Behind the spectacle of a high-stepping "Big Lick" Tennessee walking horse competition, a criminal contingent is at work. Unethical horse trainers use a technique called "soring" to inflict immense pain on horses' legs and feet, forcing them to perform the desired artificial, exaggerated gait. Showing a horse that has been abused in such a way is illegal under the federal Horse Protection Act, but the industry itself is responsible for policing the horse shows. That conflict of interest enables soring to continue.
Pulling back the curtain on soring reveals one of the most gruesome and cruel horse training methods in existence. To sore a horse in preparation for a competition, trainers apply caustic chemicals, including mustard oil, diesel fuel, and kerosene, to the skin above the horse's hoof. They cover it in plastic wrap to cook in the substances, leaving the skin underneath raw and sensitive. The horses are then ridden with chains around their legs that chafe with every step. They are also fitted with tall, heavy stacks of pads that force them to stand at an unnatural angle, and add height and weight to further exaggerate their gait. Foreign objects are often inserted between the soft bottom of the hoof and these stacks, adding to the horse's suffering.
Unquestionably, this is abuse: these horses are subjected to near-constant agony for the sake of a blue ribbon. Soring is still widespread in the Tennessee walking horse show industry and will persist unless the current system is changed significantly.
Meaningful reform is within reach, thanks to federal legislation currently before Congress. The Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act (H.R. 1518/S. 1406) would amend the Horse Protection Act to end the failed system of industry self-regulation, ban the use of devices associated with soring, strengthen penalties, and hold accountable all those involved in this cruel practice. The bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee this week, and is co-sponsored by an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Senators and Representatives in Congress.
However, a handful of lawmakers loyal to the Big Lick faction have introduced competing legislation in a transparent attempt to maintain the cruel status quo at any cost. The bills by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, whose district in Tennessee is at the epicenter of the soring problem, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, also of Tennessee, would give industry insiders the authority to continue to self-police the horse shows and do nothing to end the use of soring devices or to strengthen penalties, therefore allowing the abuse to continue.
The American Horse Council, American Veterinary Medical Association, all 50 state Veterinary Medical Associations, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and many other industry organizations support the PAST Act and staunchly oppose the bogus Blackburn/Alexander legislation. The choice for lawmakers couldn't be clearer: the PAST Act (H.R. 1518/S. 1406) will finally end the abuse of soring and propel the Tennessee walking horse breed into a sound, humane future.
Please join me in urging your federal legislators to cosponsor the PAST Act here.
--By Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection for The Humane Society of the United States