Update after today's hearing on the PAST Act - Prevent All Soring Tactics Act (HR 1518/ S 1406).
PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LEGISLATORS and ask them to cosponsor the PAST Act and protect horses from the abuse and cruelty of horse soring. ~Declan
House panel hears vigorous debate on horse soring
Nov. 13, 2013 5:05 PM As posted on The Tennessean
Rep. Marsha Blackburn
WASHINGTON — Witnesses with radically different perspectives on the extent of animal abuse in the walking horse industry came before a congressional panel Wednesday, leaving some lawmakers unsure what to believe.
"It's like you are from two different worlds," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., told a witness table full of veterinarians and officials from varying horse organizations.
The Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on HR 1518, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, sponsored by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. The bill is an attempt to respond to a fresh wave of criticism of the industry that began in May 2012, after the Humane Society of the United States released a video of a Collierville trainer beating and soring horses.
His prosecution and coverage of the issue by The Tennessean prompted state lawmakers to make soring a felony.
On the one hand were those who argued that soring — inflicting pain on horses with chemicals or foreign objects to exaggerate their natural, high-stepping gait — was still firmly embedded in the walking horse industry more than 40 years after passage of the Horse Protection Act of 1970, which banned the practice.
On the other were those such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, who said that while soring "is objectionable at every level" the bill was unnecessary because data show compliance with the 1970 law at rates of 96 percent to 98 percent.
"So why is additional legislation needed for an industry that is over 98 percent compliant?" Blackburn asked. She said the Kentucky thoroughbred industry has far worse abuse problems.
But advocates for Whitfield's bill said soring remains more widespread than official figures show because of a weak Department of Agriculture inspection system that depends too heavily on horse industry organizations to spot and report violations.
The bill increases inspections by Department of Agriculture officials, rather than people designated by event managers to carry them out. The department says it can afford to staff no more than 10 percent of horse events held nationwide.
"I feel this bill is necessary to stop this culture of abuse that has existed for more than 40 years in the walking horse industry," said W. Ron DeHaven, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The bill would outlaw the use of weighted shoes, special pads on hooves and "action devices" such as chains that rub against a horse's lower legs. DeHaven and animal rights activists contend such equipment leads owners and trainers to sore horses by applying caustic chemicals to the animals' legs so that the devices inflict further pain when they rub against those spots. To avoid the pain, horses achieve an unnaturally high gait.
To be competitive, DeHaven said, "many trainers and owners feel they must sore."
Inspectors hired by event managers often ignore soring or can't detect it because of various masking techniques, including numbing medicines, the bill's supporters said.
"I have observed more corruption with this industry than I have seen anywhere on Earth," said Marty Irby, past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association.
The lower legs of many horses that compete in Tennessee, he said, often "look like pizza with the cheese scraped off."
But opponents of Whitfield's bill said it would ruin the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. The beefed up Agriculture Department inspection system would likely be financed by assigning costs to horse show managers.
The latter, they said, would either shut down shows or go without any licensed inspectors at all, increasing the risk to horses. Events that go without could be subjected to surprise inspections.
John Bennett, a veterinarian representing the Performance Show Horse Association, said the action devices and special weighted shoes and pads define "the breed's gait."
He added, "The impact of this ban would be to decimate the Tennessee Walking Horse show industry."
Several witnesses for Whitfield's bill said the compliance figures were grossly exaggerated by the self-policing system currently in place.
Whitfield said events centered around Shelbyville, home of the annual “Celebration,” the industry’s biggest competition, as well as those in Kentucky and Missouri continue to show “that self-policing is not working.”
DeHaven said when Department of Agriculture officials are on site to oversee inspections, the number of violations found goes up substantially. He said 78 percent of the violations found in 2012 were uncovered through the department's supervising the few inspections it could.
"No law is ever perfect," Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., the subcommittee chairman, said of the 1970 law.
"I have no doubt that there are issues within the Horse Protection Act that need to be addressed. However, I believe that when Congress is considering legislation that adds new layers of regulation to an industry, we must be precise."