WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2013— Veterinarians and Congress members weighed the risks and benefits of passing an amendment to the Horse Protection Act that would require USDA to accredit all inspectors involved in Tennessee Walking Horse shows during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing today. Witnesses representing several aspects of the industry testified on H.R. 1518, the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., introduced the PAST Act on April 11. It now has 223 cosponsors in the House, and its companion legislation in the Senate (S. 1406) has 26 cosponsors.
Horse soring, which enhances the walking horse's natural gait to create an exaggerated step known as the “Big Lick,” has been illegal in shows, sales or exhibits since the passage of the 1970 Horse Protection Act (HPA). However, the practice is still prevalent in walking horse performance circles, as concluded by a 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General report. The training method, which involves deliberately inflicting pain to enhance the gait, is found most prevalently in Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses, and Spotted Saddle Horses.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), and more than 100 veterinary, horse industry, and animal protection groups endorsed the PAST Act. The AVMA maintains the PAST Act is necessary to make the actual act of soring illegal, as well as to ban incentives to sore.
Budget constraints restrict the Horse Protection Program, which sends USDA officials to shows to oversee horse inspections for signs of soring, said AVMA’s Executive Vice President Dr. Ron DeHaven. He noted that Congress “must take a strong stand against the abusive practice of soring and commit the necessary funding for the USDA to adequately enforce the HPA.”
Whitfield’s bill would eliminate self-regulation by the industry by removing the Horse Industry Organization (“HIO”) system, which designates industry members as inspectors, and placing responsibility for all inspection and enforcement with the USDA.
The 1970 Horse Protection Act outlawed the practice of soring in shows and sales, but the use of “action devices,” including padded horseshoes and chains that can enhance soring wounds, is currently protected. The PAST Act would restrict the use of these action devices as well as administer the new inspection program through USDA.
DeHaven maintained that although padded shoes and action devices are not acts of soring themselves, they provide an incentive to injure a horse through soring by enhancing the effects of the practice.
After 40 years, “our lack of ability to self-regulate has brought our breed to this crossroads,” noted Marty Irby, international director and former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ & Exhibitors’ Association. Irby testified in favor of the PAST Act, reciting his experience in the industry as well as his family’s involvement in soring and the Tennessee Walking Horse performance division.
“We tried to save the performance horse and now it’s about trying to save the breed,” Irby said. “We must let go of the sored padded performance horse and step soundly into the future. Otherwise, we will not realize any future at all.”
Irby maintained that the segment of the industry using action devices is the only sector commonly using soring to enhance show performance. “The problem is not in the normally-shod walking horse,” he noted. “This bill eliminates this [performance] division, which is where the problem is and is less than 10 percent of our breed.”
However, Julius Johnson, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, said rural Tennessee would suffer if the legislation is enacted.
“I believe the proposed legislation is based more on perception than sound science,” Johnson said. “It will potentially eliminate the walking horse altogether.”
James Hickey, Jr., President of the American Horse Council, supported PAST, calling it “a narrowly drafted bill that is focused on soring…and does not adversely affect other segments of the horse industry that are not soring horses.”
Due to this practice in the performance horse sector, a stigma is attached to the breed as a whole, noted Teresa Bippen, president of Friends of Sound Horses.
“Even I have to explain that my Tennessee Walking Horses are not show horses,” she said. “Good horsemen don’t want to be associated with soring or participate in shows where soring takes place.”
Dr. John Bennett of Equine Services, LLC, testified on behalf of the Performance Show Horse Association. He said the elimination of the shoes and action devices outlined in the bill define the breed’s gait and classifications. “Several divisions of show horses will be eliminated which represents the elimination of 85 percent of the Tennessee Walking Horses currently showing,” according to his testimony.
Bennett, along with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., emphasized that USDA recently reported a 98 percent HPA compliance rate over the past several years.
“While 100 percent compliance is of course the goal, a 98+ percent rate of compliance based on the subjective inspections performed on these animals as part of a competitive event indicates that the industry takes this issue very seriously and has made great strides in eliminating soring,” Bennett said.
Several others, including Dr. DeHaven, contested the variability of this compliance rate due to the conflicts of interest that exist in the current inspection program.
“Those compliance rates are based on a self-policing program,” DeHaven said. “Statistics also show that inspectors are ten times more likely to find a violation when they have a USDA representative looking over their shoulder.”
DeHaven said 78 percent of violations during the 2012 show year were found when USDA was present, even though USDA is present at less than 10 percent of shows.
“The PAST Act represents a unique opportunity to once and for all end the practice of soring to our nation’s walking horses,” DeHaven said. “I feel this bill is necessary to stop this culture of abuse that has existed for more than forty years in the industry.”
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