Fears new anti-soring bids will be worse for horses than current law *H&H Plus*

  • New “compromise” legislation in the US aims to end the horrific torture of soring horses. H&H speaks to welfare charities and organisations to find out all sides of the debate

    US campaigners against the cruelty of soring in Tennessee walking horses believe planned legislation will not improve welfare – and may make it worse.

    Animal Wellness Action (AWA), other welfare organisations and key figures in the Tennessee walking horse industry, have agreed to “compromise” measures aimed at preventing the horrific practices used to achieve the unnatural “big lick” high-stepping gait.

    The move came after the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act passed the US House of Representatives in July 2019, but stalled in the Senate.

    The act would amend the Horse Protection Act (HPA) in an attempt to stamp out the injuring of horses’ hooves and legs to produce the big lick. Common methods include applying diesel and kerosene to skin, grinding down hooves to expose sensitive tissues, and using “sharp or abrasive objects on tender areas to maximise pain”. Under the current industry self-policing, those who abuse horses often go unpunished.

    AWA executive director Marty Irby said the collaboration is the “greatest step in half a century to help end the scourge of soring”.

    It includes banning action devices and reducing shoe stack sizes – but 35 other welfare, veterinary and industry organisations do not believe it is the answer.

    Keith Dane, the Humane Society of the United States’ senior adviser on equine protection, told H&H the charity has grave concerns about the proposals.

    “For 44 years, the walking horse industry has had responsibility for enforcement of the HPA; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) handed it over, which has been an abject failure,” he said. “But these proposals would still allow the industry to self-inspect. Inspectors would have to be USDA-licensed but the USDA hasn’t got the funds to send someone to every show to look over their shoulders. The industry would be responsible for hiring and paying inspectors, so they’d have tremendous clout, as now.

    “Leaving the industry very much in the driving seat flies in the face of what the USDA Office of Inspector General said in a 2010 audit, that the system is a failure and it perpetuates turning a blind eye to serious violations of the HPA.”

    Another concern is that less significance would be placed on palpation of limbs to detect pain that could indicate soring.

    “The industry doesn’t like that method,” he said. “But the vet community has long accepted palpation is a good way of determining pain.”

    Mr Dane said currently, a horse who fails the palpation test may not compete that day. In the proposals, this could be allowed if the horse did not fail other tests, which he described as “absurd”. Palpation would not even be conducted in many cases. The compromise legislation also allows pads to be used, “inviting people to do all the damage between the pads and the hoof, which is crueller in many ways”.

    Another issue is that although the compromise bill introduces tougher penalties for soring, “the bar is so high, no one’s going to be penalised; the worst would be that you couldn’t show that day”. It would also not cover abuse in training, as evidence collected there could not be used to convict someone of soring.

    Mr Dane said although the PAST Act, and other legislative attempts to end soring, have stalled thanks to some senators’ blocking, the Humane Society is hopeful there will be movement.

    He explained that a rule change due to be brought in by the USDA four years ago would have stamped out much of soring, but this was put on hold by Donald Trump when he became president. With Trump on the way out, and as incoming leader Joe Biden was vice-president in the previous administration, there is hope the rule may be re-introduced.

    There is also hope that with Senate elections due early next year, there may be a way to get the PAST Act to the vote.

    “We think there’s an easier route to stop soring,” Mr Dane said. “The rule would accomplish a lot, but there are things that would have to be in legislation.”

    “We’ve got a road-block in the Senate, which we have to overcome, one way or another,” he added. “If the path clears, we know we’ve got the votes.”

    Teresa Bippen, president of the Friends of Sound Horses charity, agrees pursuing the PAST Act is a far better option, and that the self-regulation proposed is “the fox guarding the hen house”.

    “I feel this compromise bill would be worse for horses than what we have now,” she told H&H.

    “Under this bill, if a horse has pastern scars, it can still be shown, which isn’t the case now, so they can still use chemicals and chains that cause scars, at home. Current law also bans foreign substances from being used on horses’ legs. That includes numbing agents, which the proposal doesn’t. So people can use numbing agents to get horses through inspections.”

    Ms Bippen added that in the proposals, a horse judged to be sore cannot be shown for 24 hours, as opposed to the rest of the competition, as is currently the case. Some events run for 10 days.

    “I can’t even speculate why people are backing this proposal,” she said. “Maybe it looks like a win; they’re reducing the size of stacks but it’s not the stacks that are so much the problem, it’s what they’re concealing to cause pain.

    “The big lick industry has said its non-negotiable position is they won’t give up the big lick, which means the horses will continue to be abused. This isn’t a compromise, it’s a sellout.”

    Work in progress

    Mr Irby told H&H the draft legislation is “a work in progress”.

    He said the scar rule was lost as it has not been effectively enforced for years, and the plan would mean inspectors finding “evidence of severe visible injuries” would have to investigate.

    He said it would be “very difficult” to ban numbing agents as they are so widely and freely available, and that although allowing pads “isn’t ideal”, it would be more than a 50% reduction in size, and mean they must be easily removable for inspection of the bottom of the hoof. He said allowing part of the shoe to be retained was a “trade” for eliminating “tortuous” tail braces.
    “This isn’t perfect, but I believe it is the greater good,” he said.

    Mr Irby said the organisations are “working through” the issue of palpation with vets.

    He added that he does not believe the rules Trump put on hold will be introduced as they were years in planning last time, and he has been told by the walking horse industry that should they be introduced, “they have two lawsuits ready to file”.

    “The compromise legislation will have the support of [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell and that’s something this issue has never had before,” he said.

    “If this issue is not resolved by a compromise, I don’t see any end in sight for soring, and that will be on the conscience of those who oppose a compromise.

    “Those who don’t understand the legislative process are severely hindering our efforts to end soring.”

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