Industry proposes stricter rules to end abusive horse training

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 1, 2013- The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is leading the renewed effort to eliminate the illegal practice of “horse soring,” a training method found most prevalently in Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses, and Spotted Saddle Horses.

AVMA and the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) hosted a Capitol Hill briefing last week on H.R. 1518, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act. Among other provisions, the bill would require USDA to license veterinarians to replace the industry's existing inspection program. 

Horse soring, which enhances the walking horse's natural gait to create an exaggerated step known as the “Big Lick,” has been illegal since the passage of the 1970 Horse Protection Act (HPA). However, the practice is still prevalent in walking horse performance circles, as confirmed by a 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General report.

One of two veterinarians in Congress, Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., backs the legislation to amend the HPA. He said he's seen evidence of the practice during his years as a large animal veterinarian. “It's abuse. It would be like belt sanding the skin off your feet and asking you to go run a race the next day,” he said.

Although critical of government overspending and regulatory reach, Yoho said that the continued abusive practice calls for federal intervention. 

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“The sad thing is that we have to have a bill to stop this,” he said.

The PAST Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., is currently awaiting action in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is expected to introduce companion legislation in the Senate this week. 

Walking horses are known for possessing a naturally high gait, but in order to be successful in competition, their natural gait is often exaggerated.  USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) acknowledges, “The exaggerated gait can be achieved with proper training and considerable time; however, some horse exhibitors, owners, and trainers have chosen to use improper training methods to achieve their desired ends.”

 
 

Soring methods include applying caustic chemicals, such as kerosene or mustard oil, to the horses' lower legs and then wrapping them in plastic for an extended period of time. This allows the chemicals to soak into the skin and makes the horses' legs more sensitive. Some violators will grind or trim the hoof and sole excessively to make the hoof sensitive to hitting the ground, which exaggerates the natural gait.

These methods are often masked before shows. Trainers use numbing agents on horses to avoid detection, as well as methods that train the horse to associate flinching during leg and hoof pain tests with the worse pain of physical beating or “stewarding.” 

A gaited horse may also be shod in stacked shoes up to four inches high at the heel with tightened metal bands or chains, which are currently legal under the HPA. 

Ann Dwyer, president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), said soring is still pervasive in the walking horse performance division. “Forty years after the HPA, the industry has failed to police itself,” she said.

 
 

AVMA reported that at the 2012 Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, 145 samples of 190 swab samples tested positive for prohibited foreign substances that indicate the use of soring, a 76 percent noncompliance rate. Celebration management reported only two positive swab samples.

Dwyer noted that most horse organizations are working toward the elimination of the practice. Several walking horse breeding organizations support the legislation as well as the National Walking Horse Association, which has a mission to promote “the naturally gaited walking horse.”

American Veterinary Medical Association CEO Ron DeHaven met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week to brief him on the history of the Horse Protection Act and the problems with enforcing horse soring provisions. 

“The Secretary is sympathetic to the cause and supportive of the effort,” DeHaven said after the meeting. “He also understands concerns given the current budget climate. Any additional requirement has to come with funding.”

However, he said some provisions can be implemented in a cost neutral way. 

A group of about two dozen Horse Industry Organizations are certified by USDA to train designated qualified persons (DQPs) to inspect gaited horses at official shows. Under the PAST Act, the DQPs would be eliminated and replaced with USDA-certified veterinarians.

“Currently, horse show management is paying the cost of DQPs,” DeHaven said. “There's no reason a similar arrangement couldn't be made where inspectors trained by USDA could be reimbursed by show management.”

Under proposed system in the PAST Act, USDA would ensure that inspectors did not have a conflict of interest. For example, the 2010 OIG report found that many DQPs had direct relationships with the horse trainers or show management. The PAST Act ensures that inspectors are licensed by USDA instead of chosen by Horse Industry Organizations.

The PAST Act also increases the penalties for the practice, a proposal USDA appears to have heeded. In June of last year, the department required horse industry organizations to increase penalties on repeat offenders of the Horse Protection Act.

The rule provides “an additional deterrent effect for people who have already shown a willingness to violate the HPA,” said APHIS Public Affairs Specialist Tanya Espinosa.

USDA APHIS also made efforts to step up its oversight of inspectors with a limited budget by using part-time or seasonal employees.

However, in 2012, there were 410 horse events inspected by DQPs, 77 of which were attended by APHIS. Almost 80 percent of the total violations for 2012 were filed at these 77 events, “which supports the continued need for USDA oversight to enforce the HPA,” Espinosa said. 

In order increase the level of oversight, agency officials say they need more funds. USDA APHIS received $678,000 for horse inspection in 2013, and has requested $893,000 for fiscal 2014. According to APHIS's Espinosa, the requested level of funding would allow the agency to increase foreign substance testing and attendance at horse shows.

But even with increased inspection and penalties, “the most important provision of the Act is banning the use of action devices, because it eliminates the incentive to sore a horse,” DeHaven said.

 
 

 

 
 

Opponents to the PAST Act include The Cavalry Group as well as the Walking Horse Owners Association (WHOA). WHOA's board of directors recently approved a plan to support an alternative to the PAST Act. The Cavalry Group states that PAST “does nothing to address the problem of unethical participants who are already in violation of existing laws,” and highlights that the bill “will remove all pads, weighted shoes, and all action devices from show horses of three specified breeds.”

DeHaven noted that resistance within the walking horse industry is primarily in response to the proposed elimination of action devices, “because that has become part of the culture.” He also noted that judges are rewarding the results of soring.

“They have a judging system based on rewarding that ‘Big Lick' gait and arguably the only way to get that is through soring a horse,” DeHaven said.   

“Judges tend to turn a blind eye” in the show ring, even though the evidence of horse soring can be obvious, AVMA officials stated during the Capitol Hill briefing. 

The AVMA effort would encourage more sensible judging standards, according to AAEP's Dwyer, “so they acknowledge that this is an unnatural gate and that it shouldn't be rewarded.”

 
 

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