“Soring horses is both illegal and morally unacceptable, but some trainers are clearly taking advantage of lax oversight and wide loopholes to do it anyway,”
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and animal-rights activists who have pushed the federal government to crack down on an illegal practice that’s sometimes used to give Tennessee walking horses their exaggerated, high-stepping gait are feeling encouraged that President Barack Obama’s administration appears ready to act.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture served notice in April it is proposing a new rule to strengthen federal requirements aimed at eliminating the practice known as “soring.”
The proposed changes would update the existing Horse Protection Act and would affect everything from inspection procedures to the responsibilities of managers of show horses, exhibitions, sales and auctions. The agency said it’s also looking at devices, equipment, substances and practices that can cause soring.
In late May, a bipartisan group of House members urged the administration to move as quickly as possible on the new rule so it can be finalized before Obama leaves office next January.
“These changes will not destroy the Tennessee walking horse industry, as you may hear from opponents of the proposed rule, but will instead save this industry from imploding because of the bad actors who continue to abuse horses at the expense of the breed’s reputation,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Shaun Donovan, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Donovan’s office is reviewing the proposed changes, a key step before the proposal is released to the public for comment.
The letter to Donovan was signed by 175 House members, including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat. Cohen was the only Tennessean whose signature appeared on the letter.
“Soring horses is both illegal and morally unacceptable, but some trainers are clearly taking advantage of lax oversight and wide loopholes to do it anyway,” Cohen said last week. “We need to strengthen enforcement of the Horse Protection Act and ensure that trainers are following the law to finally put an end to this terrible abuse.”
Cohen is one of the lead sponsors of pending legislation that, if approved, would take several steps to end soring. The bill has stalled in a House subcommittee, as did an earlier version of the legislation, so the regulation the Obama administration is proposing is probably the best shot at cracking down on soring.
Already illegal under federal law, soring is still used by some trainers to deliberately injure the legs and hooves of Tennessee walking horses and related breeds to create the animals’ high-stepping gait and give them an advantage at horse shows.
Chemical agents, chains, pads and other devices are used to inflict pain to the horses’ legs and feet so that when they touch the ground, the animals kick up their feet higher and faster than normal.
Federal law already bans the use of chemical agents but not the chains, hoof bands and other devices used to cause soring.
Exactly what the Obama administration is planning is not yet clear because the proposed rule hasn’t been released for public comment.
But animal-rights groups and others hope the new rule will ban all equipment used in soring and eliminate the industry’s self-policing system, which critics say has been a failure rife with conflicts of interest.
“The industry groups don’t have the incentive to find violations and keep horses out of the race,” said Keith Dane, the Humane Society of the United States’ senior adviser for equine protection. “They want to let as many horses into the race as possible.”
The Humane Society and other groups would like to see the self-policing replaced with a system in which inspectors would be licensed, trained and supervised directly by the Agriculture Department.
Supporters are racing against the clock to get the new regulations enacted because, in just seven months, a new president will take office. If the changes aren’t implemented before then, the transition to a new administration could significantly impede the process, Dane said.
But, “there’s still plenty of time to get this rule finished this year,” he said. “We are hopeful and anticipating that will happen.”