has the USDA been up to in terms of upholding their statutory mandate to enforce the HPA? Records show that in recent months, USDA has been entering into consent decrees, whereby alleged HPA violators do not need to admit to any wrongdoing and can continue to show horses for the current season. Indeed, in some cases, these individuals are allowed to compete for the next 2 to 3 years before being temporarily suspended.
It’s hard to fathom how such agreements provide sufficiently strong deterrents against soring when the punishments are so weak — alleged violators essentially walk away with a slap on the wrist.
The PAST Act will easily pass the House of Representatives when it comes up for a vote later this summer. This vote, after many years of inaction despite overwhelming support in Congress and among veterinary, animal protection, and equine industry groups, is a momentous occasion to be celebrated. But the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, in particular, have opposed the PAST Act and could stymie its movement in the upper chamber.
Let’s hope that this time congressional and grassroots momentum will at last move this bill to the finish line. The USDA dragging its feet on going after those who abuse these horses for the sake of competition only underscores the need for reform. The horses suffering abuse can’t wait.
Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., is the equine program manager for the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute.