American Medical Veterinary Association (AVMA) Executive Vice President Ron DeHaven, DVM, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade with several other expert witnesses to discuss soring in the Tennessee walking horse industry Nov. 11. The hearing centered on House Resolution 1518, the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act, or the PAST Act, which would amend the decades-old Horse Protection Act to clearly ban the act of soring and to more specifically define what constitutes soring. However, while opponents of the bill pay what some regard as lip service to anti-soring efforts, they remain adamant that soring is not prevalent in the show horse industry. They assert the PAST Act would destroy the "big lick" tradition, the Tennessee walking horse industry and the economy of communities long-steeped in its culture.
The practice of soring—deliberately causing pain to artificially exaggerate the leg motion of a horse's gait—has long been associated with the "big lick" gait often prized in show arenas. The PAST Act would amend the HPA to clearly ban the act of soring and to more specifically define what constitutes soring. It strengthens penalties for violations and enhances enforcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The PAST Act would also ban use of pads and chains—often used in congruence with soring—on horses' hooves to achieve the high-stepping gait.
Opponents of the bill say it goes to far. DeHaven disagrees: "The elimination of pads and chains is the most significant thing." DeHaven says while some will say there is a benefit to using the chains without soring the horse, he believes the benefits to eliminating them altogether far outweighs possible training benefits. "By eliminating the chains, we eliminate much of the incentive to sore a horse," he says.
He believes it is the same with pads. "Contrary to Dr. Bennett [John Bennett, DVM, Equine Services, LLC, testified on behalf of the Performance Show Horse Association], by removing the pads, you remove the opportunity to insert a foreign body on the sole of the foot. You also aren't putting the pressure on ligament and tendons created by those pads."
Despite the HPA and the high compliance rates the walking horse industry claims, DeHaven and others say evidence points to a sustained prevalence of soring in the Tennessee walking horse industry. "After 40-some years, it's time for more dramatic action," DeHaven says.
According to Phil Osborne with Kentucky-based public relations firm Preston-Osborne, which is now representing the Performance Show Horse Association, the walking horse industry horse inspection organizations (HIOs) have found more than 98 percent of entries in 2013 to be compliant with the HPA in regards to soring violations. HIOs are industry groups that have been approved by the USDA to self-police competitions and the industry.
DeHaven likens the HIO system to the fox watching the hen house: "[A current HIO inspector is] five to 10 times more likely to identify a violation when he has a USDA inspector over his shoulder."
Osborne says DeHaven is quoting out-of-date statistics. "Not only is his accusation false and misleading, the truth shows something that is completely opposite," Osborne says. "The goal is to eliminate soring altogether; however, a compliance rate of between 96.6 and 98 percent would prove that current levels of soring are indicative of a very small faction of the walking horse industry."
However, Osborne says the compliance rate the industry touts includes all exhibition entries—not just big lick horses, but all Tennessee walking horses, both pleasure and padded. "When they talk about compliance rates that's taking all the flat shod with the big lick horses," DeHaven says. "If you just looked at the big lick horses the prevalence of soring—I think—would be very high."
U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) Public Affairs Specialist Tanya Espinosa says as of Nov. 3, the USDA attended unannounced 63 of 288 horse events. At those events, 1,198 entries were scratched prior to inspection—896 of those pulled from competition were horses wearing pads and action devices. Of the 9,510 entries at USDA-attended shows, 399 individual horses were found in violation of the HPA—325 of them were found on horses wearing pads and action devices.
USDA has no way of knowing why a horse owner pulls an entry prior to inspection, but about 75 percent of those scratched at an event with unannounced USDA attendance were wearing pads and action devices. And while only 4 percent of all horses exhibited were found to be sore, 81 percent of sore horses were wearing pads and action devices.
Osborne says the USDA has an advantage to detect soring because its inspectors have access to thermography, x-ray, swabbing and blood testing, but DeHaven simply feels there is an inherent conflict of interest among HIOs and their Designated Qualified Persons (DQPs) who inspect show horses.
DeHaven says an essential part of the PAST Act is establishing a new inspection program where independent individuals—most likely veterinarians—would be licensed, trained and overseen by USDA. HIOs and DQPs would be a thing of the past. "Hopefully inspectors would all be veterinarians," DeHaven says. Even if they aren't veterinarians, but trained by USDA, "They would be far more independent and objective in doing the inspections."
Currently Heart of America, PRIDE and SHOW HIOs are in the process of decertification by USDA for noncompliance. The Walking Horse Trainers Association and the Performance Show Horse Association (PSHA) support dissolving all HIOs in favor of one industry HIO. "The USDA has proven, when the HPA was first made law, that it is incapable of regulating the industry without help from self-regulatory measures," Osborne says.
DeHaven agrees that with USDA's limited budget, it cannot inspect all shows alone. "This act would not really get USDA at more shows, but ensure that the inspectors that went would be truly independent," DeHaven says.
Proponents of the PAST Act say the bill would stop what they believe is a culture of soring. DeHaven says there is no acceptable amount of soring and those that do sore are hurting the entire walking horse breed. "We really have within the walking horse breed a subpopulation, which is the big lick horses; that is probably 10 percent or less of the walking horse population, but the whole breed is getting a negative cast on it."
A concern among walking horse enthusiasts is how the PAST Act will affect their tradition and industry. "I think the issue really is—no one will really say they want soring and I think those on the panel are sincere in that—can the big lick gait be achieved without soring? Some would argue it can't," DeHaven says.
Osborne says it can be achieved without soring because he believes 98 percent of trainers do not sore horses. However, he says beyond the elimination of pads and action devices, the elimination of weighted shoes that aren't protective or therapeutic in nature, as required by the PAST Act, is severely detrimental to trainers. "This would not only devastate the walking horse industry, if this was applied to all breeds, it would devastate every single competitive breed," Osborne says.
DeHaven says trainers are just going to have to adapt. "This 10 percent of the individuals that are relying on action devices and pads, they're going to have to find out a new way of doing things," he says. "Not try to get this artificial gait you only get by soring a horse, but emphasize the natural gait the horse has anyway."
Osborne says the PAST Act is not about the elimination of soring; it is about the agenda of the Humane Society of the United States to eliminate the competitive Tennessee walking horse, which he and others claim will injure the economy of states like Tennessee and Kentucky. "The industry would lose over 20,000 jobs, $3.2 billion in economic impact and over $1.3 billion in the value of competitive horses," Osborne says.
DeHaven says he doesn't buy the argument that this legislation would destroy the economy of central Tennessee or other areas where walking horses are common. "[It will impact] trainers who rely on soring. I'm not so concerned about what happens to them economically," he says.
For him, the issue is clear-cut. "The industry is not capable of self-regulating or even minimizing the frequency of soring; therefore the legislation is necessary," he says.
In the meantime, DeHaven hopes USDA will publicly support the PAST Act and follow through with decertifying noncompliant HIOs.