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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lawmakers Seek to Strengthen the Horse Protection Act

Congress passed the Horse Protection Act of 1970 aiming to eliminate the cruel practice of “soring” show horses—applying caustic chemicals to their hooves and legs, inserting sharp objects, and using other painful techniques to force an artificially high-stepping gait, a form of cheating that gives those who engage in this abuse a competitive edge over owners and trainers who do not. Unfortunately, more than four decades later, soring and cheating continue to be rampant throughout the Tennessee walking horse industry, as exposed by a recent HSUS undercover investigation at the training barn of Jackie McConnell, one of the breed’s most celebrated trainers caught on camera beating a horse and painting chemicals on the legs to burn his flesh. Why? As awful as it sounds, to accustom the animal to pain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and federal prosecutors have stepped up their enforcement of the law, and are working hard to prevent soring and bring criminal horse abusers to justice. But the law itself has some gaps, and is not strong enough to provide a meaningful deterrent for those who abuse horses in terrible ways just to win a blue ribbon. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Neff submitted a sentencing memo in McConnell’s case, saying "the sad reality is that the law passed by Congress does not possess significant teeth."

soring
USDA photo of a scar rule violation. Any horse born after
October 1, 1975 is subject to the "scar rule": their legs should
show no evidence of scarring that is indicative of soring,
such as missing hair, scars, or cuts.

Fortunately, members of Congress are taking action to give the law more teeth, and to give inspectors and prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on soring and prevent this abuse once and for all. Today, U.S. Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., with original co-sponsors Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Jim Moran, D-Va., introduced H.R. 6388, a new bill to toughen up the Horse Protection Act. 

The legislation would eliminate the failed industry-run inspection system in which horse industry organizations currently license and choose who conducts inspections at horse shows, and instead would have USDA develop a roster of licensed inspectors, train them, assign them to shows, and oversee enforcement. It would explicitly ban certain devices used in the soring process on certain breeds, including chains designed to cause friction or strike a horse’s sore leg, and weighted shoes and pads attached in such a way as to painfully alter the horse’s gait. The bill would make the actual soring of a horse for the purpose of showing or selling the horse illegal, as well as the act of directing another to sore a horse for these purposes. And it would increase the criminal penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony subject to up to three years’ jail time, and increase fines to up to $5,000 per violation. For a third violation, it allows permanent disqualification from participating in any horse show, exhibition, sale or auction.

It’s clear that the current practice of essentially allowing the industry to police itself has failed miserably, and a new approach is needed. USDA swab tests on 52 random horses at the 2011 Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration resulted in 52 positive findings for prohibited foreign substances. A 2010 USDA Office of Inspector General audit exposed how those in the walking horse industry work to evade detection, rather than comply with federal law and train horses humanely, and how the serious conflicts of interest by industry-selected inspectors have made enforcement hollow.

We are grateful to Reps. Whitfield and Cohen for introducing H.R. 6388 to turn this situation around and save these horses from a lifetime of abuse. Please contact your Members of Congress today. Urge them to cosponsor this much-needed reform and finally give horses the protections they should have had more than 40 years ago.

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